Friday, October 28, 2011

A Proposal For Improving eBooks

Every book can have typos. Sadly, the rate at which typos occur--especially in ebooks--has increased at just the time when it might be easiest to report them. Books today are written on word processors with spell checking, but even the best spell checker won't catch a substitution of one valid word for another valid word--like there and their, or where and wear. And repairs

There are systemic reasons why ebooks often have a higher rate of typos than conventional books. This can be traced to the workflow of typesetting and printing that catches typos without propagating fixes back to the writer's original manuscript. This file is in turn converted to ebook formats.

I think we should turn the workflow inside out. Let's produce ebooks first, put them in front of a lot of alpha-readers' eyeballs to find typos, then propagate bug reports back to the writer to fix before typesetting and printing.

The trouble with the last paragraph is that it can be tedious to mark a typo in an ebook and report it back. I think technology can make this a lot easier and it can streamline reporting. Amazon could tweak their Kindle software to do this fairly easily, and if they get the @author thing working, it might be turned to this purpose. However, since Jeff Bezos doesn't take orders from me, I think we should modify an open source reader program--since we have the source. Pick one that runs on any Android device--cell phone, rooted Nook Color, or tablet. Maybe a Kindle Fire if Amazon doesn't get in the way.

To this application a programmer could add code to mark a word or words, where it appears in the text, what the problem is, and who the reporter is, pack it up in a well-formatted message, then transmit the message via the web to the writer. Bonus points for macro commands for the writer's word-processing program that will position the text at the location of the error as indicated by the report. And the reviewer's notes inserted as a comment.

The publisher could circulate advanced review copies to alpha/beta readers who'd use this system as indicated to improve the work's accuracy.

Since I'm a programmer all this seems very feasible to me. But I've learned that if I'm the only one interested in making something happen, progress goes very slowly. Does anybody else think this could be useful?

Leave a comment if you think so. If enough votes are in favor, I'll see about next steps.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Can Sherlock Holmes be an Action Hero?

If you read many mystery stories, you'll note a couple sub-genres: Cozy and Hard-boiled. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is a little old lady who collects clues in her knitting bag and solves the mystery with her razor-trap mind. Conversely, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe sticks his nose where it isn't wanted and gets out of trouble with hard fists and a hot gat. Now that we've got that out of the way, I have a rhetorical question:

Is Sherlock Holmes a cozy detective or a hard-boiled detective?

The answer is not as obvious as you might think. In 2009 friends complained about all the fisticuffs of Robert Downey, Jr. in the Sherlock Holmes movie, because they thought it improper for a cozy detective to be busting heads. At first, I was inclined to agree. But that my agreement was predicated upon impressions created by Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone and a parade of similar screen depictions.

When I reflected upon the Arthur Conan Doyle stories I'd read the impression became less clear. Yes, he fills his pipe, catalogs cigar ashes, and plays the violin--cozy behaviors. But he also goes haring off with revolver in hand. When Sherlock Holmes springs the trap on his quarry, he is likely to subdue him physically.

Sherlock Holmes is both a cozy detective and a hard-boiled detective. And he is neither.

It is useful to reflect upon the reason for this. Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887. Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler were not yet born. The cozy and hard-boiled categories did not exist until well after Sherlock Holmes was established in the public mind.

This is not true of the film treatments with with we are familiar. The screen adaptations are written and the performances are interpreted much later with well defined cozy/hard-boiled categories in mind. We've seen cozy elements imposed upon the film treatments that are only latent in the canon.

By way of analogy, before the boffins distinguished between six-legged insect and eight-legged arachnids, people could use the word "bug" in a way that perfectly equivocated the two categories. The Sherlock Holmes of the canon similarly equivocates the categories of cozy and hard-boiled detectives.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Public Service Announcement

I apologize for writing something only tangentially related to writing, but it has to do with eBooks,  Kindles, and stuff.

Ebooks will change the way books are read and published. This threatens some of the not-poor who will have to change the way they do business. Just ask Borders books. It also will disrupt patterns of power distribution between writers, agents, and publishers. None of this should be news.
Do-gooders often like to write hand-wringing essays about The Poor. I recently read here and here that the widespread adoption of ebooks will freeze out poor children from reading. And you probably know that Amazon as dropped its prices to $79 for the normal Kindle, and $199 for the Fire. Now add one more component to this equation: public schools.

When I was a kid the nicest and most expensive books I ever saw were my textbooks. They were glossy, and colorful. Now, I just read here that public school systems are poised to save a lot of money in storage space and shipping costs by switching their texts to ebooks.

Can these savings subsize Kindles for public school children? One of Newt Gingrich's more outrageous ideas was to give laptops to homeless people. I still think it's ridiculous. But it makes sense to give Kindles to disadvantaged school children with their ebook texts.

I can see some very well-heeled corporations spending millions demonizing this idea. But there are even more millions to be made by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and/or Apple switching public school children from dead-tree texts to ebooks.

Update: I hear that the Indian government is moving forward on something along these lines.

Those more worthy than I: