Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

E-books and eye candy

Following is an extract from a book I am working on about the mechanics of self-publishing. This is from the part about building e-books from a narrative manuscript. All this is, of course, subject to change and probably will. Paradigms shift, wisdom evolves, and my opinions change. But this is today...

An e-book is a compressed collection of text files encoded in the web languages called css and xhtml and organized into a structure of files suitable for rendering on e-reader devices. Two such formats—mobi and epub—prevail, and software exists to produce them. I hope that’s all you ever need to know about that.

You might, however, be instructed to hand-code your xhtml and css to achieve certain typesetting objectives with respect to line spacing, fonts, and so on.

First, unless you are a web designer, you probably don’t understand xhtml and css, and that in itself is a steep learning curve. Second, you are probably not trained in the art of typesetting, so, even if you know xhtml and css inside out, you don’t know what to change except perhaps to follow a few simple guidelines. Third, self-proclaimed experts’ opinions notwithstanding, it ain’t necessary. You can get sufficient e-book rendering from within your word processor's style features and the e-reader options to satisfy the typical reader.

(I routinely adjust html exports from word processors to override default first-line indent for chapter and scene opening paragraphs. It's a ten-second patch. Anything beyond that would be a waste of time.)

If you are curious about and want to learn typesetting and website languages, I encourage you to take the plunge. They are fascinating studies, at least for us gear-heads, but figure on devoting a huge slice of your time to those studies, time that might be better spent writing a sequel to your book.


E-reader devices use different rendering conventions, vendors announce new models at least annually, and new e-reader devices are being announced with regularity. To keep up with the differences and to have unique encoding for each device is not only a waste of time, it is error-prone and futile. Nothing holds still long enough. Use the default generic settings of the two formats you build (mobi and epub), and let the human readers and their e-reader devices manage how the books are rendered.

The computer can do most of the job. It might not be perfect, but it is acceptable, and your readership won’t know the difference. Witness the bazillion e-books being read that way with no complaints.

The myth is that only an experienced professional typographer can do it right. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain...

Monday, December 03, 2012

It’s Not Your Father’s Library

The e-book is the future of publishing. Not a popular opinion among those in the publishing industry. It is said and we wish to believe that because print publishing prevailed and persisted for hundreds of years, it is firmly entrenched and unlikely to go under anytime soon. We cling to the old ways seemingly through a mix of nostalgia and a sense of self-preservation. We do not accept the natural and unavoidable evolution of technology as an irresistible force that will change how literature and information are delivered to consumers.

Print publishing prevailed for centuries not because that's the best way to publish books but because that's what was the best way, what was available. It is correlary to print journalism. For centuries we had newspapers. Then we got cable TV and the Internet, and newspapers that are not closing their doors are clutching the last vestiges of tradition.

We see other corresponding signs of technologys effect on how people communicate. Telephone booths are a vanishing breed, bookstores close, and the postal service downsizes.

Consider how publishing has evolved over the millenia.

The media: Cave paintings, stone tablets, animal skin scrolls, papyrus, paper, CRTs, LEDs.

Production: Quills, Gutenberg, manual typesetting, linotype, computer typesetting.

Throughout all this, a constant for the past few centuries has been the print mediumbound books printed on paper. Now that's changing too.

Consider the recent emergence of small publishers that publish only or mainly e-books. Some of them, usually those who bring publishing experience from the old days, are succeeding with the new business model.

Consider that big city publishers who long disparaged of the notion of e-books are adding them to their product lines, not only their new books, but their backlists as well.

Consider that digital POD (print-on-demand) production is pushing aside traditional high-volume offset prints and the warehousing of book inventories. Wishful thinkers deny this, but the snowball is rolling.

Young people will adapt, will adjust their habits and behavior to fit emerging technologies, and will not be conditioned by any sense of tradition. Coming generations will have no such nostalgic feelings about holding in their hands, paging through, and reading physical books. They certainly won't hold out for bookbags stuffed with heavy, expensive textbooks.

They already read books on their smart phones.

And thats just the youngsters. Many elderly people regard the e-reader as a godsend for how they readily compensate for vision disabilities.

Young people and senior citizens join to embrace e-book technology. It would seem that the holdouts are mostly middle-aged.

Everything must change. Printed books will go almost extinct, certainly within the next two decades and probably sooner. Books will become ancient curiosities, artifacts displayed in museums, privately owned only by collectors and hoarders. Like phonograph records today and compact disks soon, the printed book will become a relic of the past.

The only obstacle to such a profound paradigm shift would be a catastrophic interruption of the earth's power grid, at which time printing presses will stop working too. Along with everything else.

Heres my prediction about how books will be distributed and read in the not-so-distant future.

The driving technology will be what is called cloud computing. For those who came in late, cloud computing is the use by individuals of remote servers maintained by others in which users store data and software and with the Internet being the conduit for storage and retrieval.

