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Oyster Brings a Netflix-like Model to Romance Reading

23 Oct

I was thrilled to find out that a new platform has come on the market for readers, Oyster. Looking to Netflix as a subscription model, readers pay $9.95 per month and have access to all of Oyster’s library (about 100,000 in copyright books), with the ability to “play” any book they want – books don’t download onto your device (which I imagine means you need to have a connection at all times).

For heavy readers this becomes an affordable alternative, particularly as more and more publishers release titles onto Oyster’s platform. Having read about Oyster and watched videos about how it works, I nevertheless wanted to have a better sense of what it could offer romance readers, but I wasn’t willing to pay for a month in order to test the water. Lucky for me, Oyster recently announced a free month to trial the platform for people wanting to test it out (in honor of their iPad app release).

A major caveat before downloading the app – originally designed for the iPhone, the iPad version of the program is meant to be enlarged using the 2x button. This means that users not running the latest iOS are going to notice highly pixelated text which makes it hard on the eyes. People running iOS 7 on their phones and iPads will have no problem.

The iPad is a natural first device upon which to launch considering its level of infiltration in the market.

But what does Oyster have to offer romance readers? I found the offerings to be diverse and hitting several big name authors – Amanda Scott, Debbie Macomber, Lisa Kleypas, Sarah Maclean, Julia Quinn, Katherine Ashe, and Tessa Dare were some of the historical romance authors (they even have most of Kathleen Woodiwiss‘ backlist) and paranormal authors like Christine Feehan, Jeaniene Frost and Lyndsay Sands were represented as well. A few erotica books were in there, as well as category romance from Crimson Romance’s imprint, and romantic suspense authors like Carla Swafford and Elizabeth Lowell.

I didn’t like that so many non-romance books were mixed in (because it makes it look like Oyster doesn’t know what the definition of the genre), but it is true that romance readers often cross-genres, particularly with mystery, historical fiction and women’s fiction – nevertheless, I don’t want to see them when I’m looking for romance. There’s plenty of contemporary romance, romantic comedy and inspirational romance and they even divide up historical romance, highlighting Regency and medieval titles. It’s pretty snazzy.

Could there be more titles? Sure. But the above authors are damn good ones and there was a nice mix of books I’ve read and books I want to read – considering I read around 350 romance novels a year, I find this pretty snazzy and I’m sure it will only get better as Oyster will have to acquire more titles in order to stay competitive, particularly with other subscription read services about to launch.

So take a look at Oyster (for free) to see if you’ve got the hardware to see if it has something to offer you as a romance reader. I think that you’ll find it may offer readers a wonderful romance library to draw upon (for only $9.95 a month.

E-reader Lust: How Amazon’s Newest Paperwhite and It’s MatchBook Program Can Make You a Better Reader

5 Sep

The Kindle Paperwhite is incredibly bright, offering no glare in outdoor conditions and a strong contrast for readers, making it easy on the eye.

My e-reader lust knows no bounds. Perhaps because I am such a voracious reader and love ebooks as much as paper ones (sometimes more) I’ve yet to meet the e-reader I didn’t like – Kobo, Nook, Kindle, and tablets like the Nexus or my wonderful iPad (both sizes are amazing). I have an iPad which I use for other aspects of my life, but naturally my Kindle app (and iBook and Nook apps) are the center of my reading existence as they allow me to access the more than 1300 ebooks I have in my Amazon account (and no, I am not making that number up). With so many authors putting out novellas and short stories ONLY available in e-book form (and many outstanding authors debuting solely with electronic books), I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the romance genre without one.

Yet despite my slutiness in all gadgets electronic, I do believe strongly in Kindle products and apps because I think that Amazon has the market cornered with its combination of great selection, some of the best prices, and access to my library with virtually every electronic device on my desk and in my pocketbook. Whether it’s my phone, computer or iPad, I can grab a hold of my books virtually anywhere and since I will begin reading my book in progress if you leave me alone for two minutes, that’s pretty important to me.

I actually bought a basic level Kindle last Christmas as a present to myself because 1) with the push buttons to advance rather than a touch screen I could put it in a ziplock and read ebooks during my marathon bubble baths, 2) I’m an Amazon Prime member for the free shipping and Amazon Instant Video access (so worth $79 per year) and that means I get to borrow books for free each month with an actual Kindle device and 3) it was only $69.

