There is No Better Web Host Right Now

Have you noticed Amazon’s cloud offerings? For most people, the dizzying array of services being offered can be confusing, but there is a humble little option right in the middle of that big shelf called “Lightsail” you should be aware of, especially if you’re running your own web site.

Lightsail allows customers to buy a remote server month to month. Installed on that server is some variant of Ubuntu Linux, and it is hooked up to a network that is so fast you simply won’t believe it.

What can you do with a remote Ubuntu Linux server? Well, you can run a world-class web site with it. You can install and configure web server software like Apache. You can install a content management system like WordPress and run it on a database like MySQL. You can install an e-mail server like Postfix and retrieve your e-mail with an application like Dovecot. Amazon will give you a best-in-class e-mail relay with a service called SES.

Basically you can have your very own web/e-mail and even cloud server with SSH access for a tiny fraction of what you’re probably spending on web hosting right now. As an added bonus, that server is going to be lightning fast. Why, you can even have secure http with a Let’s Encrypt certificate. Won’t cost you a cent. In all other respects, it works just like standard Ubuntu, which means it is rock solid, reliable and has access to the Debian repository and its some 20,000 applications.

As someone who has had at least one web site live continuously since 1995, I can tell you this is the best hosting option I’ve ever seen. It’s affordable. The performance is unmatched and without putting too fine a point on it you can do literally anything from an application development standpoint.

If you need web hosting, take a look at Lightsail. Learning curve will be a bit rough at first, but there are dozens of walk-throughs on how to set up the software. The results are worth it.

Weightless Instant Free One-Tap E-Book Delivery to Any Mobile Device

So there you are. You’ve just sold your first book from your very own bookstore. Your customer has a download link. And then everything comes to a screeching halt.

How do they read your book? Where is the book? How do they get it from your store to their device? Who’s brilliant idea was this?

The little bridge that separates the teeming hordes of readers from the teeming hordes of ambitious authors is book delivery. Without it, no books get to readers, and that makes everyone sad. So how do we get a book from our own store to a phone or a tablet?

Long ago, some smart people got together and created something called “extensible markup language.” It combined all the best parts of HTML with all the best parts of application development, and gave developers a way to publish arbitrary data in a standard way. You’ve used XML quite a bit if you’ve ever visited a podcast menu or read an EPUB or visited a site with a sitemap. Mobile apps use XML as a versatile data format.

XML is going to help you build that bridge between your store and your customer’s mobile device with a protocol called the Open Publication Distribution System. The Android phone screenshots you see here are the OPDS menus in an application called Moon+ Reader. The “Net Library” feature of this and other EPUB readers like Aldiko allows a user to subscribe to an OPDS feed the same way they subscribe to an RSS feed. Instead of a list of articles, they get a list of books. When they tap on the books, they are downloaded to the mobile device and immediately available to read.

If you think about it, this is exactly the same mechanism all other retail electronic bookstores use to distribute e-books to mobile devices.

The tablet screenshot is from Aldiko running on the Kindle Fire.

You’ll also notice that some heavyweight book publishers out there, including the Gutenberg Project and Smashwords, use OPDS-compatible feeds not only to distribute books, but to sell them too. Now it is possible, naturally, to give a reader a download link and let them sideload their book, but a feed is better for a number of reasons. My store uses it to maintain a catalog of purchased books for each customer on a cloud server. Since this is their continuously updated list of available books, I can even throw in some freebies, newsletters, or pretty much anything else I want my readers to download and try out. All I have to do is add it to their feed and it’s delivered.

Now you might be asking yourself why any author would want to go to all this trouble just to get books to their customers. Couldn’t someone else handle that for you? Sure they could, and they’re going to charge you an unbelievable amount of money to do it. In fact, the more books you sell, the more it’s going to cost you. Now are you really going to pay someone large sums of money on a regular basis to perform a service this simple?

For the time being, maintaining feeds for your customers is going to be a manual process. However, getting a standardized e-commerce service like Shopify to “notify” your site and update a database when you sell a book is a rather straightforward technical feature. For that matter, setting up a nice front-end for the service on your feed server is equally simple for a moderately capable web developer. OPDS feeds are all text and can be automatically generated by a database. As my Digital Bookshelf service grows, I’ll need to write that software for my cloud server and perhaps I’ll be able to make it available to other shops.

For most authors, this is the last piece of the “open your own bookstore” puzzle. Publishing content directly to mobile devices (and desktops for that matter) is quite powerful, as any YouTube channel owner will tell you. From there, it’s a simple matter of training your readers to use it and fielding the occasional technical support request.

The main reward for this extra work is that those readers are your customers. And isn’t that ultimately what every author wants?

Take a look at my other articles on how to open your own bookstore:

P.S. This is Moon+ Reader running like a Swiss clock factory on a Kindle Fire and wow, does it make my books look good!

Goodbye Google

After another 45 minutes fighting with my analytics dashboard, I have extricated Google Analytics from all my web properties forever. I’m this far from blocking Google entirely at the router. Yes, that means my sites won’t show up in search, but I’m not convinced showing up in Google searches matters any more.

