Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Tools in Development

With the move complete, there are a few more tools we are working on:

The Minisite
- Add the inPrint, AudioBook and Amazon links.
- create a publisher's version

The Java reader
- this is very nearly complete. The major problem is the speed of the Java plugin itself.

The Banner Suite
- creates a set of static image banners for a book, in the standard sizes from Skyscraper to Button.

We may have ways round the animation issue, but those are going to take work, and may be a month or so in development.

We are also looking at ways to expand the singlebook feed to include things like the ebook formats it is available in.

It is possible to provide a fully Atom-formatted feed of books for authors/publishers, but this does mean omitting a lot of data in the current feed. If anyone wants one of these, let me know.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Migration part two

The old site is now set up to redirect casual traffic to the new website. It is still accessable on request, so email us if there is something you need from it.

We are trying to make sure that everyone knows about the move, because there are surprising numbers of users still on the old widgets.

Announcements have gone out on Kindleboards, Smashwords and AbsoluteWrite. There was a small problem with AbsoluteWrite: the message was redirected to an old message that gave the address of the widgets which are being discontinued and didn't mention the site move. I've updated the older message as far as I can, and apologise for any confusion.

We are giving it one more week and then sending emails to sites we find using the old widgets. Four weeks after that, the old widgets will be turned off. Because of the functional changes made for the new engine, redirecting the widgets themselves is not possible - the data is not the same and errors would occur.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Migrating your widgets

As the new website is live and stable, I am currently running through this blog correcting links to Smashingreads, rather than leaving them pointing to the old server.

If you are using the old widgets, please start replacing them with the new ones. The new versions have better character encoding handling, server side caching so they are more robust, and are faster. In a few cases there is also additional functionality.

We will be dropping notes to everyone we know about who is using the widgets, as well as announcements on the boards where we mentioned them.

One change I will mention: if you have not used the widget before, if Smashwords is down or can't provide the feed you may see an "Under Maintenance" message, instead of the previous blank feed.

This only occurs the first time because there is no cache for the system to fall back on. The system will continue trying to create the feed in the background, so try again in a few minutes. Once the widget is set up, if Smashwords goes down it will serve the cached version, meaning that images will still display and the widgets with third party links can still make sales on other sites.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Usage Figures

It is about a month since I pulled the last figures and the site move makes it a good day to get the figures from 01 Feb to yesterday (20th Feb). These figures are pulled from the server stats.

Author RSS20,147
Single Book16,203

Top Tools
ToolsViewsClickouts*Clickout %
Multibook Rotator15,5863,86824.8%
Book Button (light)9,686
Single Book widget (Javascript)2,55687234%
Advanced single book widget1,29726620%
Book Spotlight1,163
Fan Button 1929

*We can't track clickouts for images (or any widget that doesn't pass visitors through the server), so there are gaps.

We upgraded the store twice during the period, making it difficult to work out the rates, but combined across all versions we had 800 hits and 111 clickouts in that period, giving a 13.8% clickout rate.

What we can't tell is whether the users who click through it then eventually buy or download the book. However they do seem to be good at drawing readers' interest.

Stand alone Mini-site

Status: Prototype
Method: Stand Alone website
Type: Author Website
Link: http://www.smashingreads.com/int_minisite.php

The first widget solely on the new site, the minisite is a standalone website for Smashwords authors. It is designed for authors who need a quick website or URL to hand out.

  • Purchase Links to third parties like Barnes and Noble.
  • Social Networking integration
  • Author and individual book pages

Because our host only permits family-friendly content, we may block any adult or explicit content. This also means this URL may be useful for people writing children's books, or non-fiction, as a way around the problem mentioned here and here.

With third party buylinks, the widget directs buyers to sites where they already have accounts, making it easier to purchase the books. These minisites will work for publishers, but are optimised for authors so third party links may have odd effects.

What is still being worked on?
  • Adding Apple and Diesel links to the page. Both use a different API, making integration harder.
  • Amazon and alternate format links. With Amazon adding more countries to Kindle their region-seperation makes things difficult.

To create or view a minisite, enter
in the address bar of your browser.

You can see one running here:

Friday, 17 February 2012

Server-side caching

The current engines are now running with a temporary cache to smooth out any server outages or bandwidth slowdown.

On the new site, we're moving the engine to a full server-side cache. This provides a few advantages - it is faster, it means the widgets stay up if Smashwords can't be accessed or is running slowly, and it reduces processing power and bandwidth use. The downside? It will take at least ten minutes for changes to reflect in the widgets.

The new versions of the first few widgets are being tested on the site, but are not linked up for public availability yet. We aren't just copying them - we are also optimising the code, adding the cache etc, which all needs testing.

Once all the tools are tested, the SR site gets updated, we take the divert page down, and the Apache guru gets to work on redirecting the original widgets. Hopefully, this should be completed next week.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Caching the feeds

The RSS feeds may be somewhat flaky until the weekend. This is for two reasons. First, we keep losing connectivity to Smashwords, possibly as a fail over from yesterday.

Second, we're working on the second part of the engine improvement. The "Under Maintenance" message was the first part, and rolled as a prototype. The second is a server-side cache for the RSS that means that short-term outages will be smoothed out, and widgets will continue working through them.

This is more complex as we need to balance a user's desire for up-to-date data against the need to keep data available, make sure it cannot cache the maintenance page, and ensure changes to data get pushed through quickly if the publisher or author makes a change.

We're also moving servers at the same time, and our Apache whizz has a day job as well. Please bear with us.

ETA: An update - basic server caching has been turned on (remote access is very useful). The code is in testing against the live tools. Please let us know about any issues.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

New engine and website

The prototype engine has been live since yesterday and is running now.

