Over the past weeks, a few interviews with me have appeared around the Web, and I thought I’d mention them here real quick, in case you are not following me on Twitter or Facebook – shame on you! – an may thus have overlooked these interesting tidbits.

I did a two-part interview with Inkwrapped.com on the subject of eBook formatting. As you all know, I have written a book on the subject, called “Zen of eBook Formatting,” and David Powning, who is running Inkwrapped.com, approached me to talk about the state of the industry. The interview turned out a bit lengthy as we covered all the areas and he decided to present it in two parts on the site.

The first part cover the basic questions about what the biggest pitfalls and stumbling blocks are in the field of eBook formatting, and also whether it makes sense to authors to format their eBooks themselves. The conversation goes into some pretty deep details that you may not have been aware of.

In the second part we talk abut the approach that traditional publishers take towards eBooks and the formatting, but also ventures into areas such as interactive eBook features.

Take a look, if you’ve gotten curious, and see what I have to say on the subject, and perhaps it may give you a few new ideas. You can find the interview here


SOA_Box

Another interview arrived, courtesy of “Wilson’s Dachboden,” a German blog. It is an in-depth discussion of the first role-playing game I wrote, called “Spirit of Adventure.” The game was the perfect bridge from the text adventures I started with towards the large-scale role-playing productions like the “Realms of Arkania” games that followed. Fraught with problems during the development and the subsequent distribution, we never managed to bring the game to its full potential, unfortunately, but despite the problems, it opened the door to the “Realms of Arkania” games.

Christian Genzel, who runs “Wilson’s Dachboden,” has been playing “Spirit of Adventure” and is intimately familiar with the game and the conversation we had touches upon a lot of aspects that directly related to issues that had long been forgotten by time, or that had never really been discussed in public.

The interview is in German, but I found that the Bing Translator does a pretty decent job converting it to English.

Make sure to stop by there and check out this in-depth discussion of this classic RPG game of mine.

If names like Scott Adams, Infocom or Magnetic Scrolls make your eyes light up in excitement, you are my kind of crowd. A very special person, obviously with a long history in computer games, because these names are synonymous with the Text Adventure genre.

0031Those of you who have been following my work and career for a long time may actually recall that I started out in the games industry writing text adventures myself. I got hooked on these games after playing Scott Adams’ “The Count” in 1981 on the Apple II. The game captivated my imagination with its storyline, it conjured up images in my mind of gothic horror castles and vampires, it challenged me with its brutally hard puzzles, and it did it all without graphics!

That’s right, folks, as the name suggests, Text Adventures were games that worked without graphics and relied solely on text input and output to play. Today they are often referred to as Interactive Fiction, a term that perhaps describes them a little better, because these games are like reading a book, with the difference that you as the player affect how the story develops. Unlike Choose-your-own-adventure or Fighting Fantasy-style books, however, where the player is confronted with a set of multiple choices at key points, Text Adventures offered full conversational freedom. Using a text parser, you would type in complete sentences, directing and instructing the game to perform certain actions and the game, in return, would report back to you what happened in the story in response. The result was an experience that was, in many ways, richer than anything a game with graphics could offer, and inherently more personal, because the story unfolded entirely in your mind. All the imagery was the result of your own creativity and imagination being unleashed, like playing your personal movie version of the story in your head.

HellowoonCoverSmallScott Adams was one of the pioneers of the genre with his games “Adventureland,” “Voodoo Island,” “The Count” and “Pirate Adventure,” all of which held me spellbound for weeks. They were my first contact with the genre and they made me want to write my own games. These games, and “The Count” in particular, are the reason why I became a developer and have been for the past 30-some years. My very first game “Microchioptera” was a result of playing Scott Adams’ games and although it was never officially published, it was the precursor to my game “Hellowoon,” which was released in 1985 or so.

Around the same time as I played the Scott Adams adventures, I discovered the games made by Infocom, created by a group of MIT staffers and students. As Infocom grew over the years, they offered games in a wide variety of genres, ranging from comedy all the way to horror and everything in between including romance, fantasy and scifi, of course. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is still probably one of their most beloved games, along with titles such as my own personal favorites, “The Lurking Horror” and “Leather Goddesses of Phobos.”

Leather_Goddesses_of_Phobos_boxartHard as hell, these games were real challenges that would keep you occupied for weeks. Oftentimes you would get stuck in a single place for days, trying to find the right command to unlock the next step in the game. It was frustrating, yes, but also unbelievably satisfying when you finally worked it out. The rush that flooded through you, knowing that you had finally worked out the “magic” command just as you typed it, and then hitting the “Enter” key is indescribable, and the memory still brings butterflies to my stomach after more than 30 years.

Infocom was also famous for their packaging, as their games were usually loaded with weird and bizarre gimmicks relating to the games, including letters, notes, buttons, code wheels, goggles, scratch’n’sniff cards, stickers and other often outlandish gadgets. It inspired the packaging of my own game “Ooze” in 1989 where we packed hand-signed and hand-sealed copies of a death certificate and a Last Will note in the box for fans to peruse in the game. Ah, what fun we had…

GraphSpec_12_Guild_of_ThievesAs the genre matured, another star rose in the sky of the genre by the name of Magnetic Scrolls. An English company, under the direction of Anita Sinclair, the studio pushed the envelope of the genre quite a bit by adding imagery to the adventures they sold. These were beautifully painted still images that represented the scenes you were currently playing. It was a huge step forward, and the split-screen technology they employed that allowed you to smoothly drag the image up and down the screen, was nothing less of a revelation because it allowed traditional players to have the images removed entirely and play a traditional text-only adventure, while allowing others to enjoy the “scenery” while playing.

imagesMagnetic Scrolls dazzled players with their debut title “The Pawn” and quickly followed up their success with games such as “The Guild of Thieves,” “Jinxter,” “Corruption” and many others.

