Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Take the FictionDB Visitor Satisfaction Survey!

It's been quite awhile since we asked for your assistance in improving the site, so we've created a survey for you to take. The survey is completely anonymous, so tell us what you really think!

Take the Survey

We've come to a crossroads with the site. Do we continue to implement new features or do we just keep doing what we do best: provide tons of information on books? You will help us make that decision. We don't want to be all things to all people, but if there are one or two major areas that you would like to see incorporated into the site, we'd like to know about it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Import Your Books & Quick Rating

One of the biggest challenges with adding new features to FictionDB is the database structure. When FictionDB first opened its virtual doors in 1999, the site consisted of Authors and Titles. Period. As we added data to the site, we kept the existing database structure -- authors and titles. The biggest advantage to FictionDB's structure has been that the books are not ISBN dependent, the ISBNs are book dependent. This really cuts down on the clutter for an author. Visit any major bookselling site and type in an author name. You will basically get an ISBN list with every version of every title -- try doing an author search for Nora Roberts on Amazon (3091 entries for her 161 titles).

We have had numerous requests for an upload feature and we have always wanted to provide one, but how could we do it with our existing structure? No matter how clear you are about upload formats, even a minor misspelling in an author name or title would result in a rejection. So last year when we started providing multiple ISBNs for each title, we finally had a way to match books for an upload.

Import ISBNs can be found on your My Account page and on My Bookshelf, My Wishlist and My Archive. You can import your books with just an ISBN list or you can add additional information -- your rating and when you read the book. You can also specify where in FictionDB you'd like your import to go. See the page for all the specifics.

So, you don't have a list of all your ISBNs, what can you do? For around $10, you can buy a Cuecat barcode scanner on eBay. You can then scan your books directly into the import page. I love my Cuecat and am currently on my fourth one.

Wait a minute, I've already put all my books into FictionDB. What benefit do I get from all this? Well, you can now specify the ISBN of the book you own. We've pre-filled your existing books with the mass market paperback edition. Feel free to go in and change this if you want. We'll be adding large print and audio editions next month.

If we don't currently have the ISBN for your book in the database, there's now a quick and easy way to add it. Type in the ISBN on the Book Detail page and we'll add it in the next update.

We've also implemented Quick Rating. For those of us who don't always write notes about what we've read, we can now rate a book from the Book Detail page. This new box is located in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. You can rate your book (the date read defaults to the current month), move it from shelf to shelf or delete it. You can also click through to the full edit page.

We're also working on an export feature and a user-defined printing feature, so look for those in the months ahead.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Site Maintenance -- July 25

We have completed our upgrade to a new database server. Everything went smoothly and only took about 15 minutes.

One of the features of our new database server is something called a Full-Text Search. It is very similar to the process that Google uses to return results so quickly. While it's not operational just yet on FictionDB, it will speed up the synopses searches tremendously (well, the documentation says so). We should have the kinks worked out in a few more days, so bear with us.

Thanks for your patience during this process!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Synopsis Search Problems in Advanced Search

Many of you have e-mailed us in the past couple of weeks about server timeout errors when doing a synopsis search. Rather than answering everyone individually, I'll address the issue here.

FictionDB appears to be outgrowing its current home. We have added a lot of extra information in the database over the last couple of months and our search performance is reflecting this. On average, a synopsis search takes around 16 seconds, while any other search takes from 2-5 seconds. Why is this? We now have over 60,000 synopses in the database averaging around 200 words each. For every synopsis search, the server has to go through each word in each synopsis before displaying the results. If lots of people are searching through synopses at the same time, you can imagine the result -- timeout errors. Our existing server is just getting overwhelmed with requests.

We are looking at options to fix this intermittent problem, but what can you do in the short term? The easiest answer is to add additional criteria to your search. The fewer synopses the server has to check, the less likely you are to see a timeout error.

So when will this be fixed? The answer is complicated. We may need to find a new home, but we are hoping to upgrade our existing space. FictionDB hasn't had a site outage since August 2004 and we don't want to create one by making any snap decisions. We also don't want to move just because one small part of the site isn't performing as we'd like. We are thoroughly researching our options and will be making a final decision soon. If we do have to move, the site could be down for several days.

