eReaders: Missed Opportunities for Barnes & Noble

I think of myself as something of a late-comer to the e-reading community, although I'm well aware that I'm certainly not the last adopter out there. Although I've been a "loyal" Amazon customer for years (as long as the concept of loyalty roughly translates to buying everything from there because the prices are lower and I like having heavy stuff delivered to my door so that my friends can help me lug it inside), I just couldn't get into the Amazon Kindle because of my fierce hatred of proprietary formats, single-source sellers, and inability to easily store and backup e-books locally. As long as a seller had the ability to "turn off" my books, I wasn't going to buy an e-reader, and I certainly wasn't going to get locked into one brand forever.

Review: I Will Be Your Dominatrix

I Will Be Your DominatrixI Will Be Your Dominatrix
by Sarah Welcombe

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I Will Be Your Dominatrix / 294-0-00078-806-6

I'm not sure who this short story is supposed to appeal to. It's not what I would consider "erotica" - the dominatrix angle is extremely thin and barely dealt with, and there's not enough reading material on the main character's profession to fill the time while you boil an egg.

Instead, the focus is not on her profession but rather her boredom with it, and in predictable short story fashion, she quits at the end of shift one day, walks out and finds another job (no previous experience required, apparently), only to find that the hours are longer and the pay worse than her previous, easy-breezy high paying job in the sex industry, so she walks out of her new respectable job and happily back into her old one.

That's it - that's the whole story. And, in true short story fashion, there's no dealing with her previous unhappiness at her old job - that sense of unfulfilled ambitions evaporates as soon as she realizes that the pay is as good as it is, and you'd really think that an intelligent character could have figured out comparative salaries prior to all the job-hopping. The whole conceit just feels very thin and flimsy, and the short story seems to have been hastily slapped together, with a handful of spelling and grammar errors in the process.

I wouldn't recommend this short story - the price is low, but even free things take time to read and this story just isn't worth it.

~ Ana Mardoll

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Author Interview: Hanna Howard on "Beautiful Monster"

Ana: Hanna, an excerpt from your novel “Ephemeral” was submitted in the ABNA 2010 contest. You had taken the classic tale of “Beauty and the Beast” and given it a really lovely reinterpretation: instead of the usual fairy-tale characterization of the heroine being perfect and good while her ‘ugly’ sisters are horrible and evil, you deeply and carefully characterized every member of this classic tale. Here, Bella is her somewhat whimsical father’s favorite by the mere accident of being born the ‘prettiest’, and her sisters are ‘greedy’ and unpleasant because they’ve been taught through experience to demand expensive gifts from their father as proof of his love. I love the original and fresh take on the good-sister/bad-sister dichotomy: that personality can be shaped in response to parenting styles and favoritism. Can you tell us more about your novel and where it goes from the end of the excerpt? What sorts of themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?

Hanna: First, thank you! Thank you for having me here, and for giving me the opportunity to share my work with your community. I’m so glad you liked what you read last year, and thought of doing this interview.

My novel - which has been rechristened “Beautiful Monster” since last year - is, as you said, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In addition to being a new take on the classic tale, the story is essentially an exploration of inner beauty, and what makes a person admirable or good.

In the book, Bella - or Yseult, as the reader will eventually know her - takes on the bewildering adventure we all know so well, exchanging her life for a magical coexistence with someone who looks for all the world like a monster from under the bed. But unlike other Beauties, Yseult is already tormented when she reaches our beast, RenĂ©. She has lived her whole life in the shadow of her exceptional good looks, struggling fruitlessly to be known for her other talents and qualities, only to be condemned at long last to an arranged marriage she wants no part in. And so, when the opportunity arises to escape her life in favor of a dangerous and possibly suicidal quest to take her father’s place in a monster’s castle, Yseult is more than happy to take it. The remainder of the book follows her slow journey to self-acceptance - and eventually, also, to love - as she attempts to determine what makes a thing beautiful, and why.

Since Bella’s plight is such an unlikely one (who, after all, ever complains about being too pretty?), I do not expect readers to identify much with her literal experience, but I think, in many ways, the essence of her struggle is a universal one. How many of us, after all, get our looks irrevocably tangled up with our identities, only to find somewhere along the line that the two do not match? Identity is such an important and difficult thing to discover, and we live in a world which tells girls that they are only as good as they look, and the only way to look good is to look like this supermodel. Beauty is not a bad thing, but it can’t be labeled or confined or put into a box. It must be defined from individual to individual, and take on meaning for each person according to their experiences. I hope readers will leave this book with the same sense of contentment Yseult expresses in the end, when she says, “For the first time in my life, I am exorbitantly happy to be just who I am.”

Ana: I really like that - it's true that personality can often get tangled up with external appearance - if only because the people we interact with have certain expectations of us based on our appearances! What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?

Hanna: I wrote this book because I wanted to tell "Beauty and the Beast" for myself. It has long been my favorite fairy tale, and few things rank higher on my list of “likes” than good retellings. I wrote it in a whirlwind of a few months, and I wrote it entirely for myself - a fact which resulted in many subsequent rewrites and revisions when I decided I wanted to share it with other people. (Insert rueful grin.)

I love fairy-tale retellings ("Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine is my favorite stand-alone book of all time), and have always been a sucker for fantasy that feels familiar - which, of course, fairy tales do. We all know to expect dazzling Once Upon A Times, rocky and magical middles complete with witches (and sometimes dragons), and enormously satisfying Happily Ever Afters when we crack open a fairy tale. But we also know we should expect to have some deep part of us twisted, slapped, or otherwise impacted by what we find inside, because familiar things have a funny way of showing us the very deepest depths of ourselves. That’s why I wanted to add my voice to the genre: because I felt like we were already a part of one another, and it was my turn to speak up. I wanted to make a contribution to the tradition that has so deeply influenced me.

Ana: I think you've perfectly captured why I, too, like fairy tale reboots so much - the comfort of the familiar mixed with the thrill of darkness and pain that almost always runs through fairy tales. I know that fairy tale reboots are particularly difficult because so many readers come to the story with different interpretations of what the underlying tale “should” be. Authors often have to make tough decisions about what aspects of the body of work to remove, what to expand upon, and what to change. If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?

Hanna: My novel is very traditional, in the sense that it does not omit much of the original story. Rather than taking the general idea and making something new out of it, I took the old framework of the story and gave it my interpretation. The differences are in the details, in other words.

If I could compare my story to any other book - and not feel like I should be slapped for my brazenness - I would humbly submit that it is similar in format to Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl. Both stay very true to the original fairy tales they root from, but become unique and new beneath the surface of that template. Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel does the same thing, as does Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball.

Ana: I like that you're going with a rather literal reboot - as much as I like modern reinterpretations of fairy tales, I think the literal reboots are the most comforting to sink into. Is this your first or only finished work, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as a follow-up to this one, or as a completely different novel or genre?

Hanna: Oh my. Yes, I’ve written others, but most of them should be sealed in a secret box and hidden from human eyes for all eternity. However, I have one now that is nearing completion, and I’m pretty excited about it. It is a YA high fantasy called "Sunchild", and it’s about a girl named Siria Nightingale who discovers on her sixteenth birthday that she has a magical connection with the sun. But she lives in a kingdom which has spent sixteen years in cursed darkness, so Siria has never actually seen the sun. As you might expect, it’s down to her to join up with the people who still remember the days before the Darkness, and learn what it means to be a Sunchild so she can restore the light to her kingdom and save the world.