An e-reader will store its own identification, sufficient data to identify and authorize its owner, and a page or two of whatever content the owner is currently reading. (Memory size of an e-reader will no longer be a factor.) The user's account will reside in a cloud and will comprise account data and a list of books that the account is licensed to read. It could be as simple as a PayPal account and a list of ISBNs. The digital books themselves will reside in a shared database in a global cloud. When the user chooses a different page, the cloud delivers it to the device. A catalog can be built on demand in realtime from the global cloud.

The problems? Bandwidth, piracy, and industry/consumer resistance.

Bandwidth: To serve the masses in the manner described here, cloud technology must address speed and storage issues raised when millions of people would maintain their digital resources in cloud servers. The technology exists. It just needs a lot more hardware thrown at it.

Piracy: Before e-books can become the principle book delivery mechanism, we have to address the management and protection of intellectual property. Given digital media, how do proprietors of content protect it from piracy and bootlegging?

A typical user will not be technically savvy enough to pirate copies of content being sent a page at a time to a device operating with software designed and installed by the device's maker and managed by the content provider. Hackers will rummage about in the devices' code and crack it, but, as with computer viruses today, content and device implementations will be able to rapidly adjust to and thwart the latest hacks.

Consumer resistance: Those who cherish and wish to retain the present model of e-book delivery will throw up the usual wall of resistance and regard anything new with mostly unfounded suspicion. This problem will disappear when a new generation of readers, people who do not cling to the old ways, take over and dominate the marketplace.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Saga of a First Novel

The Shadow on the Grassy Knoll has taken better than five years to come to publication.
    The premise and story began with an idea as most stories do. I knocked around the tale of a second assassin who was on the grassy knoll, how he became an assassin, who he worked for, how he wound up on the knoll that day in 1963, and what happened afterward.
    For several months I worked on the story in my head as I made long automobile trips. I'd run plot ideas by my bored wife, who'd always nod and look out the window, and I'd recite dialogue to myself.
    Then, one day about three years ago I started to put hands on keyboard and words into Word. My goal was to have the book published in time to ride the crest of attention that I think the assassination's upcoming 50th anniversary will generate.
    I am no stranger to writing books and having them published. I have in the past 25 years written and had published about two dozen computer books. But my only experience with fiction was with a few short stories, two of which were actually published in magazines, the rest of which languished on my website.
    With a completed manuscript in hand (on computer, actually), I employed the help of a local fellow author who has served as a writing coach for other authors. Carol Jose read  and told me what was wrong with my book. It all boiled down to the realization that I didn't know my ass from ninth street about writing novel-length fiction.
    I took most of Carol's criticisms to heart and did a lot of rewrite. I read books about writing fiction. At the same time I recruited several beta readers from AbsoluteWrite, an online gathering of writers, and got many valuable suggestions from there.
    In the meantime, I sold the story to a small publisher. The contract they submitted was questionable, so I asked some of the AWers about the terms. My book-contracting experience had all been with non-fiction and big publishers, and I didn't know what was acceptable in today's fiction marketplace. The experts all said the same thing. Run, don't walk. Away.
    In another meantime, I wrote another novel, Nursing Home Ninjas.
    I sold the grassy knoll and geezer-lit books to a small e-publisher, but we had a falling out, and I backed away from that deal, too. (Ninjas has since sold to Five Star Mysteries and will be out in February.)
    In yet another meantime, I wrote and self-published three detective novels, two books on ventriloquism, and two of my back-listed programming books.
   Tempest fidgets, and as all those meantimes sped by, my November '13 deadline was zooming near, and the few submissions I made either got rejected or were to publishers who could not make the deadline. I had a little over a year left, and it takes longer than that when you take the traditional pathway to publishing.
    One of those rejections changed everything. I had submitted to the same editor who had accepted my Ninjas book, and she rejected it with some major criticisms of the work. It was an epiphany. There I stood with a project in hand that two pubishers had bought, one of whom who was highly-respected in the industry, and I thought I had a sure-fire winner. But this simple rejection pointed out Godzilla-sized problems in style and presentation and sent me into a major rewrite.
    At this point, getting Grassy Knoll out on time with a commercial publisher was out of the question.
    So, ta-dum, I decided to self-publish.
    That was no walk in the sunshine. The work involved in doing a proper and serious job of self-publishing is almost overwhelming.
    Cover design, editing, proof-reading, e-book formatting, print editon typesetting, setting up a small imprint, getting ISBNs, accounts for KDP, Smashwords, Pubit, Kobo, Lulu, and CreateSpace, and coordinating what got uploaded to whom, what needs fixing, what's already available, what ought to be on the website, and I don't know what-all. Whew.
    Well, it's out there. Click the link at the top of this article to see what you think. I'd love to hear your reactions. After I've slept a while.