Posts Tagged book

Good Reading with Goodreads

goodreadsI’ve learned a lot over the past three months since I threw caution to the wind and self published my first novel, Counting from Zero. One discovery that is likely to have a lasting impact is the social reading site Goodreads.

I discovered Goodreads, along with Scribd, and Shelfari in the weeks after I launched my book. At first, all these sites seemed similar, and just another site to promote and do publicity. But Goodreads has really grown on me.

For one thing, it is fun to have Goodreads ‘friends’ and to read their updates. Reading is solitary by nature, so to find out about others reading in real-time is really quite addictive. Some even give progress on a page-by-page basis. Others go into the future with their to-read lists.  It can encourage and inspire you to read more, and provide a new way to discover great books.

I’ve previously written about electronic bookshelves in Books vs Bits, and how important this is. With Goodreads, when you lookup another reader, the site compares your bookshelf to theirs, showing what you have in common, just like I do when I visit someone’s house! It is amazing the breadth and range of some people’s reading.  If you love to read, you should sign up and give it a try, then add me as a friend!  One note: there is an option to sign in using Facebook, Twitter, or Google.  I tried this once with Facebook, and when I added a book to my bookshelf Goodreads posted it on Facebook without warning me… so be careful of this option.

Reading about other’s reading, getting ideas for future reading is all great, but as an author, a few features of Goodreads really impressed me. For one thing, you can message and interact with your readers.  By finding reviewer of similar books, I was able to get my book into the hands of some good reviewers. I’ll never forget that feeling when I first realized I could find and interact directly with like-minded readers…

Then, I discovered the Goodreads publisher giveaways. As a publisher, I just had to agree to give away a certain number of books (had to be paper books, not eBooks – this was actually a major motivator in getting my book out in paperback.) and Goodreads would find me interested readers. I also had to agree not to contact them in any way, just ship the books. The giveaway winners are encouraged, but not required to write reviews.

Counting from Zero

I happily signed up to give away ten copies. I chose a date for the end of the giveaway weeks out, when I would return from a trip to Australia for a conference and to visit friends and relatives. Then, an amazing thing happened. Goodreads started contacting like-minded readers, some of whom indicated they would be interested in receiving a copy of my book. I watched in amazement as two hundred signed up after a few days. By the end of the first week, nearly five hundred had requested it! Excited, I blogged about it. More requested it. At the end of two weeks, over a thousand people had requested a copy of my book! Prior to this Goodreads giveaway, I’m sure that fewer than a thousand people even knew my book existed!

So, when I returned from my trip, I got the list of ten names and addresses and mailed the books. Now, as a result of this, 90 people as of today have marked my book on a shelf, mostly their to-read shelf.

Now, I can follow as readers begin reading my book, marking it as ‘currently reading’ then watch as reviews and ratings show up!  Just amazing!

Social reading sites are definitely a great tool for an author, and so far I’m really, really impressed with Goodreads!

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Books vs Bits


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about books vs ebooks, or books vs bits. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, as reading is undergoing a mini revolution due to technology.

I admit that I came to the ebook party fairly late. I read my first ebook after I got an iPhone and discovered Stanza and Project Gutenberg. I was amazed at all the books that were available. I think the first thing I did was download then read every novel by Jane Austen!  I hadn’t read a book on Kindle until just a few months ago, as I describe in my first blog entry My First Foray into Fiction.

Since then, I have published my first novel, Counting from Zero. The advantages and disadvantages of books and bits has become even more clear to me. For example, some advantages of ebooks:

  • It is wonderfully easy to give away copies of my ebook – I just email the EPUB file or a coupon to download it from Smashwords (BTW, a fantastic site for ebook distribution).  The recipient gets it immediately at no cost to me!
  • It was terrifically quick to get my book out there – Amazon only took a few hours, Smashwords took a few days, and it was even on Barnes & Noble and iBooks within a week or so!
  • One can carry an entire library in the palm of your hand, and it is always with you.  I love to just pull out my iPhone and read when I am stuck somewhere waiting, very pleasantly filling in what would otherwise have been wasted time.
But there are some disadvantages, too:
  • Some people just don’t have any reading devices for ebooks, and printing out pages on an inkjet printer, or trying to squint at a computer screen is no way to enjoy a book.
  • Your ebooks don’t end up on your bookshelf when you are done.  How will you rediscover them years from now, or how will friends or family happen upon them and ask about them and perhaps borrow them?  How will do you learn about friends and acquaintances without nosily browsing their bookshelf when visiting their house?
  • How do you loan or give away an ebook?
  • In some ways, an ebook doesn’t quite feel ‘real’.  I know it is silly, but there is nothing like a book in your hand.