The two books are very different, but both protagonists are young women who struggle to understand their identities even as they face great difficulty and emotional turmoil. Both deal with themes of family and goodness, and draw a great deal from their natural surroundings, but they are quite different in pace. "Sunchild" is a heroic epic, while "Beautiful Monster" is more of a quiet love story.

As far as future novels go, I am always scribbling down new ideas, but I haven’t ruled out a follow-up to "Beautiful Monster". You can be sure I’ll always have a fairy-tale reboot on my radar somewhere.

Ana: I love your description for "Sunchild" - I am always intrigued by"set in darkness" novels because there is so much potential for new "sense descriptions" that rely on more than just sight! I was introduced to your first novel through the Amazon Breakthrough Award contest of 2010. What prompted you to enter the contest, and what were your overall feelings towards the contest in general?

Hanna: I entered ABNA on a whim last year, tossing "Ephemeral" into the contest because I wanted to enter, and it was the most polished completed novel I had. At that point, I had never considered trying to go anywhere with the book; I had other, grander novels I wanted to pursue in the wide world of publishing, after all. But those had so far been nothing but frustrating flops, and here was my little Beauty and the Beast book, just sitting at home doing nothing. Why not enter it? What could it hurt? Nothing, it transpired. I made it to the quarterfinals!

I have very warm feelings toward ABNA, if only for the way it forced me to reconsider my book. After I was eliminated, I decided I wanted to make the novel better and see if I could get a long-coveted agent with it. Over the following months, I revised and revised, took it to the Highlights Foundation Writer’s Workshop at Chautauqua (where Donna Jo Napoli herself reviewed a segment of it), and then submitted it to a handful of choice agents. Ultimately, they all rejected it, but only after a great many helpful connections were forged. I had more full requests with that manuscript than I could have dreamed, and many were returned with helpful criticisms and invitations to submit future material. And though I have decided that "Beautiful Monster" will probably always be my little drawer novel, I am so grateful for the opportunities it has provided me.

And incidentally, the revised version is back in ABNA again this year. The excerpt is on the Kindle store among the other quarterfinalists.

Ana: I hope for our sake you don't shelve "Beautiful Monster" entirely - there's always the self-publishing route even if it's never perfectly polished. Are you currently published or self-published? Where can readers obtain a copy of your novel for them to enjoy? If you’re not currently published, how can readers “sign up” to be notified when your novel does become available?

Hanna: You have probably already deduced the answer by my last response, but I am not currently published. I have had several short stories in online publications, but I remain unagented and unpublished for now. However,"Beautiful Monster" is available on Smashwords if readers would like to meet Yseult and René, and I will always keep followers of my blog updated on any publication developments.

Readers can…
Follow me on Twitter (@hannachoward)
Follow my blog, I’ll Name My Typewriter After the Moon (
Subscribe to the Facebook group dedicated to seeing me to publication (Help Hanna!)
Download "Beautiful Monster" on Smashwords (Please bear with the formatting issues... they are being fixed.)

Ana: Hanna, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Hanna: Thanks so much for having me, Ana! I’ve had a blast. You’re a peach. :)

Review: Sex with Kings

Sex with KingsSex with Kings 
by Eleanor Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sex With Kings / 978-0-061-75155-4

I read "Sex With Kings" immediately after reading Herman’s equally wonderful "Sex with the Queen", and was not disappointed. SWK contains the same measured scholarly tone, the same engaging conversational voice, and the same careful research and annotation (unlike other fun, but more gossipy works like "A Treasury of Royal Scandals") that can be found in the delightful SWTQ.

What's different and fascinating between these two works is the overall layout. Whereas SWTQ divided up the centuries and went through each noteworthy queen in chronological order, SWK instead employs a "topical" divide, with many of the same characters popping up again and again throughout the book as Herman explores the interesting facets of life that came with being a royal mistress. This difference in structure may be jarring to readers, but absolutely makes sense in context: whereas the queens-and-lovers in SWTQ often had extremely unique stories that deserved to be told from start to finish, the kings-and-mistresses in SWK tend to have very similar stories across the board, and it makes sense to split those stories into common themes to be analyzed.

SWK considers the total rise and fall of royal mistresses in a conversational-yet-scholarly manner, with clear examples for each facet of life discussed. Herman provides fascinating insight into the lives of royal mistresses: the constant struggle against competing women and conniving courtiers, the disapproving presence of the royal wife, the fate of their husbands and bastard children, their grants (or not, as many of the cases illustrate) of wealth and power, their position in society, and their eventual fate as they (or the king) grew old and died. Like the material in SWTQ, the data presented here seems meticulously researched and clearly presented, and even serious students of history are almost certain to find new and interesting material here.

One of the things I liked most about SWK is that even though Herman's writing is scholarly in tone and isn't intentionally trying to sympathize the royal mistresses to the reader, by the end of the book it's almost impossible *not* to sympathize at least a tiny bit with the "fallen women" who grace the pages of this book. If Herman has proved one thing with SWK, it is that life as a royal mistress was never all fun and games, and that the traditional image of "good wife, evil mistress" in royal histories is so much more complicated than that.

~ Ana Mardoll

View all my reviews

Author Interview: Jan Hurst-Nicholson on "But You Can You Drink the Water?"

Ana: Jan, an excerpt from your novel “But Can You Drink the Water?” was submitted in the ABNA 2010 contest. You introduced us to a modern family of three - Frank, Mavis, and Gerry - as they prepared to move to Africa for a five-year career opportunity. I remember being so impressed with the delightfully dry British wit you brought to the prose - Frank is absolutely gob-smacked that his long-suffering wife and world-weary teenage son aren’t thrilled with the prospect of their surprise emigration. Can you tell us more about your novel and where it goes from the end of the excerpt? What sorts of themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?

Jan: The book actually began as a sitcom. A local film producer was interested and asked for one full episode and synopses for 20 more. Unfortunately the SABC decided to drop freelance production, so nothing came of it. But I had all these characters and situations still buzzing in my head trying to get out, so I turned the episodes into a novel. I probably would have approached it differently and perhaps given the story more depth if I had started writing it as a novel, but as it was a sitcom I had concentrated on the humorous situations and dialogue. It is very much 'British humour' which depends on a shared background and recognition of the characters. The title "But Can You Drink The Water?" is a familiar phrase to British readers, but possibly less so to US readers.

The excerpt consisted of the first two chapters, seeing the Turners arrive in Durban. The bewildered working-class scousers are soon thrust into an alien world of servants, strange African customs, unintelligible accents, and unexpected wild life (‘crocodiles’ on the wall). Their uneasy interactions with Zulu servants, Afrikaner neighbours, and foreign officialdom exposes their naivety, but they each learn to cope in their own individual way; Mavis overcoming homesickness by hugging the knowledge that when Frank’s contract ends they can return home; Gerry’s sullen resentment giving way to love of the outdoor life, and Frank masking his own doubts with blustering optimism and bantering sarcasm. Having overcome culture shock, the arrival of Mavis’s parents introduces a divided loyalty when Gert and Walter’s National Health glasses and ill-fitting dentures are seen through the eyes of the Turner’s new South African friends. And when Mavis’s sister ‘our Treesa’ and her opinionated husband Clive visit, Mavis surprises herself by hotly defending SA.