The shot of Goodreads on the newest Paperwhite.

All the various Kindles since the original one debuted haven’t really tempted me since their color screens and multimedia abilities are all matched, if not surpassed by my iPad 2. But when the Kindle Paperwhite came on the scene, oh, that’s when my e-reader infidelity ramped up! The Paperwhite is light just like my original Kindle (it’s the height and depth of a ballpoint pen, so extremely comfortable to hold) but the contrast with its e-ink beats everything on the market, with a no-glare screen that makes reading into the wee hours easy on tired eyes. But the newest Paperwhite, just announced a couple of days ago and priced at $119, has features which have ramped up the urgency and catapulted it into this year’s holiday gift category. Namely, Amazon is choosing this model of Kindle as the featured device to promote its seamless integration with Goodreads.

Now THIS is a development. While some people threw up their hands when Goodreads was acquired by Amazon earlier this year, I haven’t noticed any changes to that community as of yet, so I’m not getting my knickers in a twist about the partnership, particularly because I was hoping something like this would occur. You see, with those aforementioned 1300 books, I spend a pretty decent amount of time putting titles into my Goodreads account since I use it to religious track my reading, and a device/Goodreads integration would save me a lot of time and energy.

Organizing your Kindle books into collections is only an option on actual Kindle devices.

I adore Goodreads not just for the rating and tracking ability, but because I can organize my books into shelves, which are mostly for me to indicate where I keep said book (“in kindle,” “Lendle”, “my paper copy” or “in library”). But with the endless stream of book covers in my Kindle app, my inner librarian aches for a better way to organize these. On any actual Kindle device you can actually organize your books into “Collections” which would be utterly A-M-A-Z-I-N-G as I have always wanted to push each new book I buy and finish into subgenre romance categories (Paranormal, Suspense, Contemporary, Holiday, etc.) which would make it a breeze to pick for better blogging. Having my NetGalley books in a “Review These” collection would also be pretty nifty, making me that much more efficient, and this librarian adores efficiency like Seven of Nine loves running a diagnostic (Star Trek Voyager fans, anyone?)

Whether it’s with a thirty cent Ziplock bag or a state-of-the-art waterproof case, reading and baths are synonymous for romance readers.

But attachment to touch buttons is also becoming a thing of the past as the bathtub becomes fair game with the advent of accessories like the DryCase which works with a variety of devices (including my iPad) and would enable me to bring any device (*manic giggle*) into my fabulous cast iron tub circa 1930. I could even use their DryBuds to listen to music while I’m soaking since the case has a waterproof headphones jack! My God, I’d never get out…Take a look at the video to see how great this is and they are not even expensive – the DryCase retails for around $60 for the tablet size and the special earbuds are around $30. Considering that I’d pay as much for a decorative case that wouldn’t even offer protection from rain, I don’t consider that an exorbitant one-time cost.

MatchBook, bundling print and ebooks for voracious readers who want their authors anywhere, anytime.

Okay, so my most-wanted reading device is clearly fantastic, but Amazon also listened to experts like those at Publisher’s Weekly and realized that bundling ebooks with print books was a damn clever way to push more books. Duuuhhhhh. Enter MatchBook (super clever name!) where – like their audiobook offers which are discounted when you purchase the ebook – an ebook version of a book might be offered at a significant discount, with the majority landing in the $.99 to $2.99 range.

This could be a goldmine for Amazon, as I sometime make a print/Kindle choice for a lot of my books, often choosing a used print copy to save money since the Kindle version is not a discounted price (if I’m not going to pay the list price for the paper book, I’m hesitant to do it for the Kindle version). A used copy makes Amazon less money (and makes the publisher no money since they got their profit on the first sale of the book), but by bundling a new book and it’s ebook companion, I get two versions of the book (which I like to have for my favorite authors and series) and Amazon and the publisher make more of a royalty off me, while I actually save money. MatchBook will be retroactive, offering readers the discounted ebook versions off everything they’ve purchased from Amazon since 1996 that has an eligible ebook. With those 1300 books, I’m kind of curious to see how many offers I might have!

