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