The story follows the upsets, hurt and changing family dynamics that emigration brings, and has an underlying theme of: ‘Is home more than where the heart is?’ Expat reviewers have recognized the truths in the story and related to the situations, also discovering on returning home for a holiday that they no longer belong 'back home' and no one wants to hear their stories or look at their photos. Perhaps the book will serve as a caveat to future expats!

Ana: I love how you've combined light humor with something so fundamentally deep and profound - I know from my own expat friends that disorientation you describe of belonging in two places at once and yet neither completely. What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?

Jan: I drew (very loosely - I was single when I arrived in South Africa and I met my husband here) on my own experiences and those of fellow expats. Immersing into a new and often very different culture can be traumatic, especially for the spouse left at home to cope on her own while the husband quickly adapts to a new working life.

I was probably influenced by ‘slice of life’ books, such as ‘The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank’ by Erma Bombeck, and ‘The Best of Father’s Day’ by Hunter Davies. The older British sitcoms - Dad’s Army, Till Death Do Us Part, and Steptoe and Son may also have played a part. Monica Dickens however, has been the biggest influence on my writing ‘voice’. A writing friend once advised that if I wanted to learn about characterization I should read Monica Dickens. I read ‘The Fancy’ and was hooked on her books.

Ana: I'm a big fan of Erma Bombeck, and I can definitely see the connection - she has a great way of combining humor and melancholy. I'll have to check out those sit-coms! When I first read the excerpt for “But Can You Drink the Water?”, I was impressed at how well you struck a balance when characterizing the family members: they’re all intensely realistic and they start off rather unsympathetic, but even in the short time we saw them in the excerpt, they became profoundly more vulnerable and likable - almost as though the reader was seeing themselves in your fictional family. If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?

Jan: I can’t at the moment think of an existing work to compare it with, but I was very flattered when a reviewer wrote: “It is wonderfully observant in the style of Bill Bryson’s Tales From A Small Island.”
I would like to think that readers who enjoyed the films Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine would also enjoy reading “But Can You Drink the Water?”

Ana: Is this your first or only finished work, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as a follow-up to this one, or as a completely different novel or genre?

Jan: This wasn’t my first book. I started out writing articles, humorous articles and short stories, and then went on to write "The Breadwinners", a family saga set in South Africa. Although this was runner-up in the SA Writers’ Circle novel competition I couldn’t find a publisher. My next project was "But Can You Drink The Water?" which was a runner-up in the Peter Pook novel comp in the UK, but also no publishing contract. I then started writing children’s books and my first book "Leon Chameleon PI and the Case of the Missing Canary Eggs" was published by Gecko Books. This was followed by "Leon Chameleon PI and the Case of the Kidnapped Mouse". These are humorous, animal detective stories for 7 - 12 year olds. Penguin published "Bheki and the Magic Light", and "Jake" was published by Cambridge University Press. My YA novel "Mystery at Ocean Drive", a Hardy Boys-type action adventure story, was also a runner-up, this time in the 2010 Citizen/Pan MacMillan YA novel competition, but again no contract.

After overhearing bookshop customers looking for ‘something to read on the plane’ I put together a collection of my humorous articles and short stories, added some more fun stuff and self-published it under the title "Something to Read on the Plane". This is selling well at local airports, but unfortunately it is difficult to find a distributor for the overseas market.

Ana: I was first introduced to your novel through the Amazon Breakthrough Award contest of 2010. What prompted you to enter the contest, and what were your overall feelings towards the contest in general?

Jan: It was FREE to enter, and there was the opportunity for the book to be read by a publisher. The promise of a Publishers Weekly review for the semi-finalists was also a big plus. I didn’t expect to get into the finals as my book is light-hearted and without the ‘depth’ that judges often look for, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of the ABNA threads and was thrilled to reach the semi-finals. My Publishers Weekly review gave me the confidence to e-publish "But Can You Drink The Water?" and ironically it has already sold over 7000 copies while the ABNA winner will have to wait until next year to see the book in print.

Ana: Wow, that *is* irony - I'm so glad it turned out so well. Where can readers obtain a copy of your novel for them to enjoy? 

Jan: "But Can You Drink The Water?" is self-published as a Kindle e-book on and Amazon UK. As are "The Breadwinners", "Something to Read on the Plane", "Mystery at Ocean Drive", and "Leon Chameleon PI and the Case of the Kidnapped Mouse". I hope to put up more of my books when I can get them scanned in, or illustrated. Links to the US and UK listings are below:

"But Can You Drink The Water?"
Amazon US
Amazon UK

"Something to Read on the Plane"
Amazon US Paperback
Amazon US 
Amazon UK
Adams Bookshop
BookBuzzr Free Sample

"The Breadwinners"
Amazon US
Amazon UK

"Mystery at Ocean Drive"
Amazon US
Amazon UK

"Leon Chameleon PI and the Case of the Kidnapped Mouse"
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Barnes & Noble Adams Bookshop

The books are $0.99 except for "Leon" which is $2.99 (have to share royalties with the publisher and illustrator).

Ana: Jan, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jan: I’d like to thank you for posting your original review of my excerpt, and for offering the opportunity for this interview, and to also thank the many readers who have bought my books.

E-books have certainly changed the publishing world. Both "The Breadwinners" and "But Can You Drink The Water?" were written over 20 years ago. Publishers liked them, but said they were not ‘commercially viable’, yet "But Can You Drink The Water?" has reached #20 in the Amazon UK top #100 bestseller list, and was #1 in three categories for several weeks. Without the gatekeeper agents and publishers it is the readers who are now deciding which books are worth reading. Many traditionally published authors are also seeing the advantages of being in control of their own books through e-publishing. The cheaper e-book prices are encouraging readers to try new authors and genres, and books are being devoured at a rapid rate. This is mutually beneficial (except perhaps for the traditional publishers). In countries with a small reading public, such as South Africa, e-publishing has now afforded the opportunity of a global readership.

My website is

Twilight: Cheating with Vampires

Twilight Recap: Bella has arrived at her new high school in the small town of Forks, and is still trying to get her bearings and gain familiarity with the new students, new campus, and new assignments she will have to grapple with in the coming months.

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight

I've banged on a bit about the setting, or lack thereof, in Twilight so far, and I promised myself I wouldn't keep griping about it, but you know what they say about best laid plans. I started this post this morning all set to talk about cheating in Twilight and how utterly fascinating and brilliant my thoughts on the subject matter are. But when I sat down to start the post, I had this momentary stab of utter panic when I realized that I don't remember what month it is right now in Twilight - I don't even know in a general sense like winter or spring. I've got no frame of reference at the moment and it's incredibly disorienting - how can I claim to deconstruct a text when I'm not even paying enough attention to know what month it is?

eReader: A Library in the Cloud

You have an eReader. Or maybe just some eBooks from all those free classics sites. Or you have some eARCs from NetGalley.

If you're like me, you've probably downloaded all your books and stored them on your computer in some kind of folder organization. Maybe you're using folders to organize your books by their source (NetGalley, B&N, Google Books, etc.). Or maybe you're using folders to organize your books by genre, shelf, or series. When you want to read your books, you plug your eReader or your smart phone to the computer and move everything over by hand.