So I’ll be going to sleep with a smile on my face, dreaming of Paperwhites and bubble baths and even more books for my money. Take a look and see if Amazon’s newest offerings can fulfill your e-reader lust or if another device will fit the bill, but whatever you do, keep reading.

Read Faster By Switching Effortlessly Between Audio and Ebooks with WhisperSync

22 Nov

I don’t do it as much anymore since my commute to work isn’t that long, but back in the day I would listen to audiobooks all the time. Particularly in library school, I had a two hour commute (each way) with a ton of heinous city traffic, so audiobooks were a lifesaver. Not only would they allow me to do my reading for my literature classes while driving, but my involvement in the book made me incredibly patient about delays and tempered my road rage when jackasses cut me off.

However, the drawback to audiobooks when I didn’t have a long commute was that I wanted to enjoy the paper book or ebook, but that meant fast forwarding to part I was up to if and when I went back to the audiobook. Frustrating. Add to that that audiobooks are incredibly expensive, and you’ve got a recipe for abandonment, which I did.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon, known for creating good partnerships and being on the forefront of ereader technology, came up with a solution this fall for my dilemma. Calling it WhisperSync, they have worked with Audible, one of the leading audiobook vendors, to allow readers who purchase both a Kindle book and an Audible audiobook (with WhisperSync enabled) to be able to effortlessly go back and forth between formats, with the ebook or audiobook automatically picking up at the last place read. Cool, yes?

YES. The biggest complaint of all enthusiastic readers is “I wish I had more time to read!” so if it’s easier to read while you’re cooking, gardening, knitting, cleaning, working out, etc. you are getting through more books (and probably are more enthusiastic about those activities). Whether you have one of the Kindle ereaders or you are using a Kindle app on another device, you can utilize this new feature. What’s impressive to me is that the audiobook as an add-on is highly affordable (the expense of audiobooks can be quite prohibitive), I mean who wouldn’t get The Hunger Games audiobook add-on for $3.95, particularly if you had kids (*cough*) you wanted to entertain in the car?

Bimodal reading – physically reading the words while hearing them – actually improves and understanding, both for struggling readers as well as high-functioning readers. As an educator I’ve known this for a while, and encouraged it with ESL students who benefit from hearing the book as they are reading it. So many nuances of meaning can be extracted from the tone of voice and inflection of the narrator, and when you are unfamiliar with a word, hearing it pronounced gives you much more confidence in using it because you know you aren’t making a mistake. For the Kindle Fire line of ereaders, Amazon now has Immersion Reading, where a purchase of both the audio book and physical book comes together and you can actually read along with the performance of your book. Take a look at Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, announcing WhisperSync and Immersion Reading.

If you are someone who just likes audiobooks and listens to them all the time, check to see if your local library has a subscription to Overdrive, one of the leading vendors supplying audiobooks to nonprofit institutions. With just your library card, you can download the latest titles and best audiobooks on the market for free to your smartphone, computer, or ereader (they even just added the Kindle), keeping it for whatever length of time your library allows it to be checked out. On the Overdrive main page, there’s a place to put in your zip code and search for libraries near you who might offer this service. I think this service is a terrific use of your library, and clearly an affordable way of enjoying the medium for most people. Being able to download a couple audiobooks prior to a long trip – for free – seems like a great use of your tax dollars at work!

Keep in mind my one pet peeve about audiobooks which is the narrator has to be good! If you have a narrator you can’t stand, this is not going to work (and be open about narrators of different sexes than the characters – a good actor can work through that dissonance). Be sure before buying any audiobook, you listen to the sample (there’s usually a play button right under the book cover image) to make sure you’re going to have the best possible experience.

Happy listening! :-)

Web Meets Books: Small Demons Brings Depth and Understanding to Reading

22 May

So much of the conversation about reading and technology is centered around the great ebooks versus print debate, and it’s easy to understand why that topic, with all it’s monetary repercussions for publishers and authors, has top billing. But there are other ways the web is impacting reading, lending depth of understanding for readers and Small Demons is one of them.

Let me start off by answering your obvious question. No, I do not understand why this site is called Small Demons, but I think the name is kind of edgy and cool! The name in the end doesn’t matter more than the mission of the company. In a nutshell, Small Demons seeks to help readers make the connections of understanding by mapping the web of knowledge and references contained in each work.

