Having fallen behind: Web design/development

As I mentioned recently, and have been making some strides to correct, in early 2005 I effectively stopped blogging. In the last few months it has come more and more to my attention that, probably right around the same time, I stopped paying attention to what was going on in the world of web design / web development. It might have been a little earlier, perhaps by mid-2004 when I had to give up being a near-full-time creative, move to the city, and get a desk job, but certainly not much later. I remember when, in mid-2009, I redesigned modernevil.com (it still uses this design), I had only heard of -never used- CSS sprite-style mouseover/effects, and the bulk of the time/effort I put into implementing the site was spent learning the technique well enough to put together the buttons at the top. This is a technique which had begun to replace JS/DOM mouseover effects in mid-2004 and was standard practice (apparently) by 2006/2007, but it was new to me in 2009 – and it’s still foreign to me, since I only ever used it once; I don’t really understand my own code/design right now, when I look at it.

This, as you may imagine, is frustrating to me. Worse still is that, apparently, the professional web developers moved past that sort of thing, too, and have moved on to the next thing. And the next, and the next, in so many areas. I follow a few design-related blogs (via Google Reader / RSS, which many people have “moved on from”, as well) and when I’ve recently tried to read articles about things which interested me, I’ve found designers are assuming everyone understands and uses techniques I didn’t know existed or worked, such as gzipping most of the files which make up their website, or using (apparently linux-only?) tools to further (somehow losslessly) compress their JPEGs, to get everything just that little bit smaller. Part of what I was looking into was how to make my sites look better on my new iPad (love that retina display, don’t love half of everything on the web looking pixelated and weird) – how to serve even larger image files… and the articles all assumed a bunch of things I had never heard of.

Tonight I was reading further into some of the things I’ve missed out on, in some cases following concepts backward through three or four years of their history/evolution to be able to reach a point of grasping what I’ve missed. Responsive web design being the new/old/standard that the hip web designers swear by, but it being based on flexible grid design, which seems pretty straightforward to me except I apparently stopped paying attention to web design before fixed grid design took hold in everyone’s minds, so it’s like an iteration of an improvement of a design foundation I’d never learned or used. Or even just things like being aware Typekit exists, or that the whole “serving fonts to webpages” and “doing web typography” issues apparently got pretty-much solved. I’ve never used jQuery, wouldn’t know how (I guess it’s a JS library?), but am aware that “good” web developers are all trying to minimize their use of JS altogether and now joke amicably about the “old days” when they used jQuery, usually while explaining their new solution/standard in terms which only make sense to people who used jQuery daily for years – and often while offering “a workaround for older browsers, which is built on jQuery”.

I think I’m going to need more study. I don’t know CSS3, HTML5, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know modern web best practices. More and more, I want to redesign modernevil.com, overhaul the back-end (which is currently based on WordPress, and will probably eventually be based on WordPress plus a custom plugin that … I guess I’ve got to figure out how to write), add some functionality to it… I don’t really want to be a web designer/developer. That might be the other part of why I dropped out of the field (though good money is on depression, oppression, and a general creative malaise), that I’d realized I oughtn’t waste my time doing work I didn’t want to be doing – except it’s like a lot of the rest of the work I do, these days, where I want the work to be done, and to be done to exacting specifications, and certainly can’t afford to pay an appropriately skilled web artist to do it for me, so I’d better put my nose to the grindstone and figure out how to make it work. If I want something done right (or really, done at all), I’ve generally got to do it myself.

So, added to the list of things to do, now, is re-immerse myself in modern web development and design. Learn what I need to know to catch up, and re-design all my sites to make use of my new knowledge – and then keep them up to date, rather than allowing them to fall further and further behind. For example: With a little dedication and application of effort (and of focus, which I’ve been having some difficulty maintaining, in my depression) I should soon also learn how to use Amazon’s cloud servers, and then use them to compete directly with Amazon, to sell my own eBooks and audiobooks directly. Possibly even before I learn enough to do a thorough front-end redesign.

Numbers for Q4 and 2011 overall

It’s that time again, kids! Time for a huge post with way too many numbers. Love me some numbers. You should see the spreadsheets I’m working with, here – if you think these posts have a lot of confusing numbers, know this is a tiny fraction of the data. If you want it all, I’ll gladly share it, just ask. I figure for most people, these summaries are more than sufficient.