Sadly, as the 80s drew to a close, the genre was dying. People no longer wanted to read. They wanted to be flooded with imagery and sounds. The heydays of furious action titles began, as games started to be increasingly driven by visual technology. By the time games like “Wing Commander” hit store shelves, all was lost, and everyone in the industry was chasing after the next technological mega-game, while developers tried to outmatch each other in terms of graphics. A trend that has sadly not stopped since. Many game genres fell by the wayside since those years, and Text Adventures were the first games to get buried.

laasI look back on those games, including the last Text Adventure I wrote, “Drachen von Laas,” with a lot of nostalgia, no question, but with the advent of eBooks I’ve been wondering countless times if, perhaps, there would be a market for Text Adventure games again, after all. Quite clearly, Amazon has gotten people to read again, and from the market data, it is evident that these readers are voracious. More books are being sold than ever in the history of the world, and more books are actually available for sale than ever before, the vast majority of them in digital form, as print media are slowly fading away. With no inventory and stocking costs, digital books have flourished and the reading community has grown exponentially since the Kindle has been released seven years ago.

So, clearly, there is a huge market out there of people who have once again fallen in love with the written word, but currently their entertainment is limited to linear fiction—books. The writer and game developer in me would love to go back to my very roots, and I find asking myself often if these readers would, in fact, be interested in games like text adventures, where their imagination is stirred, where they are given control over the experience and the flow of the story. Part of me wants to say, yes, but another side of me understands that marketing and selling purely text-based products in a world where everything has to be flashy, fast and borderline offensive, and to a society that generally has the attention span of a house fly, would be a hopeless endeavor.

Still, one can dream, n’est-ce pas?

"Fu Man Chu's Vampire" is now available through Kindle Unlimited

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time may actually be frowning at this headline. Why? Well, for one thing, because I have been a very outspoken opponent of Kindle Select in the past. In many ways I still am, but for a number of reasons I have decided to give it a try with one of my books. When you have one book that you wrote, it is a very dangerous thing to put all your eggs in one basket, but when you have fifteen books available for sale, like I do, the risk to use one of them as a test balloon is mitigated. So, I decided to give Kindle Select a try with my Jason Dark supernatural mystery “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire.” It is the eleventh installment in the series, and to date, the last one. It is, in my opinion, one of the best books in the series with the strongest writing—and yet, it sold noticeably less copies than the previous books in the series.

That was, in fact, one of the main reasons why I decided to give Kindle Select a try. My sales on channels other than Amazon were virtually nil, particularly for this book, so it is the perfect candidate to see if the much-hyped Kindle Select program, and its opportunity to give your book away for free for a limited period of time is really part of the secret recipe to kickstart book sales. The logic escapes me somehow, but hey, who am I to argue…yet? I’ll try and see.

Yet another why I decided to give it a try is Amazon’s relatively new Kindle Unlimited program. It is catering to people who read a lot and for a flat $9.99 per month fee you can read as many books from the Kindle Unlimited library as you want. I am a slow reader and I simply do not have the time to spare to make it worth the subscription fee, but I hear it has become quite popular with many of the voracious readers that the Kindle has produced. If I can get readers interested in “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire,” perhaps they will go back and try some of the other books in the Jason Dark series, none of which, I might add, are enrolled in Kindle Select and Kindle Unlimited, but are available at a low price as individual books and as part of Jason Dark Collections.

So, if you have been unsure about my Jason Dark supernatural mysteries and would like to give it a try, here is your chance. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, borrow a copy of the book for free now, or get it for free through your Kindle Unlimited subscription. It is an exciting mix of adventure, mystery and a good bit of gothic horror with some Steampunk thrown into the mix. In short, it is exactly the right mix for this Halloween season! Think of it as “Penny Dreadful” meets “Sherlock Holmes” meets “Van Helsing,” and you get the idea!

So, what’s there not to like? Click here and get hooked now…


ShadowMordorI have to be honest. I did not follow the development of “Shadow of Mordor” at all. As you may recall, after it turned out to be impossible to get a viewing of the game during this year’s E3 despite my hour-long wait, I lost interest in the game altogether.

Now that it has been released, a lot of coverage has been given to one of the game’s innovative features, the so-called “Nemesis Feature,” which creates pseudo-intelligent opponents that follow certain social orders and appear to populate a living and breathing world that gives every entity the player encounters in the game world goals and purpose. Hmmmmh… I thought to myself when I first heard about this. That does sound very familiar to me!

The Nemesis Feature is essentially the same thing as Deathfire’s Psycho Engine!

If you may recall, a year ago we were trying to fund a game project called “Deathfire” through Kickstarter. It was a traditionally-based role-playing game, much in the vein of the award-winning “Realms of Arkania” cRPGs I have been working in the past, with an exceptionally strong focus on characters. Everything in the game was designed around the charcaters in the game and the emotional response you get from their interaction. Not only the player characters, but all the characters in the game world, including your opponents and the monsters. As you may recall, the system we outlined and had begun to develop for the game was called the “Psycho Engine.”

