Thursday, December 29, 2005

A First Look at Amazon Connect Author "Blogs"

This post is a bit off-topic, but writing books about databases consumes a substantial part of my time and contributes a significant part of my income. So I decided to create an author "blog" on Amazon's newly-announced Amazon Connect service that I discovered via Memeorandum today. I added the quotes around blog because Amazon includes the term plog in some of its Connect URLs and blog in other URLs and pages. According to TDavid, plog is an acronym for "product log," not "Web log." Plogs don't have much in common with today's blogs, in my opinion, so I plan to stick with plog in future references to Amazon Connect's message collections. Click here to display the Amazon page for Special Edition Using Microsoft Office Access 2003. Scroll past Product Details to the Amazon Connect section, which displays my plog in its natural habitat. Click the Roger Jennings' Author Profile Page link to read an extended bio, bibliography (of currently-verified titles), and five Favorite Books, Albums, Movies, and Periodicals. I discovered many posting problems with Amazon Connect that don't occur with standalone blogging tools, such as Blogger. My conclusion is that authors should consider the current Amazon Connect incarnation to be a beta-grade application. One of the characteristics of free (usually ad-supported) online utilities and tools is their perpetual beta state, which permits mini (weekly) or micro (daily or hourly) feature updates and bug fixes. Following are some of the issues I encountered when adding and editing a few messages to my Amazon Connect plog: 1. Creating an author plog involves a Byzantine process of vetting your credentials as the author of each of your books sold by Amazon you want to add to your bibliography. You must provide the e-mail address and telephone number of an agent, editor, or publisher of the book who will verify that you are its author. Fortunately, my current QUE acquisitions editor for Special Edition Using Microsoft Office Access [12] was at work today to verify my current QUE and SAMS titles. Titles from other publishers were verified after January 2, 2006. 2. As several other bloggers have noted, Amazon Connect doesn't publish an RSS 2.0 or Atom 1.0 file for syndicating author plogs. This omission appears to me to be intended to create a walled garden that's intended primarily for visits by Amazon customers. By itself, lack of an RSS or Atom file is sufficient to disqualify the Amazon Connect message collection as a blog. Lack of RSS/Atom syndication will discourage authors from spending significant amounts of time updating their plogs. 3. The WYSIWYG HTML editor lets you insert links to and images of books and other products from the Amazon site, as well as links to external pages. However, the editor doesn't offer a direct HTML editing choice. Thus, you can't add arbitrary images or format your "messages" other than with the editor's toolbar buttons. 4. You can't test external links in message preview mode. You must preview the message before you can post it; posting is required to test links, which open from an redirect. It's very easy to forget to post (and thus lose) a new "message." 5. There's no indication of how to save a new or edited message. The only button on the editing page is "Preview your message," which you must click to open a page with a "Post your message" button. 6. All edits to existing messages I posted on December 30, 2005 returned a "An error occurred trying to post your message" warning. However, the edits persisted. The error message appears to be spurious. 7. Adding Favorite Books, Music and Movies to your Author Profile is limited to a list of books, albums, and DVDs or tapes you recently browsed on the Amazon site or that you've marked as owned. Fortunately, Amazon offers most of my favorite books, Brasilian music CDs, and film tapes/DVDs. 8. The Books, Music, and Movies You Own panes in the Build Your List of Favorite ... dialog is broken if you haven't marked any items as owned. For example, a "You don't have any items in ${hash-get canonName} you ownBooks You Own" message appears in the pane if you haven't marked a book you own.

9. Book thumbnail images inserted into message text need top, right, and bottom margins increased.

10. You can't format your author bio ("About Me") with HTML tags, nor can you add working HTML anchors. This omission is additional evidence of Amazon Connect's walled-garden policy. My bio, in particular, needs external links to avoid the need to add unnecessary trivia that's available elsewhere. I'd also like to be able to emphasize words with italic or bold fonts. The About Me textarea should be replaced with an upgraded WYSIWYG HTML editor.

11. The HTML editor needs a spell-checker similar to or, hopefully, better than that provided by Blogger. Spelling gaffes are especially embarrassing for authors.

12. Pasting content from other HTML sources can cause a substantial increase in font size. The HTML editor displays text in a fixed-size serif font so you don't see the font size change until you preview the content in a sans-serif font. The HTML editor doesn't enable font-size selection or correction. Workarounds for this problem are cumbersome, to be generous. Here's a screen capture that shows the increased font size starting at "Magazine Express, Inc."

13. It appears that you can't change the recipient list for a message nor can you delete a message. (If you can, I haven't found how to do it by experimentation or from the FAQ.) The inability to change the recipient list results in the need to duplicate posts that apply to bibliography items added after the post (post post?) or instruct readers to click the See All of AuthorName's Posts link. This is a very serious problem for me.

The preceding are issues (probably bugs) that I've encountered so far. I'll update this post as problems are corrected or new problems appear.

On the positive side:

1. If you log on with your Amazon account, which is difficult to avoid, you can edit your Author Profile and messages anywhere that you can read them. You might need to re-enter your password now and then to enable editing.

2. Amazon's automated e-mail system for verification of your bibliography appears to be quick and informative. You receive immediate e-mail confirmation of verification attempts and verifications that succeed. Amazon help-desk personnel intervene promptly when a verification issue occurs.

3. The ability to associate specific messages with a particular book (or group of books) is a great idea, but the ability to edit the book (recipient) list for a message is crucial.

--rj Technorati: SQL Server Express