Briefly, first, before we get into the hard numbers: eBook downloads were way, way up for Q4 of 2011. This is largely due to traffic from getfreeebooks.com, which linked to Cheating, Death on October 16th, to Unspecified on November 9th, to Dragons’ Truth on November 29th, and to The First Untrue Trilogy on December 23rd. Total eBook downloads (across all titles) were up more than 100%, quarter-over-quarter. Podiobooks downloads continued their decline; my numbers there only seem to hold steady or increase while I’m actively releasing new content, but mostly they’ve just been declining for the last two years. For Q4 I had roughly $29 in eBook sales, and Podiobooks lumped Q3 and Q4 donations together – my cut was $9.74 for the 6-month period (which equates to $12.99 in donations). I also sold a full set of the Untrue Tales series in paper for $50.

Now, so they’re in the same format as the other quarters of 2011, here are all the eBook and Podiobook download numbers for/through Q4 of 2011, as usual giving the total of eBook downloads, the total of Podiobook downloads, and the more-accurate (re: # of people who dl’d a full book) total downloads of the final episodes of each Podiobook, as: eBook/total-PB/final-PB

  • Lost and Not Found: 494 / 1,376 / 97
  • Dragons’ Truth: 2,123 / 1,527 / 155
  • Forget What You Can’t Remember: 729 / 5,828 / 140
  • The First Untrue Trilogy: 1,034 (eBook only)
  • The Second Untrue Trilogy: 557 (eBook only)
  • Untrue Tales… Book One: 1 / 3,032 / 198
  • Untrue Tales… Book Two: N/A / 4,015 / 264
  • Untrue Tales… Book Three: N/A / 1,656 / 144
  • Untrue Tales… Book Four: N/A / 1,301 / 113
  • Untrue Tales… Book Five: N/A / 1,140 / 113
  • Untrue Tales… Book Six: N/A / 1,076 / 102
  • Cheating, Death: 1,567 / 5,834 / 356
  • Lost and Not Found – Director’s Cut: 260 / 345 / 29
  • More Lost Memories (full): 335 / 702 / 39
  • More Lost Memories (ind. stories, eBook only): 3
  • Time, emiT, and Time Again (full): 277 / 761 / 48
  • Time, emiT, and Time Again (ind. stories, eBook only): 6
  • Last Christmas: 3
  • Unspecified: 1,537
  • Total Q4: 7,390 / 28,593 / 1,798
  • Total 2011: 17,502 / 151,233 / 9,784
  • Total all-time: 33,195 / 543,595 / 35,237

re: Podiobooks downloads: It looks like about 200 people started the Untrue Tales series, I lost a good chunk in Book Two, more in Book Three, but the 100 people who made it to Book Four stuck with it to the end – which matches what I’ve previously observed. Downloads of my short story collections and the Lost and Not Found – Director’s Cut were off by about 50% quarter-over-quarter, to fewer than 50 people finishing each title during the entire quarter. Everything else is just less than flat, part of a gradual overall decline.

re: eBooks: Only about half of the people who downloaded The First Untrue Trilogy downloaded the second, which has remained roughly true since I released the eBooks (60% over the life of the eBooks). (This is unfortunate, as I believe books 5 & 6 are some of my best writing to date, and that the second trilogy is much better than the first.) Unspecified was released at the beginning of Q4, and has been downloaded more in Q4 than all but 2 of my titles, which is saying a lot, since it’s a poetry book. The only titles which did better where my YA novel and my zombie novel, and Unspecified was only 30 downloads (>2%) behind Cheating, Death. All free eBook downloads were up for the quarter, probably owing to the free-ebook-seeking traffic linked in as mentioned above, but eBook purchases for the period were down again. It looks like I only sold 21 eBooks across all titles and all platforms during Q4, 2011. Continue reading Numbers for Q4 and 2011 overall

A quick opinion about in-app purchases

I have wondered from the first time I downloaded the kindle app to my iPhone why Apple was letting them get away with violating their clearly stated and written policies regarding in-app purchasing. At first I thought it was because, when those apps were first approved, the in-app purchasing API was not yet ready – that once it was turned on, apps like Stanza, Kindle, and anyone else bypassing Apple’s cut (in violation of policy) would be required to come into compliance before an update could be released to the app store. I recall, when in-app purchases rolled out, being a bit surprised that this didn’t occur. Apple stated explicitly, from the day they announced the details of their App Store, that they would be taking 30%. This is not a surprise to anyone who was listening. If you happened to get away with violating this policy until now, it doesn’t mean Apple is wrong for trying to enforce it now – just as when you’ve gotten away with violating traffic laws in the past (ie: speeding, et cetera), it doesn’t mean the police are wrong for giving you a ticket now.