As I explored Mordor’s Nemesis Feature in more detail, it became apparent to me very quickly that in essence it is the same thing as the Psycho Engine I had designed well over a year ago.

Our system was designed to create player and non-player entities/characters that showed behavior along certain personality lines, independently of what the player is doing. By doing so, these characters would not only have appeared visually unique in the game, because their appearance could be tailored to their stats in real-time, but they would also follow individual goals, determined by the Psycho Engine upon tracking and subsequently analyzing the state of the game and the world.

Psycho Engine went even further, giving entities the knowledge when they were inferior, so that they would respond to it by either abandoning their goals, or by pursuing them even more aggressively

If you compare this to the Nemesis Feature, you will see that it is a carbon copy of what is happening in the game “Shadow of Mordor.” Depending on certain randomly determined parameters, the game creates unique orcs that follow a visual appearance and naming guided by the parameters. Once they make an appearance in the game, they will follow certain goals, such as improving their rank within the orc army or to get involved in one of the many spill-over plots and quests the game offers for that purpose. In addition, these orcs have personalities, based on the parameters, giving them a certain set of dialogue lines and behavioral patterns to match their personalities and goals that make them distinctive and seemingly unique—within limits.

In a nutshell, it is exactly what the Psycho Engine outlined.

The Nemesis Feature also tracks events such as the survival of an orc. If he’s been involved in many battles during the game, like the player, he will level up and become stronger, making sure the same orc will match the player’s progress and always remain challenging when encountered. Once again, this is a feature we had outlined in the Psycho Engine. In fact, the Psycho Engine went even further, giving these entities the knowledge when they were inferior, so that they would be able to respond to it by either abandoning their goals, or by pursuing them even more aggressively.

SkeletonWarriorsFrontJust as our Psycho Engine, the tracking of information and data analysis capabilities of the Nemesis Feature go far beyond just these basics, however, and like our Psycho Engine it takes the information it gathers into account to influence the story and the world around the player. In the case of “Deathfire” we had many small story scenarios and side plots in petto, which were lying dormant in the game until the Psycho Engine would awaken them as a result of certain triggers, activated by either the player or some Psycho Engine-controlled entity.

You can observe the same kinds of events in “Shadow of Mordor,” where the actions of orcs seem to trigger relevant, as well as irrelevant, events relating to the overall story and world. You can observe them pursuing virtual careers and following random events that create rather complex goals, almost like their own side plots.

Seeing the Nemesis Feature in action is a bitter sweet pill for me, as you can certainly imagine. On the one hand the fact that it has been hailed by gamers and the media alike as the most important innovation in computer games in many years makes me happy, because it proves to me that I have been on the right track when I devised the Psycho Engine well over a year ago, at a time when no one was working on technology such as this, really. Of course, now that it has been touted as the revelation that it is, everyone will try to implement technology such as this in their future games. Which is definitely cool and all, because it will result in better games. Still, the thought that we were actually on the bleeding edge of this technology, yet will forever be completely unrecognized by gamers and the media alike, feels like a backhanded slap somehow.

“This could have been us!”

The thought that “This could have been us!” just keeps nagging at me, but in the end, it was an inevitable development. Somebody was bound to do it sooner or later, particularly since the idea for the technology has been germinating in my mind for years.

In retrospect, it is clear that at the time when we first laid information about the Psycho Engine open, the public did not appreciate or understand the far-reaching impact this technology would have on gameplay, as evidenced by the fact that “Deathfire” did not find even the modest financial support we required to continue developing and completing the game.

It will be interesting for me to see how future games will evolve this technology and make even better use of it. The capabilities of a system like the Psycho Engine, or the Nemesis Feature for that matter, are endless and are only limited by the granularity of the information a game keeps track of and, perhaps, its ability to spend processing time on the proper analysis of the data. In “Deathfire” the concept was to go pretty deep. Because the game wasn’t nearly as graphics-intensive as AAA-titles, there would have been headroom to dig pretty deep into the system and make use of the Psycho Engine with insane levels of depth. Imagine the possibilities in a real role-playing game, as opposed to what you are glimpsing in an action-oriented game like “Shadow of Mordor” and you will get a sense for what “Deathfire” would have been capable of.

It will be interesting to watch what other games will be doing, but remember, no matter what anyone tells you, you saw it here first! The Psycho Engine was way ahead of the curve, even if other games now claim the laurels!

I thought I’d write today about something that has been bothering me in computer and video games for many years—decades, in fact. Exaggerated idle animations, a problem that plagues even some of the most famous of AAA games.

When was the last time your chest was heaving up and down five inches when you were standing still? Really… try to remember. Or when was the last time you saw someone standing in place with his shoulders bobbing in a constant motion? When was the last time you saw anyone outside the boxing ring stand in a pose with slightly angled knees, forever raising himself up noticeably, only to lower himself back down in an endless dance-like loop? Never, is when you’ve seen this in real life. People don’t do that, and yet it has become one of the most common, and perhaps annoying, tropes in video games.

Idle animations have their origin in the mid 80s, when graphics capabilities of home computers began to improve and with the move towards more realistic imagery, it suddenly became evident that a static sprite of a standing character just didn’t cut it anymore. It looked lifeless and had no personality whatsoever. In response to that, game developers began adding a subtle animation loop to these sprites to suggest the character is breathing. However, “subtle” in those days had a very different meaning than today. Back then a pixel was the size of a Lego brick and with limited technical capabilities, these animations became inherently larger than life. They were about as subtle as a 90-ton steam engine, but we had to make do with them, and we happily did.