There's nothing wrong with your system - it works pretty well. You've got a place for everything and everything in its place. But it is a little irksome that you either have to keep your entire library loaded to your reader at all times (which can become more and more unmanageable as it grows) or you have to choose in advance which books you want to take on the go with you. Plus, as much as you like your folder system, it can be a little unwieldy at times... and it would also be nice to have your library backed up automatically to a storage facility in case anything ever happens to your home computer.

So I'm going to tell you how I organize my library in the cloud with a few simple programs - all of them (mostly) free. This system lets me organize my books, backs them up automatically to online storage, and allows me to access them at any time from a 3G smart phone or a WiFi tablet (including a rooted Nook Color). I also want to give credit that I originally learned this method from the Dear Author blog, and have merely tweaked it a little with my own screenshots and system.

Step 1: Using Dropbox for cloud access and storage.

The first thing you want to do is create a Dropbox account. You can go to their website directly or use this referral link. Creating a Dropbox account is free - there's an optional yearly subscription you can choose to pay for more storage, but you don't ever have to subscribe if you don't want to.

There are a lot of online storage facilities, and honestly Dropbox is the only one that I've found will work with this eBook organization-and-remote-access method. The reason for this is that we're going to load an HTML page that contains your library catalog to the online storage facility, and you have to be able to access that HTML page as if it were any other HTML page. Dropbox seems to be the only online storage program that lets you do that - other storage programs like SugarSync will only let you download the HTML page as just another file, and then it doesn't work.

The "downside" to this Dropbox method is that while Dropbox gives you two folders (a "private" folder where you can control who can access it via a username/password combination and a "public" folder where you can control who can access it only by keeping the link to your public folder secret and safe), you have to use the "public" folder to store your eBook library - the "private" folder mucks with the relative links in your HTML library file. And the issue with the "public" folder is that once someone has the link to something in that public folder, they can access that link at any time unless you take down the item or otherwise change the link.

The "upside" to all this is that Dropbox doesn't submit its links to any search sites or web crawlers. Your links will therefore stay private until you share them with someone else or post them on a webpage. Therefore, don't do that. The only other way anyone can ever get to your Dropbox material is by guessing the link, so the easiest way to fix this is to nest everything in your Dropbox folder in a "gatekeeper" folder that contains a word or phrase only known to you, followed by generated GUID. Now the chances of anyone guessing your folder path online is pretty much zero.

Install Dropbox to your home computer wherever you would like your Calibre library to live. Set up your "gatekeeper" folder, and drop it into the "Public" Dropbox folder; then nest another folder inside your gatekeeper folder and call it "Calibre" or "Library" or something similarly meaningful to you.

Step 2: Using Calibre for local organization.

The next step in all this (and the first step, really, if you just want local organization without the cloud access) is to download and install Calibre. Calibre is the best program I know for organizing your eBook library locally on your computer, and you'll also need it for an independently developed plug-in that will use the Calibre data to create an HTML page for accessing all your books remotely.

In Calibre, you can use tags to organize your books - I use tags to track genre information, as well as where I got the eBook. You can change the metadata on your epub books, such as the cover picture, which is a big deal for me since most of my B&N eBooks come with plain, uninteresting covers. Changing the cover in Calibre is easy - edit the metadata, upload a different cover pic, run a quick "conversion" (from epub-to-epub) to make the metadata stick, and you're finished.

Here's a picture of my own Calibre library:

In order to move your Calibre library to the Dropbox directory you set up, click the "books" icon at the top of the program and a prompt will come up to let you move your library to a new location.

Set the location to your Dropbox directory, via the format "Dropbox\Public\<gatekeeper folder>\<calibre library folder>".

Step 3: Using Calibre2opds to see your library at a glance.

Once you have Calibre installed and set up in the appropriate directory, the next step is to download and install Dave Pierron's Calibre2opds program (the download links are on the right). What this program does is it interfaces with the Calibre library in order to create a "library at a glance" HTML catalog (or XML catalog - we'll get to that in Step 4) that contains relative links to all your Calibre eBooks. What's valuable about this is that you can browse through your entire eBook library by cover, by author, by tags, by rating, or by recent addition, and you can download the books directly to your reader remotely, as long as you have the private link to this HTML index.

Once you've got Calibre2opds installed, boot it up and fill in the following data:

Once you've entered your library paths and whatever name you want the catalog folder to have, hit "Generate Catalogs".The program will then create an "index.html" file in your created catalog folder that will contain all the data from your Calibre library as well as relative paths to the books contained there in.

You now have two index files in your Dropbox catalog folder - an "index.html" and an "index.xml". Depending on which reader you use (see Step 4), one of these files will be used to access your catalog remotely. In order to get the web link to that file, navigate to the index file, right-click the file, and select Dropbox --> Copy Public Link. Paste that link into a text file somewhere so that you can see what the link is.

Step 4: Using a reader application to access your catalog from your device.

Now go get your tablet or smart phone. If you're using an Android device (including the rooted Nook Color), you'll want to download and use either Aldiko or Moon+. (I use both - I like Aldiko best for overall reading, but currently the Moon+ has far better highlighting, sharing, and note-taking options.) If you're using an Apple device, then you'll want to download and install Stanza.

If you're using Aldiko: Set up your Calibre2opds catalog with the "Aldiko" compatibility option, and copy the public link to the index.html file in your Dropbox catalog. Navigate to the Aldiko "Home" screen. Select "My Catalogs". Press the "+" button to add a catalog. Type in the public link to your index.html file and save the catalog link. Now when you use Aldiko, you can click on "My Catalogs", select your saved Dropbox catalog, and then interface with your online library using the pages that Calibre2opds created for you. You can download books directly to your device over a 3G/WiFi connection, no matter where you are.

Aldiko Home Screen
Aldiko Shelf View

If you're using Moon+: Set up your Calibre2opds catalog with the "Stanza" compatibility option, and copy the public link to the index.xml file in your Dropbox catalog. Navigate to the Moon+ "Net Library" screen. Select "+ Add New Catalog". Type in the public link to your index.xml file and save the catalog link. Now when you use Moon+, you can click on "Net Library", select your saved Dropbox catalog, and then interface with your online library using the pages that Calibre2opds created for you. You can download books directly to your device over a 3G/WiFi connection, no matter where you are.

Stanza Home Screen
Stanza Highlighting Options

If you're using Stanza: I don't have an Apple device, but you can see how to set up Stanza from the original article.

Step 5: Using profiles and batch scripts to work smarter, not harder.

Calibre2opds offers the ability to save a profile with the given program options - you can access these by using the "Profiles" menu at the top of the program. I find it useful to make three profiles:

  1. One named "AldikoBrowseByCover" that has the "Aldiko" compatibility option, the "Catalog Generation Options --> Browse By Cover" mode checked, and is saved in a "_catalog-covers" directory. 
  2. One named "AldikoBrowseByLetter" that has the "Aldiko" compatibility option, the "Catalog Generation Options --> Browse By Cover" mode unchecked, and is saved in a "_catalog-letters" directory. 
  3.  One named "StanzaBrowseByLetter" that has the "Stanza" compatibility option, and is saved in a "_catalog-stanza" directory.
(More information on the Calibre2opds preferences can be found here.)

