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A Square credit card update

Last April, I wrote about credit cards from an author/bookseller perspective. Since then, we’ve switched our credit card processing from a major bank to Square running on iPads, and invalidated much of what I said.

To provide a bit of background, my bookstore and tea bar have been doing credit card processing through a special deal negotiated with Bank of America through the American Booksellers Association. Over time, we’ve seen that the actual amount we pay is significantly higher than the quoted rate because of extra fees. The customer uses a reward card? We pay more. The mag stripe is worn so the scan isn’t clean? We pay more. Need to enter the card number manually? We pay more. The ZIP code doesn’t match? We pay more. Add in the monthly fees and it’s a big difference.

After my wife, Kathy, attended a seminar on credit card processing at the World Tea Expo this year, we decided to give Square a try. It’s a flat fee of 2.75% of each transaction. No per-transaction fees. No extra “gotcha” fees. No sign-up fee. No charge for the scanner. No charge for the software. Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express are all the same rate. We decided to give it a shot. It was a perfect opportunity to get myself a new iPad for home and take my old first generation iPad to the store as our new credit card processing system.

Square Register

The Square Register running on an iPad, showing sales of Who Pooped in the Park? books.

Since we set up Square, they’ve completely changed the user interface on the register, which threw us off a bit. The system is designed to operate as a full-blown POS (point of sale) system now, which we don’t need. With the bookstore having thousands of inventory items and direct links to distributor databases, we’re better off with the dedicated Booklog software we use.

For shows, fairs, and other events where we are selling books (like my Who Pooped? series shown in the picture), we tap on the items they want to buy and swipe their card. Processing is generally fast, although it’s sometimes a bit slow and glitchy on the old first-generation iPads we use. When we want to use it offsite, we have to either use it on a phone or arrange for a mobile WiFi hotspot.

As a straight credit card processor in the bookstore, we do the transaction as if we were using one of the old standalone terminals. We scan everything using the POS system, enter the total on the iPad, and swipe the card. If the total is over $25.00, the customer signs on the iPad, and we’re done.

On the plus side, payment is fast, there are no extra fees, it’s easy to use, and we have new capabilities like emailing or texting receipts. We don’t have to pay for extra software (and maintenance contracts) to add another register at the store. Also, the smartphone app that allows customers to open a tab and charge without having the card is convenient for us and the customer.

On the down side, our old receipt printer doesn’t have WiFi, so we can’t print receipts from the iPad. Having to enter the total by hand leaves room for error. When we use Square on an iPhone at an event, the box is too small for many customers to sign in using their finger, so we have to carry a stylus.

Overall, though, it’s a good system, and it has saved us a substantial amount of money since we switched this summer. If you do a lot of credit card transactions, you should look into Square.

Intro to Macintosh Computers Adult Ed Class

iMacI will be teaching an adult education class called Introduction to Macintosh Computers in the Red Lodge High School computer lab starting later this month. It will be on Thursday nights from 7:00 to 9:00, beginning March 8 and running through April 12 — a total of six sessions. This will run concurrently with the Social Networking course I’m teaching there.

Macintosh computers include free software to manage your calendar, music, photos, contact lists, and email; and programs that let you create movies, browse the Web, chat with friends, and even create music. Attendees will learn the basics of these programs and the Mac itself. You don’t need to have a Mac to take the class: we’ll be in the computer lab at the high school, where there are enough computers for everybody.

WEEK 1: Toto, we’re not in Redmond anymore!

Macintosh computers don’t work like Windows machines (thank goodness!), but all computers fundamentally do the same things. In this first session, you’ll learn how to start up and shut down a Mac, where all of the files are, how to adjust basic settings, and how the Mac OS differs from Windows. We’ll take a look at some of the programs that are included with the computer and what they do, and then pop online and browse the Web from our Macs.

WEEK 2: Managing your life – setting up calendars, contacts, and email

These days, we don’t just use computers to … well … compute. We keep our lives on the computer. This class session will cover creating calendars and contact lists, and then using them for scheduling events, sending emails, and synchronizing to your phone. We’ll look at some of the differences between Apple’s philosophy and Google’s philosophy and how to work with both.

WEEK 3: Pictures! Loading pictures and using iPhoto

It’s hard to find a camera that uses film these days. Everything’s gone electronic. Luckily for us, Apple provides absolutely amazing photo management software for free with every Mac. In this class, you’ll learn how to load all of your pictures into iPhoto and how to work with them once they’re there, including organization, basic editing, printing, emailing, and uploading.