As for the idea that Amazon moving to a web-based solution will be a cunning strategy to hurt Apple – that’s what Apple asked everyone to do in the first place! Don’t you recall, the iPhone launched without an app store? Apple told developers “Safari is a modern, standards-compliant browser. Web apps can be just as good as native apps. Go build web apps.” Developers didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to develop for the web, and Apple developed an SDK and the App Store – putting a price on the ability to use it. That was always the bargain: Develop a web app and maintain complete control, or, if you want to develop a native app we’ll take 30% of everything and we’ll be the ones in control.

Since that day, I’ve been hearing people complaining that Apple and the iPhone (and now iPad) are “closed” systems, “walled gardens,” et cetera, but that bargain has never gone away and I don’t expect it ever will. If you want control, and if you don’t want to give Apple 30% of everything, you’re free to build a web app. If you want to be in Apple’s App Store, you have to follow Apple’s rules and give them their cut. It’s not “closed Apple” vs. “open Android” – it’s (at least) a three way race between “closed Apple,” “a-little-less-closed Android,” and the “open web.” Did you notice that Android phones have pretty good web browsers, too? So weird. Too bad you’ve created artificial adversity where none needs exist.

Oh, and I think this little kerfuffle between Apple and Sony (& perhaps Amazon, B&N, et cetera) will be little more than a speed bump. The apps won’t go away, the retailers won’t move (entirely) to web apps, and Apple will get a cut of every single sale, just like they always told developers they were due. Don’t be surprised if Amazon adds a clause to their kindle-sales TOS to the effect of “that 70% cut we’ve been giving you? It also doesn’t apply when eBooks are purchased through 3rd Party sales channels. You get the old 35%, just like on global sales.” Prices stay the same, Amazon and Apple laugh all the way to the bank. Business will go on, and you’ll all forget this before the next time you can blow something Apple does out of proportion with reality.

eBooks 2011, addendum 1

I didn’t mention HTML.

Prior to this week, one of the versions/formats my eBooks were available in on modernevil.com (for the books which were available there) was HTML. It was basically just the .rtf dumped into a single huge web page. I didn’t do anything to it to make it more web-readable or web-friendly or whatever you want to call it. I’m not doing weblit. I author the book/story/whatever first, edit it / et cetera, and then I share it with the public. Fully formed. Eight of my eleven novels (including all 6 Untrue Tales… books) don’t even have chapters, and in those few with chapters, they aren’t as short as people expect web pages to be. The only chapter in Dragons’ Truth (a YA book) short enough to be a single web page has always felt like an anomaly. Even the chapters of Forget What You Can’t Remember are almost all ~2500 words (though some of them even further sub-divided), which is about 5 times too long for a single web page (for most people – obviously not me on this blog!). How to make my books easily readable online is a bit of a conundrum, as far as I’m concerned. So I never really tried to do it right, myself.

This addendum to my main post about my eBooks in 2011 is to say that this year I’m thinking about (practically planning, now) going to the effort of putting together proper HTML versions of all my books. I’m only in the planning stages right now (though could be moving forward with this as soon as this week, depending on how sleep and other projects go; I’m also planning on beginning recording of the Untrue Tales… Book Five audiobook this week, but that work requires very specific circumstances) but at this point I’m thinking I need to do a separate WordPress installation for each book, and divide the book up into bite-size/page-size chunks (250 words? 500? same as the paperbacks?) which will each be their own WP post, and possibly use Commentpress or digress.it to enable per-paragraph commenting throughout all my books.

I’m also thinking about deep linking the books one to another, and possibly to outside resources. If I go with the Commentpress/digress.it installs, I can add a link in the comments on a paragraph, rather than in the text itself, which feels better to me – especially in the Lost and Not Found universe of books, I feel that the books are really more of a conversation with one another than directly linked, and parallel rather than serial. With the books so granular, connecting subtle repetitions of a phrase or idea, or even connecting obvious things like the short stories in More Lost Memories with the specific scenes and characters they’re spawned from, would be relatively straightforward.

In fact, building a comprehensive, nearly-chronological version of all the stories in the Lost and Not Found universe (something I’ve been toying with putting together for a limited-edition hardback release, or an expensive eBook, for fans) would be relatively easy as well, once I’ve got everything chunked like that.

I look forward to playing with my options, getting a feel for what works, and seeing where the possibilities take me. Not to another whole-book-dump-single-HTML-file for each book, though. That was silly/terrible. I’m not sure whether the 13% of downloads of the .html versions of the eBooks were ever actually read, or just seen as awful and abandoned for something readable. Hopefully this year I’ll develop a working alternative. Ooh: and once I have that settled, I’d like to use something like the setup I’ve described here to pseudo-live-write my books. Would you be interested in reading them (and commenting on them, pointing out errors, questioning the story/characters/pronouns, as I write them, et cetera) in a setup like that? Heck, would you be interested in reading my existing books in a setup like that?