Since Dave Pierron has set up a great command line interface for his program and since I don't want to manually re-generate the catalogs every time I add a book to Calibre, I decided to set up a batch script that generates the catalogs, and then use Windows Task Scheduler to schedule the computer to run the batch script automatically once a day. You can do this too: create a text file and re-name it something like "Generate_Calibre2opds.bat". Right-click the file and select "Edit" and paste in the following batch script:

:: This is a batch script meant to be run from Windows Task Scheduler.
:: Note that the 'start' command is used below to prevent the thread from exiting
:: immediately after the first run call.
:: Note also that the 'run.cmd' file was edited to include an 'exit' command so that
:: the three threads below don't stay open afterwards.

:: This batch script changes the directory 
:: in order to run the Calibre2opds command line script.
cd "C:\Program Files (x86)\Calibre2Opds"

:: Run the command line with the saved Aldiko covers profile.
start run.cmd AldikoBrowseByCover

:: Run the command line with the saved Aldiko letters profile.
start run.cmd AldikoBrowseByLetter

:: Run the command line with the saved Stanza letters profile.
start run.cmd StanzaBrowseByLetter

You would, of course, change the red profile names to whatever you had named your profiles. (More information on the Calibre2opds command line generation can be found here.) From there, it's a relatively simple task to set up the Windows Task Scheduler to run the bat file daily. (Feel free to email me for more details, if you need help.)

Review: Sex with the Queen

Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate PoliticsSex with the Queen
by Eleanor Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sex with the Queen / 978-0-061-75156-1

"Sex with the Queen" is an absolutely delightful romp through the sexual affairs and extramarital conduct of European queens and princesses. Author Eleanor Herman is clearly skilled and starts with a strong, clear look at life as a European princess and with the understanding that such a life was hardly a rose garden for most of the women involved. After carefully providing the reader with a close and deeply fascinating look at daily royal life throughout Europe, she then works her way through the centuries with each chapter, bringing us delightful tales of the women who dared to find comfort and sex outside of marriage.

What I love most about "Sex with the Queen" is how wonderfully well-written the book is. The material is scholarly and I greatly appreciate the fact that the author has tried to present as much fact and as little fiction as possible. Unlike other historical works that rely more heavily on titillation and lack of context (like the fun but very gossipy "A Treasury of Royal Scandals"), "Sex with the Queen" presents context and clarification for all the material presented herein. The result is a surprisingly scholarly work that is still written in a deeply conversational tone - easy to follow and a delight to read.

So much of the information presented here will almost certainly be new and interesting to the casual reader. The obvious heavy hitters are here, such as Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette, but many of the stories here are of relatively obscure or otherwise unknown princesses and queens, and it's amazing to see their stories come to life on the page. The prose is clear and precise (as are the translated love letters!), and it's very easy to sink into these stories despite the rather complicated political machinations and family trees that necessarily have to be explained in order to fully tell the tale.

The only criticism I can level at "Sex with the Queen" is that very occasionally Herman succumbs to the temptation to write a touch of "purple prose" about how truly lovely it must have been between a queen and her lover. These pieces seem a little out of place among the scholarly tone and a bit embarrassingly gushy, but these passages are limited to no more than a few lines, and are quickly passed over back to the scholarly meat of the text.

I truly enjoyed this book, and I think that anyone with an interest in the history of royal families will be delighted with this book.

~ Ana Mardoll

View all my reviews

Author Interview: Alex Lidell on "Service of the Crown"

Ana: Alex, an excerpt from your novel “Service of the Crown” was submitted in the ABNA 2010 contest. You introduced us to Commander Savoy - an officer more interested in staying on the front-lines with his men rather than training green recruits in the safety of the capitol - and young cadet Renee who is struggling under a double-standard as the only woman in her training class. I really like how you deconstructed the issues that women regularly face in the real world: Renee has to be twice as better as everyone else just to “prove” herself - anything less and she fears she’ll be immediately sent packing. Can you tell us more about your novel and where it goes from the end of the excerpt? What sorts of themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?

Alex: Wow, loaded question! Let’s take it in little bites.

Where does the novel go? Like you said, we meet Renee when she gets a heartbreaking letter – the military school she attends is putting her on probation. But she soon faces bigger problems, when the Vipers, a violent crime group, come to the capital trying to cow the new king. When the Vipers capture Renee’s mentor for their illegal gladiatorial games, she must leap from academia to the crime filled streets, pick up a sword, and weigh law against loyalty.

What kind of experience do I hope the reader will have? An entertaining one! But if you insist on themes... One theme you will find in "Service of the Crown" is the idea that there are two sides to each position. I introduce several grey concepts and try to give both sides a fair shot, leaving the reader to form her own opinions of who is right.

About the double standard... To clarify, sixteen-year-old cadet Renee De Winter (yes, her last name changed in the editing process) is not facing a “double-standard” - the Academy of Tildor has the same standards for boys and girls, with no leeway for differences in size and strength. What she is facing is that the fighting style the Academy teaches caters to larger men, so most girls and smaller boys end up getting kicked out. She has to work twice as hard to keep up, but, like you said, it may not be enough.

Ana: What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?

Alex: I love Tamora Pierce’s writing. "Song of the Lioness" and "Protector of the Small" quartets are among my favorite books. Like Ms. Pierce’s novels, my story also features a girl in a fantasy world military school, although SOC is for a slightly older audience.

Ana: When I first read the excerpt for “Service of the Crown”, I was reminded strongly of some of Mercedes Lackey’s fantasy settings - you really seemed to nail the dialogue and characterization as being terribly real even within a ‘fantasy’ setting. If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?

Alex: I read Ms. Lackey’s novels and they certainly inspired my imagination, especially since I am a sucker for school stories. If I had to pick a single author whose work I hope to someday hold a candle to, it’s Tamora Pierce. She makes the world come alive with just a few phrases!

Ana: Is this your first or only finished work, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as a follow-up to this one, or as a completely different novel or genre?

Alex: SOC is my debut novel. I am working on a sequel, when I am not busy editing. It’s a long road from selling a book to publication, but I am fortunate to be working with an awesome editor.

Ana: I was first introduced to your novel through the Amazon Breakthrough Award contest of 2010. What prompted you to enter the contest, and what were your overall feelings towards the contest in general?

Alex: It was one of those “why not?” things! I had finished writing SOC some time earlier and was busy querying agents. Submitting it to ABNA seemed like a long shot, but what was the downside? Later, when I was in Seattle with the other ABNA finalists, I met some of the people behind the curtain and was blown away by the organization and professionalism of the contest. I highly recommend ABNA to other novelists.

Ana: Are you currently published or self-published? Where can readers obtain a copy of your novel for them to enjoy? If you’re not currently published, how can readers “sign up” to be notified when your novel does become available?

Alex: "Service of the Crown" does not have a release date yet. I will post news on my website, You can also follow me on Twitter (AlexLidell) or shoot me an email at If you email me, I’ll be sure to give you a heads up when the novel becomes available.

Ana: Alex, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Alex: Just a quick note to clear up possible confusion for my fellow ABNAers - you may remember "Service of the Crown" being posted under Alex Airdale instead of Alex Lidell. It’s all still me :) Sorry for mudding the waters! That’s all I got, Ana. Thank you much for the interview.