This is of vital importance. I’m sure I was not the only person who read The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with art books and computers open around them to examine a specific work or track obscure Swedish politics. Frustrating! What if there was a one stop place on the web that had already gathered all those references together for me to enhance my understanding? Thank you, Small Demons, for doing just that.

Take the above screen shot of the book The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. The top of the page looks rather standard, doesn’t it? Your established book cover shot with the synopsis and a link to sources to buy it seems rather blah.  But wait! Look down a little. Here’s where the Small Demons magic begins.

Next we have a visual catalog of all the people and places listed in the book, which you may remember happens in Washington, D. C. Our pictures show all the references (and it’s Dan Brown’s intellectual professor as a mystery solving protagonist, so there are a LOT of people and ideas mentioned), from Albert Einstein to Mickey Mouse to Zeus. Just having the picture isn’t sufficient – if you hover over it you can see the identification of who you are looking at and if you click on the picture, you get taken to a separate page dedicated to that individual with all literary references to them as found in the Small Demons database. The map indicates the places mentioned and the specific pictures below the map are actual images of those places, with a similar rollover experience where you can click to find out more information. The pages dedicated to a person or place are really cool and worth exploring. Take a gander at Issac Newton:

Clicking on any one of the many books listed will give you the specific quote in the window above of the mention. Enabling the “Like” button with the heart by the person’s image links your interest in this person to your account so you can know when other books mention Newton. (Check out that hair! Doesn’t it remind you of some of the vampire hair descriptions in paranormal romance? Just sayin’.)

Back at the ranch the main book page of Brown’s novel, we can see that the buck doesn’t stop with the cool people/places references. Small Demons also links to music, movies, and other books mentioned in the text. In this screenshot from The Lost Symbol page, we see the link to the classical pieces Brown’s characters allude to, as well as the movies and books in the text.

Any reference or item I favorite, whether it be an author, a book, a person or movie (ANYTHING) gets added to my account’s Storyboard (see below) where it tracks my interests for me. Based on the company’s “What’s Coming Next?” page, you can see they’ll be moving in a direction where they will offer recommendations based on my interests. Other cool features in the works – besides the obvious additions of lots more books and references – center on pages devoted to specific subtopics (like vampires), the ability to preview or purchase music and movies, and more lists of bestsellers and awards.  They only have a romance list linked to the RITA for Young Adult Romance, so with any luck they will continue to work on all the other categories of romance fiction for us!

Right now they have an interesting smattering of the genre (there’s a genre drop down menu for easy browsing) with most of the books having some rather skimpy references, but the company seems to be working hard to keep adding to their offerings, so I check back weekly. Seeing what your friends are reading by linking social networks is an obvious next upgrade as well as the ability to have Small Demons as a mobile app on your phone or iPad.

Maybe because I’m a librarian, my first question always is “where does this information come from?” – after all, if it’s not from a reliable source, then it doesn’t help the reader in the end. Small Demons makes very clear that their information comes from Freebase, with some information from Wikipedia. I hadn’t heard of Freebase, but was really interested once I perused their wiki.

Freebase is a Creative Commons licensed database with over 22 million entries that charts entities (a person, place, thing, whatever), giving them unique identifiers but also tracking relationships and differences between them. The best example I can give is that of helpful metaengines, like yippy.com, which have taken your search terms and helped you figure out what you didn’t know. When someone searches on mercury, a search engine like yippy.com is able to separate out results into relationships, so it can have categories like Mercury (planet), mercury (element), Mercury (car), Mercury (god), etc. with the searcher able to click on whatever category fits their search.

The easiest way to get more content into Small Demons would be to let users help, but since I’m not a developer it’s hard to imagine how you could have account members access to the Freebase data in a user friendly manner. That said, I sent a note to them using their “Feedback and Suggestions” page with the thought of having a button next to each category on pages (whether or not there was any data there) that would allow readers to suggest material as they were reading. I got an incredibly prompt and friendly response saying they were already working on it, so I’m definitely feeling the warm fuzzies when it comes to the developers of this website.

Really, what I want are these features embedded in my ebook, so I could just hover over the reference and listen to the song or see a description of the book if I choose while reading, but with the proprietary nature of ebook formats, I can’t even begin to imagine how they could integrate this into the majority of readers’ experience.

