Inventing a Publisher . . . the Bookstore

ancient text

You’ve got a bunch of writers busy learning how to digitalize their work, and venture into the weird world of Cover Art. The next step is getting the work to the reader.

Sarah Zettel, a popular and successful writer across several genres, with stories in The Shadow Conspiracy I & II, was there at the very beginning.

She says:

Book View Cafe is an example of getting caught up in the early turmoil of a tech revolution.  When we started talking about the idea of an author co-op, the prevailing wisdom, and the prevailing way to read electonic works, was online.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

People were putting up short stories, chapters, and whole novels onto the web, for reading on computers, or to print out to take away.  This was what drove our initial choice of Joomla  as a platform.  

With Joomla, we could manage user subscriptions, allowing people to purchase, not a work in the traditional sense, but access to a space on the web with the work in it,  while (and at the same time) keeping out the people who hadn’t paid to get through that particular gate.  

Given the state of the tech at the time, it was a complicated problem, especially as we wanted subscribers to have permanent and unlimited access to the work they’d paid for.  Joomla was the best fit we had.

But for most of the writers in BVC, Joomla was impossibly complicated, given the number of writers multiplied by the number of works. The learning curve was extremely steep—when I came on board, I took eleven solid pages of notes on how to upload a single short story, and spent several days attempting to implement them. Result? I blew up the system. After much tears and lamentations, I still couldn’t get it quite right.

Meanwhile, the digital revolution was metamorphosing rapidly. People did not want to read fiction while sitting at their desk. Increasingly convenient devices were being marketed that called for an entirely different approach.

Vonda N. McIntyre, whose Nebula winning book The Moon and the Sun  is currently being filmed in France, was an integral part of the Joomla web team. She learned not only to tame the complicated system, but she found ways to make the website look good.

McIntyre-MoonSun-Halsey-Nagle_133x200

About Joomla, she says:

In the early days of content management systems, writing and adding text could be a challenge, especially since recommendations generally ordered in no uncertain terms that one should not copy and paste from Word.

This caused confusion. A lot of html and css crumbs ended up being scattered around the website, making it difficult to keep the entries looking consistent.

Meanwhile, Book View Café writers were discovering that even putting books online for free was not gaining readers; readers wanted books on their devices, and an easy way to buy them. They also wanted a site with new content. Book View Café’s weekly content change, so innovative the year before, suddenly looked static.

Needed: a blog, where content could change rapidly, and a bookstore.

The bookstore required:

1. Ability to deliver multiple platforms (Kindle, Epub, PDF

2. Easy method of purchase.

3. Storage so that readers could download their books subsequent to original purchase.

Linda Nagata, recent Nebula finalist for her BVC-produced book The Red: First Light,  was part of the bookstore development team. In her words:

Nebula Finalist

Nebula Finalist

Fast-forward to December 2011. The writers of Book View Café were eagerly anticipating the launch of a brand new website that had been months in the making – only to discover at the eleventh hour that the new website had serious flaws. Correcting the issues would require extensive programming which we could ill afford, and no one felt confident that at the end of it all, we would get the website we wanted.

So we decided to start over.

Four of us joined forces in the effort to come up with a new online bookstore: myself, Dave Trowbridge, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Pati Nagle.  The first task was to find and test ecommerce software packages designed to work with WordPress.

After several months of spelunking, the committee discovered an ecommerce package that could handle ebooks: Cart66.

The committee tested the new system various ways before letting it go live. Meanwhile, the committee was trying to find WordPress themes that would work with Cart66.

Linda goes on to say:

Book View Café operates on a consensus system. We don’t really have a “boss,” and there was no supreme project manager. This can be a bit frustrating: issues are discussed, people have really good ideas or they bring up valid concerns, but many times no decision gets made—and besides, all of us had our own lives going on and our own work to do.

After a month of back and forth discussion, Linda began a serious hunt for out-of-the-box WordPress themes designed to work with Cart66.

And . . . zip.

WordPress themes are designed to make life easy for people who don’t know PHP or HTML. But when you do know PHP and HTML, themes can feel very restricting.

It’s hard to design a theme flexible enough to satisfy any user. As an example, many WordPress themes have a massive header image, but that doesn’t work for an online store because the real estate on the page should be showing off the products, not the pretty magazine-style design of the header image.

Linda junked the Cart66 themes, modified a basic theme, got a thumbs up, and in the process learned all about “child themes”—a means of modifying a parent theme without changing it.

This is important, because it means you can continuously update the parent theme without overwriting your customizations.

Because the code is complex and modular, Linda struggled with further modifications untl she’d stumble over a function or a plugin that would do what was needed. Then it became incredibly easy, like mastering magic spells, one after the other. She began to grasp the logic and to learn where to look for solutions.

So the basic theme was settled, while Vonda and Pati wrangled the details of the CSS.

The resulting store wasn’t a technical marvel, but as Linda says, it was a lot better than what we’d had before.

Yay! No yay?

BVC being a consensus group, the committee was nonplussed that the majority of comments received involved the categories we would use to sort out their books—categories being very flexible and easily adjusted and not very interesting.

Had anyone noticed all the cool and challenging stuff the committee had done? Like controlling what posts showed up on any particular page? And creating pages for each author, showing their bio and all their books?

The committee discovered that the thing about programming is that when you do it right, the difficulty becomes invisible.

Linda goes on:

That’s when Dave started making trouble.

In projects other than writing, I tend to be a minimalist. If it works, it’s fine. Right?

Dave, on the other hand, has vision. He’d been looking into what WordPress could do, he was thinking in the long term, and he had ideas.

Dave wanted to introduce plugins to create custom post types, custom taxonomies, and custom fields. (Did you just zone out on all that terminology?) I won’t bore you with an explanation of what all those things are. Let’s just say that in the end, Dave came up with some backend stuff that is incredibly useful for keeping the store organized and making it easier to update—definitely worth the extra hours of work, even if we did have to re-engineer some things.

The store was ready . . . and there was trouble with the host company moving it to the live site.

Then came the Giant Cat Herd, AKA writer uploading their books to the store. Vonda worked like mad to load chapter samples and book covers.

Dave, Pati, and Vonda spent a lot of time writing up the instructions that would be passed out to BVC members. . . . and then, without warning, the hosting company decided to migrate BVC’s website to a new server, but the migration failed, and . . .

black hole

BookViewCafe.com vanished from the Internet.

This happened the weekend before we were scheduled to launch the new store.

It was time for a new hosting company. Two weeks later, after a massive and mad amount of Sisyphean behind-the-scenes labor, the new store went quietly live.

Share

Comments

Inventing a Publisher . . . the Bookstore — 9 Comments

  1. Sherwood, your link at the end is dead. Where’s it supposed to go? The store?

    Super essay. Thank you. Oh, those were the days.

    Some of us had a panel at the Nebulas the weekend the original store was supposed to go live. A year before Linda’s amazingly wonderful new one went up. That was interesting, as well. “We really will have a new store! Soon! We promise! Pinky swear!”

  2. This series of posts is fascinating, not just as a history of how BVC came to be, or even as an examination of new approaches to publishing and marketing, but in terms of *history*. In a few years, people will have *no idea* about this sort of struggle–it’s great that you’re documenting it.

    I have a lot of empa-sympathy for everyone trying to set up the BVC site, just from what little I’ve tried to do online.