Yeah, I know. There’s some genius on YouTube who uses analytics and search consoles and webmaster tools and super-technical-gee-whiz-wowEEEEEEEEEEEEMONEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE except I know better. Google has constructed a giant taffy wad of unintelligible nonsense designed to consume time and return nothing. Analytics used to be a good product, but now we’re back to the social media thing: Solve a puzzle, win a prize. The only problem is, there is nothing Google offers that will help you in the slightest when it comes to selling products. That is unless you think spending $2.40 a click for traffic makes sense on any planet populated by humans.

You see, when I look at Google analytics I notice almost all of the traffic Google says I’m getting is from fake referrals. Remember kids, Google is a $760 billion company with buildings full of PhDs. They only hire the smartest people in the world, yet somehow they are getting outmaneuvered by teenagers who can fake referral traffic with a couple dozen lines of Python code.

Why isn’t this fake traffic being automatically deleted from my reports? This has been going on for months. Why is it when I set up a segment or a filter and say “block everything from this host name” it doesn’t block anything? Google does a phenomenal job lording itself over our e-mail, but I suppose controlling your e-mail is more important than controlling your web site.

You know, with my new server I have access to my own web logs now. How long would it take me to write a Perl script to get accurate traffic data? An afternoon? And then I’ll be able to customize my reports any way I like.

If you’re in business for yourself, this is one of the most important things you can do to make your enterprise more efficient. Don’t invest time or treasure in anything that doesn’t give you a bankable return on that investment. When you find yourself standing in the surf filling buckets with seawater and emptying them back into the ocean, it’s time to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re getting any benefit.

One thing you can be certain of: The technology industry excels at handing you a box of blinkenlights that doesn’t do anything useful. They also really enjoy charging you a lot of money for it too. Google analytics is just the most recent example. It is an utterly useless service now, which perfectly explains its affordable price. Free and worth every penny.

Doesn’t Google have artificial intelligence and self-driving cars? Aren’t they the self-appointed Internet Police? and aren’t they SO MUCH SMARTER THAN YOU ARE?

Or maybe they aren’t. Perhaps that’s the lesson here. Either way, they’re out in the parking lot with a cardboard box as far as this little gray duck’s web sites are concerned. Black out.

Text Files

If you use computers, you’ve probably run across the phrase “text file” before. Unless you spend a lot of time using computers, you probably don’t know for sure exactly what a text file is or why it is important.

Most people compose documents with applications like Microsoft Word or Google Docs. When those applications save your document, it is put in what developers call a “proprietary” format. Only Word is supposed to be reading and writing .docx files. They aren’t text files. They are Word files. Google Docs has its own formats. So does LibreOffice.

When an application like Emacs or Notepad saves a document, it is saved as plain text. This means there is no formatting, no tables, no fancy fonts or images. It is just the alphabet, numbers and punctuation. Developers sometimes call this “plain ASCII text” because it uses only characters that appear in the basic ASCII table, which is numbers, letters and punctuation.

ASCII is the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. ASCII tells a computer which arrangement of bits correspond to each letter of the alphabet. It has been the PC standard since 1981.

Why is text important? It is important because text files contain only the data. There is no extraneous information like “put an image here” or “change the font there.” It’s just the raw data in the absolute simplest possible format.

Now you might think that raw data in a simple format is pretty boring. It is. That’s the whole point. When things get fancy, they tend to get broken and start wasting huge amounts of time and money. Ask any programmer which is better: simple or not simple?

The fact is boring works. The entire world wide web runs only on plain text. Usenet runs on plain text. The entire global e-mail system runs on plain text. UNIX and Linux are configured with plain text. Google runs on plain text. The source code for every application you have ever used was originally written as plain text. The entire Perl programming language was designed to work with plain text.

That’s why ASCII is still around and is still running all the world’s electronics after 37 years. If you’re an author, I strongly recommend you consider storing your manuscripts as plain text. If at some point in the future you decide to put your work into a proprietary format, you can, but you’ll always have the plain data to fall back on. Going from proprietary back to plain text is never a sure thing.

Plain text is the universal data format. Everything can read it. Everything can write it. Plain text is safe.

The Story of Every Technical Failure in One Example

If you have an Android phone, and you want to take a screenshot, the manufacturer and the operating system developer have provided you with a standard way to do it.

You press the “down volume” button and the power button at the same time.

Remember, you’re trying to take a screenshot, so you want the screen to stay put.

What happens when you press the down volume button? Why a little handy-dandy volume slider appears and covers up the top 15% of your screen. See if you can guess what appears in every screenshot you take?

But those tech geniuses aren’t done. What happens when you press the power button on your phone?

As a former contract programmer and team lead, I can tell you exactly what happened in the meeting where these two world-class decisions were made. The guy at the front of the room doing all the yelling is Bob the middle manager, who wouldn’t know technology if it ralphed up a half-eaten frog on his desk. If you’ve ever had a tech job you’ve all worked for Bob at some point.

“Uhh, sir? Wouldn’t it be better if we used a button other than the power button for a basic function like this?”


“But sir–”

“DO IT WRONG OR YOU’RE FIRED!” (Bob switches to the next slide with a pie chart and a “whoosh” sound effect)

These phones are manufactured by companies with unlimited money and buildings full of what they constantly remind us are the smartest human beings who have ever cast a shadow. Silicon Valley is where all the smart people work, dontcha know.

And they decided you should take screenshots by pressing the off switch on your phone. These are the same people, incidentally, who lecture us on a daily basis about artificial intelligence and how robots are going to take our jobs.

I can think of one job the robot should apply for first.

Black out.