ARCs for Free: NetGalley and Electronic ARCs

There's nothing more exciting to a book reviewer than to receive an Advance Review Copy of a good-looking book sent to them. However, in the dark ages, when the world was still backward and primitive, the only way a reviewer could be guaranteed a fairly regular flow of new titles was to either be a member of an invitation ARC program like Amazon Vine, or sign up individually to dozens of publisher websites and/or jump through "giveaway" hoops that took more time and effort than most reviewers had to give. After all, we didn't want to spend time playing "book lottery" - we wanted to be reading and reviewing books.

When e-readers came along, it was almost inevitable that e-ARCs would follow, but I can imagine it was a hard sell to both publishers and reviewers: publishers wouldn't relish being denied the fun and expense of having to print off a complete run of paperback ARCs that almost certainly would end up gathering dust in a warehouse waiting for their "giveaway" day, and reviewers wouldn't be able to be buried under a mountain of paperback ARCs that they could then later lug to the rubbish heap because "regular" readers don't want to read ARCs, riddled as they are with two or maybe three errors that usually aren't caught prior to publish anyway.

Kidding aside, I'm sure the e-ARC idea was a hard sell, because publishers and authors have traditionally feared copy piracy, and reviewers have traditionally been resistant to "time bomb" ARCs that are only theirs for a general time period, which is why I'm really impressed that NetGalley has managed to put together such an impressive list of participating publishers and such a easy to use website for reviewers to work with.

What is NetGalley? is a website that provides electronic Advance Review Copies of books to interested reviewers in the easiest manner possible. NetGalley serves as a hub between publishers and reviewers: reviewers can register a single profile on NetGalley and then browse the e-ARCs on offer from dozens of publishers affiliated with NetGalley.

How do I join NetGalley? 

The fastest way is to fill out the registration form on their site. It's also worthwhile to read their f.a.q. before signing up as well as their publisher approval preferences page - after I read the approval preferences page and made a few corresponding tweaks to my profile, I went from a 70% approval rate to nearly 100% (more on that below).

How does NetGalley work?

Once a reviewer signs up for NetGalley, they can then immediately browse all the titles that NetGalley has on offer. Users can browse by recent additions, by associated publisher, by genre, or can search for specific titles. At any given time, there are almost a thousand NetGalley titles available - new ones are added almost daily, and older ones are removed as they become published.

When a reviewer sees a title that they would like to receive, they simply click a "request" button attached to the book's profile, and a request is sent to the publisher. The publisher will perform a cursory check of the reviewer's NetGalley profile and will approve/reject the e-ARC request - usually within 24 hours of the request. The simplest and easiest way to a high approval percentage is to provide as much contact information and "internet presence" as you can - email, twitter account, personal blog, the works. You really don't need to be "kind of a big deal" online (I'm certainly not!) - the publishers just like to check to see if you're active.

Want an easy way to be active online? Post your ARC reviews on and then use the GoodReads Facebook/Twitter/Blog integration tools to flow your reviews automatically to your other accounts. Instant blog activity and all you had to do was press a button!

Once you're approved to view an ARC on NetGalley, you'll be able to access the title in a multitude of ways. Some titles can be downloaded as unprotected epubs and pdfs; others are only provided as DRM-protected ascm links that can be downloaded to Adobe Digital Editions and pushed to your phone or e-reader from there. Most of the titles have a Kindle delivery option as well, although I haven't tried it. All of the titles can be viewed directly in the NetGalley computer reader, so if you don't have an e-reader, or a smart phone, or a reader app installed on your computer, there's still no reason for you to miss out on awesome e-ARCs.

The ARCs that are provided through NetGalley come with a self-destruct time limit - usually 60 days. After that, the ARC can't be read anymore in Adobe Digital Editions, but a quick email to NetGalley support will reset the clock if you haven't finished reading in time for your review.

Don't think you'd like reading an ARC on a computer? Well, how do you feel about cookbook ARCs and graphic novels? Really, there's something for everyone on NetGalley.

What am I agreeing to, as a NetGalley member?

Surprisingly little, actually. NetGalley seems to fundamentally believe that reviewers are responsible adults, and I respect them for it. As a reviewer you agree to not illegally distribute the e-ARCs you receive, but other than that, there aren't a lot of rules in play. If you review a NetGalley work, they would very much like a copy of the review and a link to where the review went up, but they don't care where the review is hosted, so it's pretty much impossible for your NetGalley membership to impede any exclusive review commitments you might have formed with specific review sites.

Furthermore, there's no "review rate" gate with NetGalley. Unlike with some ARC providers, like Amazon Vine, you don't have to review 75% or more of your ARCs in order to receive more - you can review as many or as few of your NetGalley ARCs as you like. By my math, I myself have something like a 20% review rate on NetGalley, and it doesn't keep me from requesting and receiving new titles daily.

What's so impressive about this willingness to treat reviewers as adults is that it benefits publishers and reviewers so well: reviewers aren't forced to struggle through books they wish they hadn't requested just to get their review rate up to "acceptable" levels, and publishers don't get an avalanche of "oh, boy, I wish I hadn't requested this" lackluster reviews. I'm the first person to advocate 1-star reviews when a book deserves it, but sometimes a book just doesn't grab me one way or the other after the first chapter and I don't want to have to read about something that doesn't interest me all the way to the end just because I got a little "click happy" looking through ARC titles.

What are the disadvantages of NetGalley?

Probably the biggest disadvantage to NetGalley is the "time bomb" built into the Adobe-DRM books. The unprotected epub and pdf versions of the ARCs do not have the 60 days expiration date, but there's not an easy way to tell prior to requesting a title if it comes in an unprotected format or not. Of course, if you're a fast reader (or don't mind writing NetGalley and asking them to reset your timer), then the 60 day time limit won't hinder you getting a review out, but it obviously does differ from traditional paper ARCs in that you can't keep your copy to read over and over again, if you so chose.

For me, this is an acceptable sacrifice because I've gotten to the point where I rarely keep my paper ARCs - in general, I either buy them in electronic format if I really want to read them again or (more frequently) fret over how to recycle them properly. In a house with six full floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a "To-Read" list of over 700 titles, I just don't want to keep paper ARCs. But I definitely realize this is a personal choice that may be a legitimate hurdle to many reviewers. I genuinely believe that more publishers will move towards unprotected formats in the future, for many good reasons.

Is NetGalley worth it?

If you like to receive ARCs and enjoy e-reading, then absolutely! There's no cost to join, there's no obligation to review, and there's no reason not to check out the site. Even if the 60 time limit puts you off, there's still plenty of titles (I'd guesstimate about 1/4 of the titles) that are DRM-free and can stay in your Calibre (or other epub/pdf library organizer of your choice) forever for your reading pleasure.

Why do you stay with NetGalley?

Obviously I'm a big NetGalley cheerleader, but they're not the only ARC distribution center I'm associated with. I appreciate them the most, though, because they seem to be the most mature and respectable ARC distribution center out there. There's no "giveaway" gimmicks, and no feeling of competition between the publishers or the reviewers - I like that the whole goal of the site seems to be to foster good feelings and professional respect between everyone.

I appreciate how NetGalley remembers that publishers are only half of the ARC equation and accordingly treats their reviewers as equals - emails are always answered promptly and politely, announcements are helpful instead of spam or advertisements, and they prove their dedication to innovation with constant improvements and additions to the list of devices they support. Furthermore, the lack of "review rate" gates really impresses me with their willingness to treat reviewers as mature adults trying to manage their limited time wisely rather than as greedy little children who can't be trusted with more candy until they finish their dinner.