Okay, that's the story. I hope it answers all your questions.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tagging Comes to FictionDB

Awhile back I blogged about the times changing for FictionDB. Well, today we release a major change to the way you interact with the site.

In the past, all of the data on the site passed through the FictionDB staff. We certainly welcomed your input and will continue to do so, but now you can make changes to the information on the site directly through the use of tags.

Tagging (the process of attaching words or phrases to an object to give it meaning) has become very popular on the Internet because no two people see the world in the same way. I may tag a book "Reformed Rake" and you might tag it "Bad Boy". Both are valid. We just see things a little differently.

There are sites that provide a lot of structure to book information (top-down) and sites that are almost completely created by their visitors (bottom-up). We've been wrestling with the issue of how to create a hybrid. While looking at other people's tags is fun for awhile, I still need to know that I can find the complete Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris in order. So how do we blend the use of tags into FictionDB? Hopefully we've done it in such a way that those who don't want to take advantage of tags will still see the same FictionDB. For those who do want to use tags with their existing bookshelves, we hope we've created a seamless transition. There are probably even some of you who have never used FictionDB's book cataloguing functions, but might use tags to accomplish the task.

There are certainly lots of choices if you're interested in social networking sites for books -- LibraryThing being the best example. The initial rollout of tags at FictionDB doesn't include any social networking features. Maybe down the road it would be fun to compare our bookshelves but we're not quite there yet :)

So how will tagging work? Links to the page for adding tags can be found on any Book Detail page throughout the site. You don't even have to have a book on your bookshelf to tag it. Two types of tags are going to be available -- Public and Private.

Public tags are for adding data that all visitors can see. I would add my "Reformed Rake" tag as a public tag, since others might be interested in knowing this. Other types of information that might be of interest would be theme, location, plot points, time-period, characters, etc.

A Private tag is for your eyes alone. These tags are for information not directly related to a book's themes. You might want to classify your awful reads as "Wallbangers". While this is of interest to you, it's not the sort of information we'd like to see in Public tags. You can certainly still use our existing rating/comment system to let people know your feelings about a book. Private tags also allow you to create your own cataloguing system. You may want to classify your books as "tbr", "loaned", and "to be bought" rather than using FictionDB's system. However you want to use the private tags is up to you.

We've also added Quick Tags at the bottom of the tagging page. Just click on a tag and the book will automatically be updated with a tag you've already used -- this really cuts down on the typing!

Once you've had some fun tagging a few books, you can look at your results by clicking on the My Tags link at the top of every page. We've moved the My Bookstore link to the My Account page and the My Tags link has taken its place.

So are you going to be the one who adds the very first tag to FictionDB? Well, no. We've already added over 400,000 tags. Remember all that data we've been collecting but haven't had a way to show until now? We'll be adding information to books the same way we always have, but now we have another way too. For example, the demon subgenre has been picking up steam lately. Instead of adding a new official subgenre to FictionDB, we'll be adding this information through tags.

So get out there and have some fun tagging your books!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Subscription Site Pricing

You see it everywhere on the internet these days. Subscription sites. The days of the free ride are almost over. Sites will give you a taste of what they offer for free but if you want the premium content, you have to pay for it. But how much should sites charge their visitors?

This point was brought home to me this weekend by my seven-year-old. The hot site for first-graders in the the know is ClubPenguin. You get your own penguin avatar and get to build him an igloo with cool stuff and let him waddle all over Antarctica meeting other penguins. Social networking sites for younger kids concerned me quite a bit, but after visiting the site and reading their policies, I allowed my son to sign up for the free content. But of course that wasn't enough. Oh, no. "Mommy, do you know what you can do if you pay? Mommy, it's the coolest thing. Can we pay? Please? I won't go to McDonalds ever again if we can pay! Please?" Okay, I looked at the membership price. $6 a month -- $72 a year to let my son's penguin avatar have a really great time in Antarctica. Wow, that's some penguin!

