Conversations in the Margin of Déjà Vu

So I’m not a dir­ect­or. But, if I were, I’d be first in the chair when they asked me to chat­ter away about the movie. I’m a writer, and I’m doing the next best thing.

I’m not sure where I first came across ReadMill. Somebody on Twitter men­tioned it, I expect. ReadMill is a com­pany that provides read­ing applic­a­tions for mobile devices. So far so nor­mal. The Kindle applic­a­tions do this, too. What sets ReadMill apart is that its applic­a­tions are well designed–to judge from the iPad one, at least–and allow read­ers to have con­ver­sa­tions in the mar­gins.

I’ve always thought that the high­lights fea­ture on the Kindle was a missed oppor­tun­ity for Amazon because of the rel­at­ive lack of inter­activ­ity. ReadMill addresses that.

So here’s what I did, and what you can do too (with most books).

  1. Sign up with ReadMill.

  2. Buy a book on any one of these ser­vices. I down­loaded Déjà Vu from the Kobo store, where it is cur­rently free.

  3. Download the ReadMill app for your mobile device.

  4. Sync your lib­rary and look for com­ments by oth­er read­ers. If you have Déjà Vu, you’ll see my ‘director’s com­ment­ary’.

What kinds of things am I includ­ing? Well, I’m not sure what people will find inter­est­ing, so I’m adding bits of trivia, thoughts on the cre­at­ive pro­cess (nat­ur­ally), and hints about deleted scenes. You can see some of them on the ReadMill page itself.

At some point in the near future, I’ll be work­ing with ReadMill on a giveaway of Déjà Vu. For the time being, if you want to check out what it’s like to use (remem­ber that the app and my book are free right now), it’s worth a shot.

Branching Out

In April of 2011, I pub­lished my only nov­el, Déjà Vu to the Kindle store. I was at the end of my teth­er with the intransigent (for me) tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­ing industry. I had a story I believed in and nowhere to place it. Finally, I chose the Kindle store, which was the only game in town. Over the next two years, I made enough money to edit, proof and dec­or­ate my four remain­ing books (Flasback, The Amber Rooms, and Proper Job. So my pro­fes­sion­al writ­ing has sus­tained itself fin­an­cially.

One of the great aspects of the Kindle store is the Kindle Select Programme. This allows authors to make books free for a peri­od (five days in every ninety) in return for exclus­iv­ity. Even though the per­cent­age of people down­load­ing and, cru­cially, read­ing free books is not high, the deal worked out well for me. Off the back of these pro­mo­tions, my books ten­ded to ride high in the paid chart after­ward, and many of the best reviews of Déjà Vu begin with “I down­loaded this for free and wasn’t expect­ing much, but…”

But. The Kindle Select pro­gramme isn’t what it used to be. Probably as a res­ult of Amazon mov­ing its focus away from Select (and because the algorithm might sup­press older books), the pro­gramme is one of dimin­ish­ing returns. Eventually, the exclus­iv­ity isn’t worth it.

At the same time, I’ve been mov­ing towards a more auto­mated way of pro­du­cing books, as you can see in these posts. I’ve now reached the point where a single text file (the nov­el, styled using Markdown) can be passed to a pro­gram designed to gen­er­ate val­id­ated ebooks (com­plete with table of con­tents, about the author, and so on) for Kindle, PDF, and iBooks.

About iBooks. I did use the Smashwords meat-grinder, once upon a time, to pub­lish Déjà Vu in many ebook stores, includ­ing the iBookstore. There was one advant­age to this and sev­er­al dis­ad­vant­ages. The advant­age: It was free, and that’s great. The dis­ad­vant­ages:

  • The pro­duced ver­sions looked like crap (incon­sist­ent place­ment of images; vari­able line height with­in body text; even–saints pre­serve us–failure to indent at the start of chapters).

  • At the time, the Amazon Kindle store was huge, and even good sales for these oth­ers amoun­ted to pen­nies.

The first dis­ad­vant­age was the killer for me, though the second might have iced my cake. I del­is­ted the book from Smashwords. This meant that Déjà Vu appeared briefly on iBooks. Enough to pick up a couple of reviews, then dis­ap­pear.

Déjà Vu is now back on the iBookstore. It looks good. I designed it (and all my oth­er books) from the ground up using Markdown, CSS and Apple’s proof­ing tools. My pre­cious indent­ing is cor­rect and the over­all impres­sion is much closer to a pro­fes­sion­al one. I’ve even added my own fleur­ons.

We’ll see what hap­pens with regards to sales. My sus­pi­cion is that they remain quiet because Apple’s sales are driv­en almost entirely by brand name and expos­ure on the front page of the site. Amazon, by con­trast, is much more aggress­ive about push­ing unknown authors on the basis of match­mak­ing to the reader’s book his­tory. M’acquaintance Scott Pack, relates his exper­i­ence of pub­lish­ing Confessions of a GP on iBooks, which bene­fit­ted extremely from front-of-store pro­mo­tion by Apple. Advertising is the Achilles’ Heel of the inde­pend­ent author; we just don’t have the clout. Everything has to be word of mouth, and the iBookstore isn’t good at amp­li­fy­ing that.