NetGalley has really taken all the "rules" about traditional ARC distribution and have completely reworked them into something I respect and cherish and I support them in that.

ARCs for Free: Amazon Vine and the Vine Voices

Possibly the single most common question on the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum is "how do I get into Amazon Vine"? It's not surprising that reviewers are curious - thousands of reviews on the Amazon website are stamped with the "Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program" banner, hundreds of reviewers carry the"Vine Voice" badge, and the Amazon official explanation of the program is anything but clear. It's easy to imagine an invitation into Amazon Vine as being a truly wondrous thing: a mark of appreciation from Amazon, a source of respect from your readers and fellow reviewers, and an endless fount of pre-release books, movies, and games (not to mention all those expensive printers and exercise machines that you've seen liberally sprinkled with Vine Voice reviews!).

The reality, of course, is something different from the fantasy, or rather it may be depending on your personal experience. However, having been a Vine Voice myself for quite sometime, and because I like to disclose where, how, and under what conditions I receive my free Advance Review Copies for review, here's my own personal take on the Amazon Vine program. It should go without saying that much of what follows is my opinion, and to take with a grain of salt.

What is the Amazon Vine program?

The Amazon Vine program is a review program hosted by Amazon wherein publishers of books and other products can provide "evaluation copies" of their products to Amazon to be distributed by Amazon to a select group of reviewers ("Vine Voices").

It would seem that the publishers provide the "evaluation copies" at their own expense to Amazon and furthermore pay a fee to Amazon in order to participate. It would seem that the evaluation copies ship to the Vine Voices from Amazon warehouses, and presumably the shipping costs are taken from the publisher membership fees. The Vine Voices receive the evaluation copies for free, but are (officially) required to return the items to Amazon if requested to do so. (Unofficially, there has been no known recall of items, and Vine Support emails have given permission to dispose in the trash any unwanted evaluation copies after review.)

Amazon maintains the program in order to drive business to their site via the attention brought in from the Vine Voice reviews. Publishers participate in order to increase awareness of their products via the Vine Voice reviews. Reviewers participate because it's extremely pleasant to receive Advance Review Copies of books in the mail on a regular basis.

How do I join the Amazon Vine Program? 

To be honest, no one knows an answer to this except Amazon - but there are some generalities that we can extrapolate based on given data. Amazon occasionally - and almost always in batches - extends invites to the program to existing reviewers on their site, so it's almost certain that you need to have an Amazon account and have written at least a few reviews on the Amazon website in order to receive an invitation.

Beyond that, however, there is very little in common across the new Vine Voices when they receive their invitation. Some new Vine Voices have less than 15 reviews; others have hundreds. Some new Vine Voices have "helpful ratings" in the high 90s; others are rated in the low 30s. Obviously, an invitation to Amazon Vine isn't simply a matter of hitting a certain number of reviews or a certain level of helpfulness measured by votes on the site.

One thing that many Vine Voices have noted - myself included - is that some time prior to receiving the invitation (sometimes several months prior, to be clear), they wrote Amazon support asking about the Vine program and asking how to join. The answers were form letters repeating the basic information in the Amazon official Vine explanation, but there has been speculation that merely expressing interest can put a reviewer on a list of potential invites.

If you're really bound and determined to join Amazon Vine, remember to check the Vine webpage frequently. Many Vine Voices have reported not receiving official requests to join (either through faulty mailers or spam filters), but once the invitation has been extended, the webpage is directly accessible for the newly invited Vine Voice.

How does the Vine program work?

Every third and fourth Thursday of the month, a list of Vine items goes up as a newsletter that the Vine Voices can access. The 3rd Thursday newsletter is a short list of items that have supposedly been "targeted" to groups of individual Vine Voices; the 4th Thursday newsletter is a long list of all the items still available in Vine.

On these Thursdays, Vine Voices may select 2 Vine items to be sent to them for review. (On rare "cleaning days", Vine Voices may select 4 items instead of 2.) Ostensibly, the items are to be picked from the "given" newsletter of the week, but once an item has been offered to a Vine Voice, they can always choose it by going directly to that item's webpage link - this is useful on "short list" days when a Vine Voice may want to use their picks to get something offered on the previous "long list" of the previous month.

The items on the lists are grouped by "type", with the books up front, the "sold out" items in back, and the electronics and other expensive toys somewhere in the middle. The lists go up at 2 pm CST, and all electronics and other expensive items are always gone within the first minute - so if you're thinking to join Vine to score a new printer or elliptical machine, know that you have to pretty much win the Vine lottery to pull it off.

What am I agreeing to, as a Vine member?

The Vine program is designed to benefit Amazon and the publishers first and foremost. As a Vine Voice, your reviews of Vine items are meant to be posted only at or on webpages that don't compete with Amazon for the sales of the item in question. In other words, if you receive a book from Amazon Vine, you can publish your Vine review on, your personal blog, and (and other, similar reading sites), but not, for example, on

Furthermore, Vine Voices are not to sell or donate their Vine items to anyone else. The obvious reason for this is that doing so would prevent a sale for the publisher; the stated reason is that the items are "pre-release" and shouldn't be circulated because people might get confused. The official Amazon Vine member f.a.q. actually states that Amazon "owns" the Vine items and that the Vine Voices must be prepared to send the items back on request at any time, but if you email the Vine Support staff, they'll cheerfully tell you that you can throw any Vine item in the trash after 6 months.

What are the disadvantages of Vine?

There are a lot of good reasons to be a part of the Vine program, but there are a lot of disadvantages as well. The root cause of almost all of the disadvantages is, in my opinion, the complete unwillingness of Amazon to invest the necessary resources to nurture the program. This results in several main drawbacks that - it must be said - other ARC providers don't have. These drawbacks are: lack of program transparency, heavy reliance on program gimmicks, failure to correctly segregate item types, and complete unwillingness to moderate member behavior.

Lack of Program Transparency. Everything about the Amazon Vine program appears shrouded in secrecy to the outsider. The green product banner and profile badges click over to confusing legalese announcements that frequently fail to clarify that the reviewer got the item for free and that the reviewer is not an Amazon employee. Many customers find the banners and badges confusing, and some become genuinely upset because they don't realize the basic details of the program - for instance, that the items distributed through Vine are subsidized at the marketing expense of the publishers and not by raising prices on Amazon.

Even to Vine Voices, the program can be confusing and labyrinthine to navigate. The official Amazon f.a.q. is a sparse document written in legalese that has (apparently) not been updated since the initial launch of the program. Basic questions such as "do Vine Voices own the items they receive" and "can Vine Voices dispose of the items they receive" and "do Vine Voices need to declare the items they receive on their taxes" are simply not addressed publicly. If you email the Vine Support address, they will answer these questions, but it's important to note that (a) while these answers agree in general, they are not identical and therefore may not represent an iron-clad Amazon policy and (b) as long as these answers are confined to private discussions rather than public announcements, then they are ultimately worthless to the Vine Voice community at large.

To my knowledge, there is nowhere online that gives an official estimate of the number of Vine Voices, nor is there any known list of publishers who use Amazon Vine. Contrast this with which frequently and proudly announces their number of reviewers and whose publisher list is a public document available for anyone to see.