But here’s what irks me. It has been 30 years since then, and technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Display resolutions have increased manifold, bringing the size of a pixel down to a mere pinprick, even on the largest of displays. With sub-pixel resolutions in the render pipeline, it is easily possible today to create even the most subtle of movements; movement that is barely hinted at, just the way natural breathing looks like in real life. And yet, video game characters are still routinely huffing worse than a long-distance runner after a 5-hour marathon.

To me it appears as if this is a clear case of “this is how we always did it, so that’s how we continue to do it.” It is strange, but the mentality we typically attribute to people in a rut suddenly makes its presence known in something as “young“ as the games industry? Well, that’s perhaps the second-largest misconception our industry has. It is no longer “young”—hasn’t been in a long time. But that’s a topic for some other time.

Quite evidently, a long time ago, someone proved that a looped idle sprite is more convincing than a static one but it would appear as if no one’s really questioned the validity of it ever since. I wonder how many game developers really spend time thinking about these pumping idle stances in terms of how much is too much. Hasn’t it just become routine to make them big and over the top, because it’s always been that way? Shouldn’t we, perhaps, take a step back some time and reevaluate not only their value but also their aesthetics?

Instead of simply duplicating the same loops we’ve used for years, perhaps animators should begin to question the practice and break the mold. It seems strange to me that the practice still continues, because other animations have matured to such a degree that they have become incredibly realistic and fluid—and yet, the pumping idling breaks your suspense of disbelief every time.

Less is often more in all of the arts and I am firmly convinced that many game characters would benefit from idle animations that were really nothing more than a bit of near-invisible breathing. Especially when you are working in a realistic world depiction it is important to remember that the idea is to give the character life, not to turn it into a spitting cartoon image of itself. And while we’re at it, this may be a good time to get rid of the body-builder idle poses as well. People take on a wide variety of poses when they stand. Take a moment during lunch, sit down in a populated place to eat and just observe.
Take a page from real life instead of simply rehashing those universal animation data from the previous character or game you’ve been working on.

Just take a few minutes to really think about idling and I am certain you could come up with a wealth of realistic-looking animations that are no harder to implement than the cycles that are currently being rehashed ad nauseam.

A character’s hair could blow in the wind if he’s outdoors. No chest heaving necessary—the flying hair alone would give him life. If he’s wearing loose clothing, fluttering clothing would add to it.

Idle animations could even be adaptive to situations in the game. If the character comes out of a battle or has been running, make the idle loop more noticeable while reducing its scale when the character is not exhausted. Find ways to let a character come to life through other means, like the fluttering clothes I mentioned, or perhaps simple huffs of condensing breath in the chilly air.

Note that none of these are fidget animations, which are usually added to break up the monotony. I am strictly referring to the underlying idling, which makes up the majority of what the player is presented with.

I truly believe it is time to challenge the status quo and do away with overly grand idle animations, and make sure the movements of a character standing still are every bit as subtle as the ones you employ or him during the rest of the game.

Your players will thank you for it, I am sure.

Rife with possibilities, this setting should be worth more than it is.

”The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the sense awake and revolt from it.”

Ian Fleming was hardly the first author to use a casino setting in his writing, but he is arguably the most famous. His descriptions of the Monte Carlo Casino in Casino Royale remain to be some of the best – something that writers continue to strive for to this very day.

M-Resort-Casino-Floor-4For all of the publicity that Fleming has brought to casinos, however – not to mention all their reputation as luxurious places for the rich and famous – casinos have hardly been given much notice in the world of video games. Although the world has seen an active online casino gaming industry since the launch of InterCasino in 1996, gameplay has been more or less the same. Casino games are overly simplistic, and there’s not much for players to do other than log onto their accounts and start spending money.

Games like GoldFire’s CasinoRPG have tried to take casino games down a different path, allowing for some degree of customization and socialization. But then, story lines in casino games remain to be quite limited, if not linear. And in a world of free-roam and free-world MMORPGs and games like Grand Theft Auto proving time and again that a world of limitless possibilities can be achieved, the lack of a great story sets casino games up for failure.

Today’s game development scene is unique in that Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing techniques now allow developers to produce less conventional games. Without having to worry about worldwide sales and sponsorships, independent developers are free to experiment with different combinations of genres, resulting in games like Poker Knight being developed. But rather than creating a game that has some elements of casino games integrated into its battles, why not create a game centered around a casino experience?

Developers should take Fleming’s descriptions of the experience of playing in a high-end casino as a challenge, and seek to recreate this experience in a video game. Rendering some of the best, most beautiful casinos into a 3D game, developers should be able to begin setting up the stage for some of the gaming industry’s most intense, emotional scenes. Players should be able to speak to each character in the casino and slowly get to know them, with each NPC having its own back story and personality.

Of course, the player himself should also be interesting, and not just the bland piece of cardboard that most protagonists often end up becoming. As they play along, they discover more about the character they’re controlling, and more of their quest is revealed to them.

Game developers could take things to the next level by creating a game not just set in a casino, but in a city like Las Vegas, where casinos are the star attractions. Moving from casino to casino, players can begin to make a name for themselves, all while following an engaging plot and encountering interesting characters along the way.