WEEK 4: Cue the music! How to load, manage, and even create music on a Mac

Apple revolutionized the music industry with iPods and the iTunes store. A lot of people, unfortunately, think that if you use iTunes, you have to buy all of your music from Apple. Not true! In this class, we’ll load and share music (legally) from a variety of sources, create playlists, create ringtones, and learn the tricks of synchronizing your music with iPods, phones, and other computers using the iCloud.

WEEK 5: Entertain me! Videos, podcasts, ebooks, audio books, movies, TV shows, and more

For more and more people, their computer is becoming their TV, and vice-versa. This week, we’ll take a look at how to connect your computer to a big-screen TV and use it for movies and TV shows, using both Netflix and Apple’s own store. We’ll take a short video in class, transfer it to the computer, do some simple editing, and play it on a TV. Finally, you’ll see where to get an amazing amount of free entertainment, including podcasts, ebooks, and audio books, and then see how to buy even more online.

WEEK 6: Using your Mac with other devices

Few of us carry our computers everywhere we go. Most of us, in fact, end up using more than one computer, along with a smart phone and a plethora of other electronic devices. We’ll spend week six learning how to share your files and pictures among your devices – even if some of those devices aren’t from Apple! We’ll share files with Windows computers, set up portable storage devices, and – here’s the most important part of the class – set up Time Machine, Apple’s backup system that keeps your important files safe.

I like to keep my classes very informal, very hands-on, and highly customized. Feel free to ask questions about your own Mac. To sign up for classes, contact Red Lodge High School at 406/446-1903. The cost is a paltry $15.00 for the entire six-week program. Deadline to sign up is February 17. See you there!

Treadmills, books, e-books, magazines, and apps

We have a treadmill at home. A fine treadmill, but with a major design flaw (from my perspective): the book holder. I’m a pretty big guy, and at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, my eyes are a long way from the book holder when I’m on the treadmill. My eyes aren’t great, but I can read a book with standard print from that distance. It’s a little jiggly when I’m moving, but I can manage. The holder itself is fine for a small book, but won’t easily hold a thick book. It will hold a magazine, but most magazines have pretty small print.

It’s also deucedly awkward turning pages. I have to just about take the book or magazine out of the holder, turn the page, and slide it back in. A real pain in the neck. I want something with large text that fits easily in the rack and has easy-to-turn pages, even when walking or jogging on the treadmill.

Wired Magazine on an iPadEnter the iPad.

I can enlarge the text as I please, it’s backlit so I don’t have to worry about positioning a light on the treadmill, and turning a page is as easy as swiping my finger across the screen — a piece of cake even at a jog. I like the feel of “real” books, and I like buying and selling used books, which makes reading less expensive, but the iPad is the perfect treadmill solution.

Then came Apple’s new release of iOS, which I loaded this week. It has a million new features, but some of the basic fundamentals stopped working, like being able to read an ebook. Big chunks of text disappear between virtual pages. I have to keep changing the text size up and down to try and fit more or less text per page and hope I can read those missing lines. A pain in any circumstances; completely untenable on a treadmill.

“iOS 5 has a million new features, but some of the basic fundamentals stopped working, like being able to read an ebook.”

Apple’s been trumpeting their new “Newsstand” on iOS 5, which allows you to group all of your magazines in one place and read them on the iPad. I figured I’d give it a shot. I can usually count on Wired magazine being ahead of the curve on tech, and they have a free issue when you load the app, so I loaded it up and gave it a try.

I love you, Wired, but you sure missed the boat on your iPad app. It’s almost like a group of designers sat down in a room and said, “How can we make this as awkward as possible for a 50-year-old dude on a treadmill?” It’s pretty; I’ll give them that. It’s an immersive experience that’s better than a magazine and better than a web site. But it has a few problems.

“I love you, Wired, but you sure missed the boat on your iPad app.”

  • You can’t adjust the text size. This is a huge step backwards in both ergonomics and accessibility.
  • Navigation is inconsistent. Sometimes you have to swipe down (for the next page in an article) and sometimes you swipe sideways (for the next article), but you can’t skip to the next article without either going through all of the pages or activating the scroll bar on the bottom and delicately scrolling sideways.
  • Navigation requires precise movements. Turning a page while moving at a jog is easy with the iPad’s e-reader for books. Just tap the right margin or swipe from the right. In the Wired app, you have to have the motion exactly correct. If your swipe isn’t exactly horizontal, it will try to scroll down, even if you’re on a page where downward swipes don’t work. If your swipe is too short, it treats it as a tap and shows the scroll bar. Many of the pages have active spots, and if you accidentally hit one of those, you end up playing an audio clip or showing a graphic instead of moving to the next page.
  • As a combination of my first and third point, some of the features require hitting fairly small buttons with fairly high precision (just a tap, not a swipe), which is quite a challenge on the treadmill.
  • There’s no onscreen indication of how to navigate. When I first loaded it up, I got to the first page of an article I didn’t want to read, and couldn’t figure out how to move on. I kept swiping sideways, and the image would flick sideways and come back. It took several minutes to figure out I had to go through all of the pages to the end of the article, and then flick sideways.