But this got me thinking about what people are willing to pay for on the internet. At FictionDB, we've priced the site like a magazine subscription. You get useful information that helps manage your real hobby -- reading. $30 a year to streamline your information gathering process seems reasonable. That's less than $3 a month -- not even the cost of one book. So why does ClubPenguin charge so much? Becasue the site itself is the hobby, the entertainment. $6 a month to entertain my son seems reasonable -- it's one less Star Wars action figure, one less trip to McDonald's. So while I was initially shocked at the price, once I really thought about it, I paid.

The internet is constantly evolving and who knows where it will go next, but for right now paying for premium content seems to be the norm.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Your database isn't complete!"

I've written before about how I get the books that I scan for the site, but it's always interesting to me how people perceive the holes in the data. I was reading some message boards recently and saw a complaint about FictionDB regarding missing information on series books. (Yes, I know I should be thicker skinned, but it gets to me anyway) At last count there were over 180,000 individual titles and over 300,000 unique ISBN's stored in FictionDB. Over 55,000 or 1/3 of the titles have complete data. And since I just added 60,000 new titles last month, the percentage used to be better. Of course, 180,000 out of 180,000 would be better, but let's be realistic for a moment. There are over 500 new fiction titles released every month. Just keeping up with the new ones is a monumental task, let alone all the older ones.

I've been at this for years and yes, there are still holes in the data. Why? Because I haven't found the book yet! I'm down to less than 10 Loveswepts that need to be scanned. I swear I know those numbers by heart. Where are they? They're not the expensive ones -- I've scanned the Evanovichs and the Brockmanns. They are just random titles that haven't crossed my path yet.

Rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to complete each and every title in the database, but these things take time. I am lucky enough to have access to a large quantity of books from my local Friends of the Library. In fact, this month the library received a donation of over 5000 older romance novels. Of those, I took around 2000 to scan for the site. The donation was in order by publisher series number and by author, so finding the books I needed to scan was relatively simple. I carry a Treo with internet access everywhere I go. I have a barcode scanner attached to the top of it so I can tell in a second if I need the book for the site or not.

Most people understand the incredible amount of work that it takes to maintain a site like FictionDB and we appreciate your support. To all the others, I'm dancing as fast as I can!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Where's the monthly update to the site?

Yes, as many of you have noticed, it's April 10 and the site has still not been updated. We usually update the site on the first of the month, but this month we have been making so many behind-the-scenes changes that it's still not ready.

Rather than put up a partial update, we've decided to skip this month's update. The site will be updated on May 1 and will include all the changes I've spoken about in recent blogs.

Thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is FictionDB still relevant?

This is a question I've asked myself since reading a discussion of bibliographic databases on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not supposed to be an advertisement for websites but many people still try to add their own site and then defend its relevance when challenged. This particular discussion dealt with the sites that are really only a repackaging of an ISBN catalog. There are quite a few of these sites around and they don't have any of the depth of FictionDB. No advanced search capability, incomplete backlists, little series or sub-genre information. You get the picture.

Because I tend to be something of a control freak, I put together an analysis of all the sites similar to FictionDB, listing their strengths and weaknesses. Bang for your buck, FictionDB still came out on top. Many of the free sites have strengths in one area, but are lacking in so many others that I had to mark them down overall. You're probably thinking I'm just saying this because I run FictionDB and you're partially correct. However, the reason is this: If I really did find a site better than FictionDB, I would do everything in my power to improve a FictionDB weakness whether it was a technical feature or content.

I spend a lot of time surfing the internet for tidbits of information to add to FictionDB. I think the value of FictionDB is in the compilation of a huge amount of information in one place. Not too many people want to spend hours sifting through Google searches looking for that one piece of information on a book. I even came across a post by a website designer for authors that stated you should always visit the author's website because that site will always have the best information. I beg to differ! If that were really the case, we'd be out of business tomorrow :) Some authors do a really great job of providing information on their books but most don't. Their interest is in selling their most recent book, not in giving information about books that are out-of-print. And what about all the authors who don't even have websites? I'm still amazed at the number of top-selling authors who don't have a web presence outside a blurb on their publisher's site.