Heavy Reliance on Program Gimmicks. The Vine newsletter goes up on a weekday at 2 pm CST - a time when almost everyone is at work. The Vine Voices who can arrange to have internet access at that time have a serious advantage over the Vine Voices who cannot - and the newsletter times never change and are only moved in case of major holiday conflicts (such as Thanksgiving). Everything on the list is "first come, first serve", creating a sort of feeding frenzy as Vine Voices click-click-click to find something they like, want, or need before everything is gone.

The flip side to this frenzy is that too many times the Vine item received is not something the Vine Voice would have ordered if they had more time to carefully consider the item details. That piece of software wouldn't work on the Vine Voice's computer. That book that looked like an interesting fairy-tale reboot turned out to be a religious tract on a religion that the Vine Voice has no interest in. The Vine Voice tried to click on The Girl with the Pearl Earring and instead got The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

What makes this "click quick" gimmick worse is that the Vine program employs "carrot-and-stick" tactics to try to force the Vine members to participate. In order to receive more items, the reviewer must review 75% of their Vine selections. The problem is that when you're forced to read and review a mystery novel when you wanted a romance novel, or you have to wade through the Rosetta Stone Italian program far enough to suss out a good review when you'd actually been trying to get the Rosetta Stone Spanish program, some of that frustration is going to bleed over into your review.

There's no real reason for Amazon to continue to use this archaic "click quick" model for most of their Vine items - NetGalley provides a seemingly unlimited number of electronic ARCs to their reviewers because electronic copies don't run out. Amazon could easily switch over to offering Kindle ARCs to their Vine members (indeed, many members have asked repeatedly for this very function!), and then at the very least the feeding frenzy over books could cease - reviewers could log in at their leisure and make intelligent, considered picks that would reflect their choices and would maximize helpful reviews for publishers and customers.

In the same vein, NetGalley enforces no "review rate" on their items because it's not necessary - they realize that the reviewers who sign up for NetGalley review because they love to review and no further carrot or stick is needed.

Failure to Correctly Segregate Item Types. If you throw a $10 book, a $10 pack of granola bars, a $500 printer, and a $10,000 treadmill into a room of reviewers, mix in a severe time limit, a high degree of competition, and a "review rate" barrier to the items, the book is going to lose. It doesn't matter how much you personally like books or how many you like to read; the book is still the least important thing in the room under those circumstances.

The book is expendable because it can be gotten from the library or from any number of other ARC sites the reviewer is probably associated with. The granola bars are important under these circumstances because they're a quick and easy review and that "review rate" barrier constantly hangs like the sword of Damocles over the reviewer. The $500 printer is something that the reviewer almost certainly can and will use on a frequent basis, so snagging it represents a major "opportunity bonus", fiscally. And the $10,000 treadmill is a luxury item that the reviewer would probably never have bought, but is going to definitely covet - if they love it and use it daily, what a find! and if they don't, well, it was free.

There is absolutely no reason for the Vine program to be a kitchen-sink jumble of product types, and there's no reason for the Vine Voice members to be an incredibly assorted collection of specialist reviewers. Long-term electronics reviewers invited to Vine are going to be frustrated by heavy offerings of books; participating publishers cannot help but be disappointed with reviews for treadmills that discuss how quickly the treadmill was able to propel M&Ms into the wall or with how a video baby monitor was used to watch the coffee pot in the kitchen. (These are actual Vine reviews I have seen.)

Amazon could create multiple Vine program divisions - "Vine Electronics", "Vine Books", "Vine Music", "Vine Exercise", "Vine Baby", etc. - and trusted reviewers could be selected to participate in some or all of those programs according to whatever criteria Amazon wanted to use. Instead, Amazon has elected to create some kind of bizarre Tragedy of the Commons situation that doesn't benefit publishers, customers, or reviewers - but as long as publishers keep using it, Amazon still gets their fee.

Complete Unwillingness to Moderate Member Behavior. No one except Amazon knows how many Vine Voices there are, least of all the Vine Voices. There is a "Vine Voice" forum that can be found here (link from Wikipedia) but of the hundreds (thousands?) of Vine Voice members that apparently exist on the Amazon membership rolls, only about 50 or so Vine Voices participate on the forum with any regularity.

The reason for this is that a small handful of Vine members - no more than about a dozen people - have completely overrun the forum with rude and abusive behavior. In the two years I myself have been with Vine, I've seen Top Ten Reviewers harangued out of the forum for politely asking simple questions, and I've seen new Vine members stalked on their non-Vine reviews by Vine members claiming to be "protecting Vine integrity" by harshly criticizing the reviews and publicly posting personal details about the reviewers. These same dozen Vine Voices have gone to great effort in the past to hunt down the full names, ages, and addresses of Vine Voices who they "disapprove" of for various reasons, and have posted that information publicly with their complaints.

In theory, Amazon has declared this behavior in appropriate, but always in such meek and mild language that the declaration is practically worthless except as a legal disclaimer, and the dozen or so misbehaving members are never disciplined or removed from the program. In theory, Amazon has also declared "campaign voting" (voting on reviews to impact ratings or helpful percentages) to be inappropriate behavior for Vine Voices, but in practice most new Vine Voices who join the program and introduce themselves to the other members invariably see an immediate influx of negative votes on their existing reviews.

Almost all of the Vine Voices stay out of the Amazon Vine forum altogether. The ones who do participate either use their real name and weather the abuse and campaign voting, or they create a blank "sock" account with Amazon to use for forum participation - in order to protect their reviews and their identities from being abused. Amazon could choose to moderate the forum, but they are so far not willing to devote the resources to do so - the most recent "official" post in the forum at time of this writing was 7 months ago.

Is the Vine program worth it?

I think that depends on what you want from the program. If you like physical copies of books and want to find a way to get more Advance Review Copies, then I think Vine will work for you as long as you don't mind the newsletter gimmick, the review rate gate, and as long as you turn off your Vine badge and stay out of the forum.

On the other hand, if you're interested non-book items and primarily review those, be aware that you're very unlikely to get those items through Vine. Non-books items are offered, of course, but you're one person among hundreds trying to snag them, and there are almost surely easier ways to sample those items elsewhere for review. And keep in mind that technically any item you receive from Vine is yours to keep or throw away only - you're not going to be getting rich on eBay from your Vine items.

Also, if you're a "competitive reviewer" on Amazon and pay close attention to your rank and helpful percentage, Vine may not be for you. Vine items account for a huge percentage of my accrued negative votes - Vine reviews are regularly subject to "neg campaigns" from angry authors, fellow Vine Voices, and upset or confused Amazon customers. It's not uncommon to visit a product page and see that every Vine review, whether positive or negative, has 5+ negative votes and only one or two positive ones.

Why do you stay in Vine?

For the time being, there's no reason not to. I care about promoting publishers and authors, and I've found a lot of wonderful new authors through my Amazon Vine activity. I have an increasingly hard time keeping my review rate to 75% (largely because it's easier for me to read "on the go" with eBooks than with bulky paper books), but if I get to a point where I can't select any new Vine items, I won't lose sleep over it. I strongly disagree with how Amazon is managing the program, and I'm frustrated that inmates have been allowed to run the asylum in the official forum, but it's my choice whether to read or participate, and I try to exercise that choice wisely.