Beautiful app, guys. Looks great. Tons of data. Nice interactive features. But your ergonomics stink.

Until Apple fixes their ebook reader, it looks like I’m back to podcasts on the treadmill. Oh, well. I’ve been missing Science Friday lately. Hey, Ira! I’m back!

Selling books in the modern era

When I was growing up, we did two types of shopping. Commodity items came from department stores like Sears, and specialty items came from specialty stores. To this day, if I walk into a book store, I expect to encounter a book expert behind the desk, who can help me find what I want. If I walk into a hardware store, I expect someone who can help me to fix a problem with my sink. If I walk into a feed store, I expect someone who knows the difference between red oat hay and alfalfa hay. In a department store, I have no such expectation.

Most of us who still have independent bookstores have survived because we know our products. When someone comes in my store looking for that mystery by a Montana author with a detective that works in a topless bar, we can find it. Same thing if they’re looking for last month’s bestseller with the pink cover, that long poem about Hell by the Italian dude, or a good book about building tree houses. That skill alone, however, will not allow indie bookstores to survive much longer.

The Wal*Mart generation has grown used to walking into stores and finding employees who know nothing about the products they sell. When they go shopping in brick & mortar stores, they’re either browsing randomly, or they’ve researched what they want. To me, it’s worth paying retail if I can engage with someone who knows what they’re talking about and get tailored recommendations. To the current generation, it’s not.

So we face a dilemma. We can try to cut our costs and compete on price; we can specialize, go high-end, and develop a reputation people will seek out; or we can diversify.

Option 1 seems on its face to be a disaster. With rents and wages up, we can’t possibly compete on price with Barnes & Noble, much less Costco. But there are stores out there that are making it work with used books, remainders, overstocks, and “scratch & dent” books. If you know what you’re doing and put in the time to build your stock well, you can even compete with the e-reader crowd. Why pay $10 for a new book on Kindle or iPad when you can buy a used copy for $3 and then sell it back to the store for $1 when you’re done reading it?

Option 2 (the “Nordstrom” option) works in larger communities where there’s a big customer base to draw from, but it’s getting harder and harder to pull off in small communities. The only way to make it successful is to specialize and build a stock that nobody else can match. This will require a great deal of time tracking down those small publishers and vanity-press books that don’t show up in book distributor databases — or even in Bowker’s Books in Print database.

Option 3 is an extension of the route most bookstores are already taking. I remember attending a bookseller conference five years ago where one of the panelists said every bookstore should have candles and wind chimes because they sell. Coffee shops in bookstores are so common they’re expected now. Book-related products like journals, calendars, and magazines have been bookstore mainstays for years.

It’s possible to combine options 2 and 3. A good example would be Barjon’s Books down the road from us in Billings. Their specialty is “alternative spiritual” books, and they stock it deep. Where my store has a shelf for pagan and earth-based religions, Barjon’s has a whole section. And they also stock everything from herbs to candles to tapestries to belly-dancing outfits. This approach has kept them alive and thriving since 1977.  Just don’t go there looking for a copy of Huckleberry Finn.

It’s taken us a little bit of time to settle on our direction. We’re keeping the “general bookstore” selections like bestsellers, thrillers, and Sudoku, but we’ve heavily tailored our stock to local themes and children’s nature/science. We still have a used fiction section, but it can’t compete in sales with our tea bar or cigars. The children’s books are augmented with educational and nature toys.

How are people taking this? For the most part, very well. A few customers have come in and declared that we’re obviously not a bookstore anymore because of “all this other crap” even though our book inventory is the highest it’s ever been. That’s a risk we took when we packed the shelves tighter to make room for tables and chairs. Our sales of tea (both bulk and served in-store) and cigars have more than compensated for the steady slide in new book sales over the last four years.

(The “all this other crap” comment amused me, because it was made by someone who was looking at the spinner rack of my Who Pooped in the Park? books, which has a selection of authentic Montana Turd Birds sitting on top of it.)