Every time I see yet another article about the Amazon vs. Hachette stand-off that paints Amazon as a bully, I wonder if we really have become too lazy to think, or if it is just too tempting for even renown websites to give in to the temptation of sensationalism it creates, because when you look at what is really happening, nothing could be further from the truth.

The sentiment that Hachette may be a poor victim in this scenario is incomprehensible to me. Not only is Hachette neither poor, nor a victim. Amazon does not target individual companies, singles them out and then tries to destroy them by refusing to sell their products. Quite the opposite is true, actually. Amazon is dealing with hundreds of thousands of individual vendors and suppliers and not once in its history has it singled out any of their vendors with the kind of vindictive action that is constantly being suggested here. If anything, Amazon has always been an incredibly fair, flexible and forward-thinking partner to all its suppliers.

Let us not forget before we get deeper into this, that Amazon has single-handedly not only saved, but revived the book market not too long ago. Amazon has created a platform for authors to flourish, for books to bloom and all while making money for everyone. Evil? I don’t think so—unless you’re a conspiracy theorist.

There are more active and published writers today than ever. There are more books on sale than ever. There are more books being sold than ever, and there are more books being read than ever, I presume.

Let’s make no mistake. Before Amazon made all of this possible, the book industry was not only stagnant, it was dying. Fast! Meanwhile, the old-school business model of the Big Five publishers is dying still. Companies like Hachette simply do not have a grasp on the reality of book publishing in 2014. They are not adapting and as a result they are no longer needed. They have become a side show in a world where everyone can publish, where anyone can become a bestselling author. I am not saying they are obsolete, but they are no longer relevant and with every year going forward, they will be come increasingly marginal.

The fact how long this stand-off is lasting already, is a clear indication that Hachette is unwilling to bend, and clearly underscores who the real bully is. They could have agreed to Amazon’s standard publishing agreement for weeks now and would have continued to sell books, but they refuse to do so, expecting Amazon to make special arrangements for them. That is not very rational in anyone’s mind, and shows that Hachette is not even trying to resolve the problem, particularly when every blogger and journalist seems to be all too happy to support their sensational truth-contortion.

Hachette is acting like their jockstrap is pulled too tight. They seem to have this inflated opinion of themselves that makes them believe that they look all potent, yet at the same time they are too proud to admit it hurts. And hurt it does, but if Hachette is determined to self-destruct, I’m all for it. Whatever floats their boat. Amazon does not need Hachette, but Hachette most definitely needs Amazon to sell their books.

So what is the real conflict between Amazon and Hachette, actually, once you peel away the vitriol. In my experience, in cases such as this, there is always a backstory. Something that happened long before Amazon reverted to what could be considered flexing their muscle.

What Amazon does is very clearly a reaction. A response to something that happened before and left them little choice but to go on the offensive. Since the previous discussions and negotiations that have taken place between the parties are not being disclosed, we may never know what went really down, but I think it is not too far fetched to imagine that Hachette was not happy with the status quo and tried to force Amazon to comply with its wishes, guided by the sense that as one of the largest international publishers they could somehow force Amazon’s hand. What they failed to see was that Amazon could not care less about Hachette. It makes absolutely no difference to Amazon whether they sell Hachette books or not. With millions of other titles available in their catalog, Hachette is a mere speck on the map.

What’s even worse is that Hachette quite obviously forgot that Amazon controls the channel. Amazon sells the majority of books worldwide and as a result they control the terms. Like Wal-Mart, they do not negotiate with their suppliers. They have standard agreements that tell vendors what they need to do and what is expected of them, and if the vendor feels he can’t agree to these terms, Amazon won’t sell your products. It is as simple as that, and it is the vendor’s choice—and consequence. If a publisher like Hachette thinks they can manhandle Amazon, they’ve clearly got another thing coming—as we are witnessing right now.

Does that make Amazon evil? Not at all. If anything, it only shows once again, how removed publisher like Hachette are from the realities of being a book publisher in 2014. What we are witnessing is a decision on Amazon’s behalf to protect their business, to ensure they remain the most successful online store with the highest customer approval ratings on the planet.

Hachette, by comparison… not so much. How anyone could see Hachette as the good guy in all of this is inconceivable to me. It is not like the publisher has a track record of good behavior. In fact, this is a publisher stuck in an antitrust suit, currently being subject to a court order to renegotiate terms with retailers because they have been found to have artificially inflate prices. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Naturally in a stand-off such as this there is collateral damage, and in this case it’s the authors published by Hachette whose books are currently unavailable at the largest book store in the world. However, for these authors to simply claim that Amazon is evil because they are responsible for lost sales, is really not looking the facts in the eye.

Some of these authors complain that the loss of revenue destroys their livelihood. I am not entirely unsympathetic to this, but it is a problem we are all facing on a daily basis, so my answer to those authors is, if your livelihood depended on your Hachette book sales, perhaps you signed the wrong contract. You should have asked Hachette for proper guarantees, instead of giving them carte blanche and assuming they would always act in your best interest. Isn’t it rather naïve to be under the illusion that Hachette has any interest in protecting an author’s best interests? This is a company that has, for generations, made a business of bullying writers out of royalties, squeezing every cent out of their creative pool that provides the actual content for their business—meaning the authors—and then having the audacity to pretend it is all warranted and good business. Sorry, not following here… missed a turn somewhere.