A great way to keep up to date on books as they are added to the lexicon is to follow Small Demons on Twitter, where you can not only get a real-time update on items as they are added, but also enjoy the witty tone of the company as they promote new offerings and related material on the internet. Small Demons is a great website that has the potential to become as important to my reading experience as Goodreads, so I will eagerly await seeing how this great website grows and develops.

Technology Review: How ifttt Makes a Writer’s Life Easier

2 May

Since I teach technology all the time in my work as a librarian, I’m always thinking in the back of my mind how authors can use technology to make their lives easier. Especially after attending the last meeting of my fabulous Romance Writers of America chapter (shout out to fellow Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers!), it was especially interesting to hear the published authors in that group discuss how much of the marketing of their book falls on their shoulders. Particularly when you already have a full-time job, it’s hard to imagine putting in hours and hours being an active presence on multiple social networks, even though you know you have to be visible.

When I stumbled on a New York Times article about how to use a new program called ifttt to automate certain aspects of your life, I was intrigued and a little excited. Rhyming with “lift”, ifttt stands for “If This, Then That” and basically links your various social and online accounts using recipes to create tasks that it accomplishes for you.  With most of the major networks and platforms on there (I was happy to see Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google Reader, Dropbox, the Weather Channel, Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, your cell phone – but where is Goodreads, people? Pinterest?), and the ability to link to your phone via text or voicemail, you have a powerful tool at your fingertips.

Look at all the accounts you can link together with ifttt!

As described in their blog post discussing the origins of the idea of ifttt, the whole concept revolves around triggers and actions. While you can create your own, there are hundreds if not thousands of preconfigured “recipes” that can read a specific trigger and initiate an action for you.

Let me give you an example.  I try and keep Twitter on in the background during my day, but I’m working at my day job, so watching and responding to my Tori MacAllister account isn’t usually feasible. If I’m retweeted or add a follower, Twitter etiquette would have me thank that person for either action, preferably as soon as possible.  Enter ifttt.

Sample recipe for responding automatically to a retweet with a thank you

All I have to do is activate my Twitter account in my ifttt account and then customize the message to say whatever I want. Nice, yes? When I check my tweets, I can see the automatic ones generated by this recipe and I get a feeling of smug satisfaction.  I’m working even when I’m not working! And my high school etiquette teacher would be proud (yes, I had one of those).

For me, another detail I wanted taken care of was having my WordPress posts automatically placed on my Facebook page.  Wordpress has a social networking feature that automatically does this (under the “Sharing” menu) and while I’m often happy to use that with my Twitter account, I don’t like the format it comes out with for Facebook.  Ifttt can just suck my new WordPress posts and put them up on Facebook in the format I prefer, with no fuss or muss from me. Since I usually write my blog posts late at night after work, any extra couple of minutes I can gain are always much appreciated.  Take a look at how I can customize the post:

Sample of the action window for customization

Do you notice the “Addins” drop down menu? All that crazy punctuation and code isn’t anything I have to worry about – I just need to chose the placement and what I want from the Addins menu (you can see I wanted the default image for the post, the post title and of course, the url for it), hone the text (which is what is outside of the punctuation, in this case “new entry on the blog”) and then add it to my tasks. Done!

There are a ton of useful tasks that you can use to help yourself, managing your Facebook, Twitter and other social networking accounts among them. A great task that would help writers would be the voicemail to email feature. I don’t know if you have ever had (like I have) a great idea for a character or plot and you have nothing to write it down with.  You know that as soon as people begin hocking you to do things, you’re going to forget your brainwave, so you get cranky and irritable (okay, now I’m thinking this could just be me). Don’t fear, there is a ifttt recipe that links your cell phone and email!

I can leave ifttt a voicemail (when you link your phone number, they call to leave you a confirmation number to make the task effective – just add the caller to your contacts and you have the number you need), and it sends you a transcription of your voicemail!  How is that for a help? I’m assuming they use a similar kind of software to Dragon Dictation to use the transcription and even includes a link to the mp3 file of the actual recording.

In terms of other recipes that you might helpful (or just cool), how about sending your favorite tweets to your Evernote account for archiving (Twitter deletes the old ones regularly)? Or having ifttt text you if it’s going to rain that day? This fabulous tool could just make your writing life a little easier.

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