So what is the real result of all this introspection and paralysis by analysis? Enhancements and more content, of course!

Starting next month, FictionDB will no longer be just a genre fiction site, it will be a complete fiction site. We're in the process of adding close to 100,000 general fiction titles. In a recent blog, I discussed my reasons for adding young adult content and the same reasons hold true for general fiction. Many of you have asked for more general fiction on the site and we're finally responding.

This is going to be a slow process though. Right now, the books selected for addition are only from the big publishing houses -- bestsellers, etc. An offshoot of this addition will be a new search feature -- searching by publishing group. The big houses change imprints at the drop of a hat. What was Avon last week could be Eos this week. Now you'll be able to search by HarperCollins and you'll find the book whether its Avon or Eos :) There are going to be other small enhancements too, but I'll wait to tell you about them until they're close to being launched.

So in the end, while we believe the site is still relevant, you won't find us trying to get FictionDB into Wikipedia. At FictionDB we're taking the high road on blatant self-promotion -- we don't use link farms, web rings, or any other shady means of promotion. We believe that the site stands on its own merits and our subscribers do a great job of promoting the site for us.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Celebrate Romance in Kansas City

I just returned from the 10th annual Celebrate Romance conference in Kansas City. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is for readers to discuss the genre. Authors do attend but they are encouraged to participate as readers. Most of the other romance conferences really focus on writing (RT and RWA), but this one is all about reading, which is why I love attending. I have no interest in a writing career as can be demonstrated by this blog :)

I am always amazed at the number of bright, articulate women who are passionate about romance novels. I have never been accused of being well-spoken, so I didn't speak up much, but many of these women are and their thoughts on the genre were really interesting. One of the biggest suggestions for readers was to write to publishers and editors. Personally, I'm happy with the variety of books available to me, but if you aren't, let the publishers know. According to the author attendees of CR, other than buying new books, writing directly is the best way to get a different type of book on the shelf.

CR is a fun, well-run event thanks to the hard work of its organizers. Attending an out-of-town conference is not inexpensive, but getting the chance to meet people that you've known online for years is a real treat. If CR ever comes to a town near you, I highly recommend it.

Getting away for a long weekend gave me the chance to do things I don't normally get to do. I read lots of books, watched lots of junk TV, and ate at lots of nice restaurants. Combine that with chatting with other readers and you have a near perfect weekend!

Monday, January 22, 2007

The times they are a-changin'

Many years ago when I started creating the database that eventually became FictionDB, categorizing books was a pretty easy thing to do. Romances were romances, mysteries were mysteries and all was right with the world. Well, things have changed pretty dramatically in the last couple of years. Genre lines are blurring and bending. Every month when new titles are released, I have to determine what genres they fall into. Is it a historical romance with a vampire sub-genre? Okay, I can handle that. But what if it's a futuristic setting with werewolves, vampires, and witches who are obsessed with Manolo Blahniks? Hmmm. Not so easy.

I've known this day was coming. I've known it for several years, but the actual having to do something about it just seemed more than I wanted to deal with. Well, I've finally whipped myself into shape and have started the conversion process. Within the next couple of months, you will be seeing books categorized in as many sub-genres as they require. It may seem like a pretty straight-forward thing to do, but unfortunately for me, it will require a behind the scenes rewrite of several key areas of FicitonDB.

Not only are genre lines blurring, but so are the lines between adult fiction and juvenile fiction. To this date, FictionDB has focused on adult fiction. Young adult fiction has been sprinkled in where an author writes predominately adult fiction but has also written a few juvenile books. I find myself reading more and more young adult books and enjoying them immensely. And, of course, just about everyone reads Harry Potter. So starting next month, FictionDB will also contain young adult/juvenile fiction that may be of interest to all age levels. I have chosen to include books written for ages 12&up. So while you may be reading the Magic Tree House books to your kids, you probably won't find them on FictionDB.