Yesterday the prototype got something of a trial by fire: the Smashwords site was down due to an issue at their host. At one point it was returning random packets rather than a true error message, the DNS was broken and eventually the IP address changed. The random packet issue is why I put the test engine up, just in case of security issues, since any website using the widgets could be slowed considerably as the system tried to assemble the data.

Instead of switching back when Smashwords came back up, I knew Smashwords was back up when all the widgets started working again - before the IP change had rolled over to my own location and I could see their website.

We haven't had any reports of problems, so the new engine is staying live. If Smashwords goes down, or the feeds break, you should now get a message saying "Under Maintenance."

Regarding the website, there is a beta version of the new website. We're breaking the current content down to one widget per page where possible. The widgets themselves will also be migrating, although we won't be turning the old ones off yet. URL redirection should make this seamless for people with the older widgets, and users can simply switch when they update theirs.

Beta Website: http://www.smashingreads.com/index.php

Engine Update

This morning I worked on improving the error handling and failover of the feed engine, expecting to test it in prototype on the background when Smashwords did its routine maintenance.

Unfortunately Smashwords have a reported problem at their data center, and have been down for several hours. As a result we have been able to test the feed when it is down, but not when it is up.

The reason I was working on it was a delay in processing in some widgets if Smashwords goes down, which was being passed on to third party sites. As a result, I have put the prototype engine live, and will be switching it back into testing when Smashwords comes back up.

The problem now is some of the early, simpler, tools which don't use the engine. Fortunately most cache, reducing the impact, but under a prolonged outage that could be a problem. We will be looking into ways to fix it.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Website in Progress

Since the tools appear to be becoming standardised, I'm putting together a new website that should make it easier to find the type of widget you are looking for.

We have a domain name that will be free shortly, and the tools will migrate there. The existing ones will be available for at least a month on the old servers, but moving them should improve performance slightly, and giving them their own domain name will make them easier to find.

Seperating the tools from other content on the box is necessary since our current host does not support the tools we need for animation, probably the most widely requested feature.

Keep an eye out for the new site. The old one will redirect to it once it is up.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Store colours now available

The embeddable store now has colour options. There are only two alternate palettes available now, the ones most requested by users.

Although we considered allowing people to create their own, the risk of someone overwriting a palette if we linked it to an author or username was considerable, and using unique IDs would rapidly fill the server with user's test files.

As a result, if you want a custom palette, ask and we can built one to match your site. This way we should build up a selection of palettes for users to choose from for the stores.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Encoding issues

I am slowly working my way through the encoding issues for non-english characters. We're trying to standardise to utf8 for everything. The problem is that not all users are using the same encoding.

The sample on the advanced reader should now be correct. The store encoding issues are now fixed as far as we can tell, and the css worked on a test so we will probably roll out a choice of three style sheets for users to begin with. (A CSS generator presents a few issues, not least making sure that other users don't overwrite an existing style.)

I've also produced an alpha version of a new book badge with squared corners, which should get round the problem of white corners on the current image. Making it transparent failed during tests: 16.7 Million colours to choose from, and it seems that no matter which one I use, someone has used it on their book cover, making transparency create some random and strange effects.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Java E-Reader

I am creating the Java version of the e-reader to allow anyone with the java plugin to run it as an applet, which should allow it to be faster and have more functionality than the online version.

Currently it can access and display an ebook in epub format, but it requires work on the formatting. The current version splits the pages down by paragraph which can lead to some short pages with a lot of white space. However, it does show all the sample in the correct format giving a number of pages instead of a percentage read. Moving through the pages is simple enough with the existing buttons and an about page shows details of the reader itself

The next step will be to address the formatting so it displays it full pages each time and still keeps the formatting, which will lead to a smaller page count but a better reading experience. After that, we are looking to add a search function, text options to increase or decrease the text size, possibly change fonts, and to add details of the book and author in a selectable window.

Store update

There is now a working prototype with the ability to accept custom CSS. This isn't being rolled out yet, as I haven't yet created a generator to allow people to make their own CSS. It may be offered initially with a choice of three or four colours, or the default.

The other reason to hold back for now is because we are working on improving the quality of third party links, for publishers particularly. As this is keyword driven, wiring into APIs from other companies, these are never going to be perfect but there are a few tweaks that could improve them.

The other component we are looking at adding is a link to Diesel. As their system works differently to others, this has proved tricky but we may have a work around to add them.

ETA: Fixes are now live for a character encoding bug, and for publisher's search results. There are some further speed improvements - if you don't see it run faster that's because it now does a lot more. The css functionality is present, but we're going to do a limited test before showing how to enable it for individual stores.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Wordpress, store and reader

Although this blog is useful for visitors and easily updatable information, we already have access to blogger to test widgets. We have been considering creating an integrated Wordpress blog for the website which would contain the data from this blog and any updates. It also gives us a chance to test plug-in programming.

We won't be using Wordpress for the website itself - Wordpress may support the widgets, but it isn't compatible with the generators. It would add a significant overhead to maintaining the site, reduce our coding time and also use up more processing power which we are trying to save for the widgets.

The main problem we currently have is bandwidth and backlinks. If you are using these widgets - particularly the ones that don't have referral links - please add a button or link to our page from yours. We aren't integrating them with the widgets to give you a choice of positioning, but to continue offering the widgets we do need the backlinks.

Work for me this week is continuing to look at the embeddable store, focusing on improving performance and user-defined styles, as well as checking the accuracy of search results for books for publisher accounts.

Meanwhile, work on the java reader continues. The main concern is the speed of the Java Runtime plugin itself - which is slow. The other issue is that development could also produce a desktop reader version (full application) which could run epubs that a user has on their PC.

We are looking at whether it is possible to also open and display some of the other Smashwords formats in it (e.g. PDF and .RTF) but that's under discussion as there are already readers available for those formats.