Now, some of these things are slowly being solved.  For example, most people will have a tablet or phone with an ereader soon – I think the days of everyone owning a conventional desktop computer or laptop are really numbered (sorry Microsoft…).   Most people do not create content, they just consume it, and the computer requirements for this are much different.  Also, the security of these devices is so much better than a Windows PC, so this will really help with problems like botnets, but that is a topic for another day…

I recently discovered Shelfari and started putting up my bookshelf online, which I found kind of fun.  Goodreads lets you do this as well.  I’m not sure how well it works, but here is, my virtual bookshelf.

Loaning now is possible on Kindle and some other devices.  However, DRM (Digital Rights Management) protected ebooks will continue to be a problem.  Could you imagine a conventional book that wouldn’t let you read it unless it could verify your purchase license?

As for the feel and look, I’m not sure how this one will go away.  Perhaps paper books will always be with us, as a ‘backup’ to our digital versions.  If only the Library of Alexandria had backup stone or clay editions of those books…

This discussion leads me to today: I just opened a box containing the first printed version of my novel, Counting from Zero.

I did it using the print-on-demand service CreateSpace.  I must say, the process has been very smooth and nice so far.  I was able to upload a PDF of the interior and a PDF of the cover.  I created both with template files provided, and some work in Word and Photoshop.  There really are NO upfront costs.  As in none.  Zero, if you like!  This was the hardest thing for me to believe – I was sure there was some hidden fees or costs, but there aren’t.  Of course, most of the website describes various packages that provide support and services which do cost money.  However, look carefully and you will find a do-it-yourself option where you prepare and format all the files  yourself!

The only fee I have paid was a $39 Pro Plan which allows my book to be included in book store catalog distributions.  Otherwise, I only paid for copies of the proof book ($4) and shipping ($12 2nd day).  Once I OK the proofs, my book will be ready and can be purchased at Amazon!  Just amazing!

So, my proof copy looks really, really good!  CreateSpace has done an excellent job, and they have printed exactly what my PDF files showed.  I do need to fix a few formatting issues that I didn’t notice in the PDF files (and typesetting in Word is just awful!) Here are pictures of my ebook and my book…

Both books and bits have their pros and cons, and I expect both will be with us for a long time.  I’m just really, really excited to have Counting from Zero as a paperback now.  Look for it on Amazon in about a week or so!

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The Lecturing Life

Since I love teaching and lecturing, I think it is fitting that the first review of my novel Counting from Zero should come from the Science Editor at Washington University where I teach. My favorite part of the review is this quote:

Counting from Zero brings Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler into the computer age.”

My first experience of teaching was as a grad student at Lehigh University. I was a teaching assistant or TA throughout the four years I worked on my PhD. I didn’t actually teach classes, but I ran tutorials and labs. I enjoyed it a lot and found I was kind of good at it. I used to enjoy the student reviews at the end of each semester. My favorite comment from one student was: “Alan is a chill guy.”

Later in my career, I got involved with Voice over IP or VoIP and Session Initiation Protocol or SIP. As this was a new technology, I needed to help train other engineers at my company. I started running sessions for 25, 50, and even 100 engineers at a time, teaching SIP. My books on SIP came out of this experience.

About this same time, I contacted Washington University in St. Louis and asked if they wanted to hear the latest about SIP and VoIP. I met Professor Paul Min who was in charge of running seminars for the Electrical Engineering Department. Soon, I gave the seminar and started meeting the staff. I did some teaching for other professors when they were out of town. Next thing I knew, they asked if I wanted to teach an evening class the next fall. I said yes!

That was 10 years ago. I have taught a variety of classes but found my home in the Joint Engineering Program with UMSL, the University of Missouri St. Louis. I particularly enjoy teaching in this program because most students have jobs and practical experience. One highlight was developing and teaching a class in Internet Communications. My text book: one of my SIP books!

My teaching style is fairly traditional – I like writing on the blackboard. I’ve also experimented with newer technologies such as Google Wave. My least favorite part is marking HW and assigning grades.

I’m currently not teaching this semester due to my travel load but I can’t wait to be back in the Fall. I miss the energy and enthusiasm of students.

So thank you to Washington University and UMSL, my colleagues and students.  Perhaps one day I can teach an Internet security class and use Counting from Zero as the textbook – that would be fun!

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Botnets and SIP Phones

I came across this article the other day thanks to my friend Olle, who’s blog “VoIP Forum – Open Source and Open Standards in IP Communications” is often filled with interesting information about my industry.

Avaya SIP Phone

It is entitled “A Distributed Cracker for VoIP” and it is a real life example of how some of my interests are coming together.  The article mentions a botnet (short for a robot network – a collection of ‘zombie’ computers that have been taken over by someone), P2P (peer-to-peer) message routing, and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol – putting voice and phone calls over the Internet).  And BTW, “cracker” doesn’t refer to the food, it means a password cracker or breaker.