Are you ask­ing your­self: “But, Ian, how can I help you out?” If so, you are very kind. The main dif­fi­culty for me is the lack of reviews. Each book starts afresh. (I’m not sure what the iBooks policy is on includ­ing Amazon cus­tom­er reviews in their product descrip­tions; I might check that out.) But if you’ve read any of my books and feel dis­posed towards rat­ing them once again on iBooks, I will feel briefly warm and fuzzy.

You can see all my iBookstore books here.

Creating an Animated Banner Advert

There are sev­er­al joys pecu­li­ar to the inde­pend­ent writer. One of them is the respons­ib­il­ity of advert­ising. A few weeks back, I made the decision to plough more of the earn­ings from my books into these adverts. One of the places I wanted to advert­ise is a site call kboards.com, a busy hub full of Kindle writers and read­ers.

What Goes into the Ad?

It needs to cap­ture interest with min­im­al inform­a­tion. I kicked around some ideas using the ‘rule of three’: this, that and the oth­er, or ‘not this, not that, but the oth­er’. Since I don’t really have graph­ic illus­tra­tion skills bey­ond cre­at­ing book cov­ers, I’d need to use text. I came up with:

One heroine

Three books

Lost in time

Overall, I’m happy with them. They’re short. They tell you that the main char­ac­ter is a woman, that there are three books (so far) worth of story, and that the genre is sci­ence fic­tion (time travel).

My girl­friend looked at a draft of the fin­ished GIF and said that read­ers wouldn’t know any­thing about the qual­ity of the books. I agreed, and added a quote from an SFX of Déjà Vu as a ‘zero slide’ at the begin­ning.

How Does it Look?

The stand­ard dimen­sions for a ban­ner ad is 728 x 90 pixels. Once I’d stuffed that full of my text, there was no room for the book jack­ets, and it gen­er­ally looked shite. #advert­fail

Fine, I thought. I’ll just cre­ate an anim­ated GIF.

For the unini­ti­ated, an anim­ated GIF (pro­nounced ‘fish’) is a little video.

Creation: Keynote

I don’t have any fancy anim­a­tion soft­ware. I do, how­ever, use Apple Keynote to give psy­cho­logy lec­tures. Keynote is a par­tic­u­larly advanced present­a­tion plat­form that has text effects, slide trans­itions, and tim­ings. Crucially, it can also export a present­a­tion as a Quicktime movie file. That file can then be dropped into a Mac app called GIFBrewery to make an anim­ated GIF.

  • Open Keynote and select one of the stand­ard tem­plates

  • Next, you’ll want to have Keynote change its slide size to 728 x 90. Guess what? It won’t, because 90 is too small. You will need to cre­ate a slide with the ban­ner ad pro­por­tions but more pixels. I’d sug­gest 2184 x 270.

Keynote slide size

  • Create as many slides as you like. Each one of these will be a ‘moment’ in your anim­a­tion. For my own ban­ner, there were sev­en moments.

Slides

  • Set the tim­ings and trans­itions between the slides. You’ll see that, for the example below, I’ve set the trans­ition between the first slide and the second to be the ‘sparkle’ effect; the sparkle moves left to right; and the trans­ition activ­ates auto­mat­ic­ally after three seconds.

Transitions

  • Once you’ve set up auto­mat­ic trans­itions between slides, Keynote should be able to play through the ‘present­a­tion’ without manu­al inter­ven­tion. About five-ten seconds long is prob­ably enough—but if your ban­ner ad is awe­some, maybe people will watch it for longer. Who knows.

  • Now export the present­a­tion as a Quicktime video. Go to the File Menu > Export > Quicktime. Keynote will offer the fol­low­ing options, which are set accord­ing to those I used for my own ban­ner:

QT Options

Creation: GIFBrewery

The Quicktime file is some­thing that GIFBrewery can hap­pily use to pro­duce your ban­ner.

GIFBrewery has many options, which you can explore. The two main things to point out are:

  • Resize’ will allow you to reduce the pixel dimen­sions of you video. If you’ve impor­ted from Keynote, these dimen­sions will be too large, so here is where you can reduce it to 728 x 90 pixels.

  • The ‘GIF prop­er­ties’ pop-up allows you to tweak the frame-rate (and there­fore over­all speed) of the GIF. You will also find options for redu­cing the num­bers of col­ours. Remember that the webpage host­ing your advert needs the GIF to have a very small file size. In the case of kboards.com, this is less than 60K.

GFBrewery

Wrapping Up

Here is the fin­ished GIF:

2013 05 20 22 24 09 SB

I hope that’s help­ful. It took me a couple of nights of pokery, not to men­tion jig­gery, to real­ise that I could use Keynote to pro­duce a movie file, and then a good piece of soft­ware to gen­er­ate the GIF.

If you want to use my files as a head start, here they are:

The GFBrewery set­tings file

The Keynote present­a­tion file

The Keynote Quicktime export