By signing your current contract, you have allowed a book publisher to corner you, fob you off with a meager 25% or 30% royalty rate, making no guarantees whatsoever, making absolutely no commitment to you, delaying payments as long as they legally can. You signed the contract! It’s your own fault. You forgot one very crucial fact about the industry—Amazon is selling books, not Hachette. Hachette is a middleman, and of dubious reputation to boot, whose business relies one strategic partners. They antagonized their key partner and you are the pawn in all of this. Hachette is counting on you to be upset, you are their muscle—or so they believe. At the same time you have absolutely no way of controlling your destiny. You have signed away your rights without any chance of recourse, giving a bully free reign. So, don’t complain to the world how bad Amazon is. Try to be honest to yourself and face the music. You brought this upon yourself. Just earn from it and make better decisions next time!

But all contracts are like that, right? It’s the industry standard. This must be the lamest excuse ever. Only because authors allow publishers to exploit them doesn’t make it right, and authors could have changed things a long time around. There is strength in numbers and if authors would collectively refuse to give up their rights for a few bread crumbs, publisher would have had to raise the bar and offer better business terms a long time ago. But as it stands, there is always some desperate soul out there who’s willing to sell their book for chump change, just to see his name on a printed book published by an extortionist. Strange, I know, but I tell it how I see it. And the weirdest thing is that big names like Stephen King and James Patterson are actually among those people advocating this practice. Then again, not so strange, perhaps, considering that their publishing terms are much more favorable than yours, and that unlike you, they have the full backing of their publishers.

Meanwhile there is a flood of books coming out from writers who self-publish. They make more money per sale, they have full control over their books, they have full ownership in their books, and some of them even break out and sell millions of copies, managing their own destinies. It is an option that was open to all of Hachette’s authors as well, so once again, if you signed a cutthroat contract that leaves you hanging out to dry in this time of crisis, it certainly isn’t Amazon’s fault.

In addition, Amazon has released a statement on the subject some time ago in which the company even outlined plans to subsidize affected authors, provided that Hachette does the same thing. This put the ball squarely in the publisher’s court and yet, Hachette did not react to it. Instead they bought another publisher, Perseus Book Group, in order to gain leverage in their position against Amazon. Hahahaha! Earth to Hachette—you’re no longer relevant in the book world, and in case you didn’t notice, you are nose-diving!

So far, the overblown reactions to this confrontation have had a very orchestrated feel, to the point that you wonder if Hachette was actually buying off the media to build sentiment against Amazon. Leaked emails that Hachette sent to its authors seem to substantiate this, in which the publisher clearly contorts truths, and hides relevant facts and information even from the heart of its operations, the authors.

So, ask yourself? Who is the bully? The kid who keep pushing others around, posturing, threatening, intimidating, or the kid who eventually stands up for himself and fights back?

As many of you know, I’ve been a game developer for most of my life, and my career in the industry goes back over 30 years. As such, I have seen trade shows come and go, and I was there when the Electronic Entertainment Expo, now universally known as E3, was first conceived as the industry’s replacement for the Chicago CES show.

Yesterday I went to the Los Angeles Convention Center to visit this year’s E3, but what greeted me was more reminiscent of a visit to Disneyland than a trade show. Let me explain…

For the past two or three years a strange trend has permeated E3, one that is unique to this particular trade show. Exhibitors would take their showcase games and no longer display them on the show floor. Instead they would isolate them in a separate room in the actual booth, allowing only a few people inside to see the game, in the course, forcing people to line up to wait their turn. SquareEnix was probably the first company to do this, years ago, to show off the latest “Final Fantasy” entry and over time other publishers adopted the practice.

Well, this year it took a turn for the extreme, because if you were visiting E3 this year, the odds are you didn’t even see half the games that were on display. Instead you saw theme-park-like waiting lines in virtually every major publisher’s booth. In fact, half the booth space of exhibitors, such as Warner Interactive, consisted of nothing but roped-off waiting lines. Take a look at this picture.

E3_1
The entire length of the booth consisted of people waiting in line to see one of Warner’s top games. Because I was curious I actually decided to get in line to take a look at “Shadow Of Mordor,” the latest “Lord of the Rings” game, waited in line for almost 30 minutes, only to find that my line was cut off four or five guys ahead of me. Unable to get into that presentation I would have had to wait another hour to see the next one! Sorry, folks but that is just ludicrous.

E3_2

Or take a look at the presentation of “Bloodborne” at the Sony booth.

E3_4
The publisher deliberately placed the screen inwards so that you could not see the presentation from the outside. How backwards is that? Do you want people to see the game or not? How hard would it have been turn the booth 180 degrees and allow people walking by to see that game. It would have resulted in tons of additional exposure, but no, it is much more important to have people line up, clutter the rest of the booth and create a traffic block. Well done, guys!

What’s even more ridiculous is that some exhibitors made people line up to even check out games that have been already released. Electronic Arts, for example, forced people to line up, just to get their hands on “Titanfall,” an action shooter that was released three months ago! EA has never been known as a company with a lot of common sense, but this certainly scraped the bottom of the barrel.

This, of course, begs the question, are publishers afraid to show you their games? Not really. The answer is actually much simpler. It is sadly as juvenile as the games most of them make.

It all has to do with the opinion most publishers have of themselves. You have people in their marketing departments whose job it is to create excitement around the games they sell, and you have the executives of these companies whose job it is to turn a profit and make the shareholders happy. When you talk to these people, they all have one thing in common: They all think the games they sell are the best in the world and that the company they work for — which strangely changes very frequently — is the most important and influential player in the industry. In short, they live in this bubble where they make themselves believe the hype they are trying to create.