What will Red Lodge Books look like in another ten years? Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be selling kilts and swords. But if we continue to adapt with the times, try new things, and drop what doesn’t work, we’ll still be here.

Kindle store vs. Apple iBookstore – An author’s perspective

Darkest Hour eBook CoverIn 2003, I created a booklet based on a pamphlet written by Fay Kuhlman. Entitled The Darkest Hour: A Comprehensive Account of the Smith Mine Disaster of 1943, it sold pretty well both at my bookstore and at the Carbon County (Montana) Historical Society. When 2010 rolled around, it seemed like time to update the book a bit, so I went to work on building a 3rd edition.

I had monkeyed around with eBooks back in the 90s, but that was well before their time. Delivery mechanisms were limited, there was no copy protection, and few devices that would qualify as readers. I decided this would be a fine time to see what’s involved in becoming a Kindle author and an iPad author.

I must confess that I went into the experiment with a bias. I’m not your typical Apple fanboy, in that I definitely recognize the flaws in Apple’s products and I use a wide variety of competing products. I have, however, done consulting for Apple, owned many of their different products, and currently use an iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, AppleTV, and more.

On the flipside, I own a bookstore. That means I deeply resent some of the things Amazon has done to the book business. That hasn’t stopped me from selling used books on their site and promoting my own books there, but I’m certainly not an Amazon fan.

Nonetheless, I resolved to do both at the same time and compare the processes with as little bias as possible.

Getting Started

I began the process by applying to be a publisher on Kindle Direct and on Apple’s iTunes Store. I filled in the forms, submitted them, and set out reading whatever information was available on preferred formats. The Kindle application went through fast. I was up and ready to publish in a day. The Apple application took well over a week, and I couldn’t find any way to speed things up. It was far more complex and the agreement far more restrictive than Amazons. This is definitely Advantage: Amazon.

As for file formats, Amazon uses a format called MOBI. You can use color in your cover image, but the inside of the book is black & white. Amazon didn’t have any tools of their own for doing the conversion, but recommended a product called Calibre. Once I stripped out tables, removed all color, and generally took the book back to text-only format, I could reformat the illustrations, build a table of contents, add in the cover art, and convert it using Calibre. It took several iterations, but I finally got what I wanted.

Apple, on the other hand, uses the open ePub format. Since Calibre does ePub, I did a quick reformat of what I’d done for MOBI, swapped the color pictures back in, and did the conversion on Calibre. Looked smooth and easy, but wouldn’t upload. I wrestled with it through several iterations, and finally resorted to reading the help files on Apple’s website. As it turns out, they specifically tell authors to avoid Calibre, as it creates incorrectly-formatted ePub files. Argh! However, the “Pages” word processor on the Macintosh outputs beautifully-formatted ePub, and everything went smoothly from there.

Since I don’t own a Kindle, I had to download a “Kindle Preview” app from Amazon to see how the book would look. On Apple, I simply dragged it to iTunes and synced the iPad. In both cases, I saw what I expected.

Given the formatting capabilities, availability of color, and openness of the format, I’d have to call this Advantage: Apple.

Making the books available for sale

Once your contracts are in place, uploading books is easy with both companies. Again, Amazon’s is faster, but that wasn’t a big deal. Setting prices and royalties was similar. Amazon made the book available in the U.S., U.K., and Germany. Apple gave me all three of those, plus Australia, Canada, and France. One rather significant difference is that Apple requires an ISBN for each eBook. I bought a block of ISBNs when I self published a couple of books years ago, so that wasn’t an issue for me. If you’re a first-time self-publisher, however, that could be a problem. Amazon, on the other hand, makes up a code themselves (they call it an ASIN rather than an ISBN), and you’re ready to go.

You can see what the book looks like in Amazon’s store and Apple’s store and compare for yourself. The Apple iBookstore looks quite different in a web browser than it looks on an iPad, but you’ll get the idea.

Both companies offer online sales and royalty reports and trend charts, and both make it easy to remove or update your book. It’s a close race here, but not requiring an ISBN probably makes this Advantage: Amazon.

The bottom line: Sales

The Darkest Hour, 3rd edition went on sale through both venues in March. Aside from a quick announcement on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve done no promotion whatsoever. It’s a highly-specialized booklet about a mine explosion that took place over 65 years ago. How has it done? According to the royalty reports, 25 copies on Kindle and 1 copy on iPad.

I’ll probably come back and update this after doing some promotion and giving it more time, but for the moment I have to declare Kindle the winner from the author’s perspective. I still like my iPad much better for many reasons, but as I release eBooks, I know where I’m putting my priority for first release!

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