If you have read or heard about my new techno thriller Counting from Zero, all these topics will be familiar, as they all form part of the plot in the book!  The additional thing this article adds is a mention of SIP or Session Initiation Protocol, which really brings it all together for me!  For a hint why, check out my Author Page at Amazon…

My professional life over the past 13 years or so has revolved around SIP.  SIP is an Internet protocol – a way that computers establish voice, video, or other sessions over the Internet for communication.  It has been widely adopted in Voice over IP (VoIP) and also in video conferencing services.  Most telephone companies today are deploying Internet Protocol (IP) networks and running SIP over it to carry phone calls.  For the past 10 years or so, my home has never been without a “SIP Phone” on my desk.  A SIP Phone looks like a normal telephone, with a handset, a keypad, and a ringer, but instead of plugging into a telephone jack, it has an Ethernet jack and plugs into the Internet!  Wherever on the Internet I plug in the phone, it has my identity and I can place and receive phone calls.

Above is a picture of a SIP phone made by my employer, Avaya, which is used in corporate offices.  Many of you will recognize the Cisco phones that have become the staple telephone prop in television and movies – these phones are all VoIP phones, and many are also SIP phones.

The blog post “A Distributed Cracker for VoIP” is about a botnet with P2P routing that uses zombie computers to discover and attack SIP VoIP phones and systems (known as a PBX or Private Branch Exchange) by trying to guess the passwords.  And the results are sent back to a shadowy command and control center for the botnet.  I’m sure there will be more and more of this in the future.

Interesting how various interests can come together like this – something that happens a lot with the Internet.

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The Path to Publication

Counting from Zero Book Cover

Counting from Zero Book by Alan B. Johnston

In my first blog posting, I covered the writing the first draft of Counting from Zero.  I thought that was the hard part, until I realized the path in front of me to get to publication!

First, I needed feedback from readers, so I enlisted various friends and family, some in the publishing industry, some not.  My brother Chris was an early reviewer and gave me good feedback on the part on the water. (I’m being deliberately vague for to-be readers who haven’t yet read the book!)  I made quite a few tweaks and changes, and fixed seemingly a million typos and nits.  I probably went through four major drafts over a period of about eight months.  Fortunately, I had my IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) standards writing experience behind me, which had taught me how many revisions are sometimes needed before something is ready for publication.  I often describe IETF standards work as the ultimate peer reviewed documents.  For example, one of the documents I co-authored underwent 21 revisions over 9 years before it was finalized and published as an RFC document! (Here is only the latter part of the journey!)

Once I felt I had the manuscript ready, I had it copyedited and proofread.  I then wrote a one page ‘query letter’ to literary agents and began sending it all over.  I was shocked at how many agents will not accept a query from email!  They actually require you to kill a tree, pay money to the postal service, and have it delivered as snail mail – just so they can read it on a piece of paper!  I didn’t query any of those agents – if they are so last century in their business methods, would they even appreciate my high tech thriller?  Not likely!  I probably sent out about 120 queries in total.  I ended up getting about a dozen requests for a partial or full manuscript.  Then I waited… and waited… and waited.

Then the whole Wikileaks Internet wars started.  I knew something amazing was happening when I saw a USA Today headline that mentioned botnets!  The timing was right, and I could not wait forever (or more than 8 weeks) for someone to skim a manuscript.  I did eventually talk to one helpful agent that was interested, but she warned me that it would be about 6 months before she could get to work on it, and then it would likely take 12 months to land a publisher, and then it would likely be 12-18 months of publisher rewrites, edits, and process delays before it would be published!  And I thought the 6-8 month times I have had with my technical book publishers, Artech House and Wiley, was a long time!  For technology topics, these timelines are outrageously long!

So, I decided to take the plunge and self-publish.  It was not as difficult as it might seem, although writing the promotional material was really, really hard.  I had some help from friends in the industry, but that was definitely the hardest part.  I used an app from Amazon called ‘kindlegen’ which worked pretty well to product a .mobi file from a .html source file.  I was also pleased to be given the opportunity to sell my work the Amazon Kindle store without any DRM (Digital Rights Management), but that is a topic for another day…

I used the excellent online tools at Smashwords (great name!) to generate the other eBook formats, and I was quite happy with the results there, although there are a few font issues that I wasn’t able to fully resolve in all formats.  The community at Smashwords seems really great as well, and I look forward to getting involved there.

For me, the two best things about self publishing are that I kept creative control of the book (there isn’t anything in there I didn’t want) and that I published on my timeline, not anyone else’s.

So right now I am quite happy with the experience, and getting feedback from friends, family, and people I don’t know about my book is just the best!   Next time I’ll share some thoughts about my experiences using social media to promote self-published eBooks.

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