If you truly believe the success of your company or the sales of your game are determined by the length of the waiting line at E3, I have one word for you: psycho-analysis. Seriously, though, it is frightening to think that publishers are so simple-minded that they believe that bigger crowding in their booth buys them karma points and intimidates their competitors. (In their own minds, I have no doubt, their own crowds will always be the biggest and their lines will always be the longest, just as their company will always be the best.)

E3_3

Therefore, a post-E3 statement at Warner Interactive, might easily sound something like this — “Did you see how long the lines were to see Mortal Kombat X? People really loved that game.”

What’s wrong with this statement? Well, first of all, it completely misses the point, because just because people stood in line doesn’t mean they actually got to see the game, let away, liked it. Since they never got to see the game and stood in line simply based on the assumption that the game might be interesting, to deduce that people liked the game is no more valid than saying that, with its lines and all, the DMV must be the epitome of a happy place.

In the real world, at a really useful trade event, the statement could have been “Did you see the crowd and how excited people were that they could finally see Mortal Kombat X?“

But that would predicate that people actually had the chance to witness the game as an openly accessible presentation in the booth, which was clearly not the case at E3. I didn’t see a single frame of Mortal Combat X, or Shadows of Mordor, or the new Batman: Arkham Asylum, or The Sims 4 and countless other games. And it frustrates me. Not only the fact that I went to a trade show to see the latest games, but also the fact that publisher truly expect me to stand in line for hours to see a video clip for single game, then leave, wait in line for an hour to see a clip of their other game, and so forth.

In their desire to appear to be the show’s hot ticket, they mistake a waiting line for actual enthusiasm. Or then again, they do not mistake it, they are fully aware of the farce, but they are so misguided that they think YOU can’t tell the difference, because the reason they really do it is because in their mind, they believe that these lines, reflect positively on them and the game you’re trying to see. Creating this barrier, the game becomes this intangible, unreachable objective that everyone has to aspire to because if the waiting lines are so long, the game has to be so cool, right.

Boy, oh boy… I saw through that gimmick in first grade when my teacher tried to use gold stars to draw better performances and behavior out of us. It is sad to see that these huge business entities allow the handling of their trade shows to stoop down to the level of first-graders. Gamers are not stupid…

E3_5

As things go in the real world that I roamed in, the real sentiment among visitors at E3 these days is that they are disgruntled because they never even had the chance to see the game. Instead of spending the time talking to colleagues about the cool games we saw, creating real word of mouth interest, conversations around E3 were often taking place about how frustrating it is to get to see anything of interest. To assume that a visitor has an endless amount of time on their hands is completely half-baked and, frankly, stuck-up. Many industry professionals have to squeeze as much in a single day as they can, and there is no room to wait in line for hours on end. Evidently, for people who are working the trade-show booths this is not an issue because to them it is one large three-day event, but for the throngs of visitors it is not.

So, in the end, exhibitors are really shooting themselves in the foot with this practice. I would have been happy to tell people about how great “The Sims 4” looks, how amazing “Dragon Age: Inquisition,” or how cool “Shadow of Mordor” seems to be, but I can’t and I won’t, because I never saw the games, and to me that is a joke. It is a sign for me that the industry has lost all perspective in its self-indulgent make-believe bubble. You either want to show off your product, or you don’t. If the latter is true, you have no place on the trade show floor, and if the number of guards, whose job it is to make sure no one’s jumping lines, outnumbers the number of presenters in your booth, you know that you definitely got something wrong.

E3 is the only trade show I’ve ever seen with this kind of practice. These are not closed door meetings, which have their value and purpose, but public displays that deliberately shun visitors to create the illusion of something special. To me, that is just backfiring. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth and, quite honestly, I no longer care if “Shadow of Mordor” is any good or not. I have lost interest… good job!

zencover I honestly had not expected how much work it would be, putting together my book Zen of eBook Formatting. After all, I had the blog tutorial to build upon, and yet, it took me many months to flesh out the final book, add in all the little details and additions, and tweak it to make sure it is as accurate as I can make it. Part of it had to do with the fact that eReaders have turned into a sea of incompatibility.

eReaders have turned into a sea of incompatibility

While the original “Take Pride in your eBook Formatting” tutorial is still every bit as relevant and applicable today as it was when I first published it a few years back, as soon as you want to go beyond the most basic formatting features, you get caught up very quickly in the morass of device limitations and quirks.

With each new device generation new problems are being introduced, and considering that we are now looking at fifth or sixth generation devices, one can quickly get lost in the maze of dos and donts of eBook formatting.

I am not pointing fingers here because every manufacturer contributes to the problem. Apple with its incompatible ePub implementations in iBooks for one, Amazon for other limitations and countless firmware bugs, Barnes&Noble for a different set of firmware bugs. Each of them making it harder for eBook formatters to navigate these waters and create reliable products.

Switching a font face, for example should be a completely trivial thing. According to the HTML standards which underly both the MOBI and EPUB format, you should be able to switch fonts anytime on a block level. Sadly, this is not true in the world of eBooks.

Typically a code snippet like this should work fine on any device, assuming we have a span style called “newfont” that sets a different font family.

<p>Let’s <span class="newfont">switch the font</span></p>

Sadly, all of Apple’s iBooks devices and software do not follow this standard. Not even a snippet like the following one works.

<p class="newfont">Let’s switch the font</p>

iBooks does not recognize font family settings in <p> and <span> elements, which is completely inconsistent with HTML standards. It is not a mere oversight, however, because Apple has been dragging this problem through all iterations of iBooks, since its inception years ago. One can only wonder what Apple’s software engineers are thinking.

If device manufacturers would stick to the standards in the first place, hacks like these would not be needed

I found that oftentimes I have to double-stitch solutions, nesting different solutions, so that if one doesn’t work there is always a fallback. The work-around to fix this particular problem is to use another block-level tag in order to pass the information to iBooks.

<p>Let’s <span class="newfont"><cite class="newfont">switch the font</cite></span></p>

While this is not the most elegant solution, and purists will scream out at the misuse of the <cite> tag here, the reality of things is that as eBook formatters we currently cannot afford to be purists. We need formatting challenges solved and in this case <cite> addresses a very specific problem. If Apple would stick to the standards in the first place, hacks like this would not be needed.

I found that the same kind of double-stitching is sadly needed if you want to strike out text, as in draw a line through it. It is not a very commonly used text feature, but if you need it, it is imperative that it shows up correctly.

Instinctively you would use the <strike> tag, which has been part of the HTML vocabulary since its inception. <strike>, however, has been discontinued with the HTML5 standard, and as a result there are now eReaders that no longer support it. They require the <del> tag instead, which, quite by coincidence, is not supported by some older devices, of course.

As in many cases, double-stitching the solution is the way to go for me and whenever I have to strike out text, it will look like this.

<p>This is how you <strike><del>strike out</del></strike> text.</p>

Once again, not the most elegant solution, but as you format eBooks, you will have to get used to seeing things such as this more and more often. As I said, with every new generation of eBook devices, the number of these types of inconsistencies will grow and the need to find and apply band-aid solutions will sadly grow with it.

If you want to find out more about basic and advanced eBook formatting techniques, make sure to check out my new book Zen of eBook Formatting, which details all the necessary steps to create professional-grade eBooks.

Zen of eBook Formatting is now available!

The past months I kept myself busy completing a new book on the subject of eBook formatting, as many of you may know. I am happy to announce that the book is finally available! For only $5.99 you can now benefit from the years of experience I have had as a professional eBook formatter, learning the ins and outs and the tricks of the trade I have applied to many hundreds of eBooks from New York Times bestselling writers and indie authors alike.

zencoverZen of eBook Formatting is in the same vein as my “Take Pride in your eBook Formatting” tutorial series, but it goes way beyond that, as it is vastly expanded and updated. In the book I am taking readers through the entire workflow that I am using every day for the projects I am working on for my clients. In an easy to understand manner—I hope—I am not only explaining the steps, but also explain why these steps are necessary and why I do things the way I do them. The result is a tutorial-style self-help book that is chock full with examples, tips and coding snippets.

Having formatted well over 500 eBooks at this time, I am covering the entire process, from the basic manuscript cleanup, to the basics of HTML and simple markup, all the way to advanced techniques that allow you to add an incredible amount of polish to your eBooks without necessarily sacrificing device compatibility.

Just to give you an impression of the breadth of subjects I am covering, here is the Table of Contents for you.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1 – The Road to Right
    • Understanding eBook readers
    • Why you should not use a word processor
    • The road to Right
    • Tools of the trade
  • 2 – Data Structure
    • HTML
    • CSS
    • Prepping your style sheet
  • 3 – Cleaning Up the Manuscript
    • The Power of Em
    • Time to clean up your manuscript
    • Fixing up styles
  • 4 – From Word Processor to Programming Editor
    • Nice, clean and predictable in HTML
    • Paragraphs are the meat
    • Fleshing it out
    • Dealing with special characters…the right way
    • A word about fonts
  • 5 – General Techniques
    • Centering content
    • Images
    • Image resolution
    • Chapters
    • Typography and Layout
  • 6 – Advanced Techniques
    • Chapters
    • Initials
    • First-line capitalization
    • Formatting inserts and notes
    • Formatting emails and text messages
    • Image blocks with byline
    • Custom fonts
    • Linking to the outside world
    • Lists
    • Backgrounds and Color
  • 7 – eBook Generation
    • eBook formats
    • Meta-Data
    • The Cover
    • The TOC in the digital world
    • Calibre
    • More control with XPath
    • KindleGen
    • Error-checking
  • 8 – eBooks Outside the Box
    • A Word about Fixed-Layout Books
    • Preparing for Smashwords
  • Parting Thoughts
  • 9 – Appendices
    • Chart of named entities
    • Resources
  • About the Author
  • Also by Guido Henkel

The key to me, when putting together this book, has been to make it possible for anyone to create an eBook that has a professional level of presentation. Too many authors use shortcuts to create eBook version of their manuscripts, flooding the market with broken and sub-par product that leaves a bad taste in readers’ minds, when in fact, applying a little bit of discipline could elevate them from that riffraff and make their books like a million bucks.

Zen of eBook Formatting is targeted at all those of us, who care about their books, not only the words we wrote, but also that they are presented to the reader in a clean and professional manner that works on as many eReaders as possible. Hopefully, with Zen of eBook Formatting at hand, this goal will be within reach for many more authors.

Grab your copy of the book an Amazon now!