As I wrote yesterday, this week is “Read an eBook Week.” While the printed book is in danger of extinction, technological innovations, as well as business model innovations, make it clear that the way books are produced, distributed and bought is rapidly changing.
It’s new, it’s green, it’s hot.
Sorry, that sounded a little too much like blowhard Tom Friedman. Let me start over.
Last fall, when I was in San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, researching my next book, The World is Green, Sweaty, and Concave, I had a conversation with the cab driver who drove me to the airport about the International Monetary Fund’s Latin American policy and its impact on the nanotechnology research incubators being established in the former rustbelt of the United States. When he’s not driving his cab, Pepe is a student at the local university and heads an internet social-media startup…
Sorry, I did it again. One more time, I promise to be good.
EBooks, I was talking about eBooks and the coming revolution…
Last fall, I was talking to some acquaintances, ordinary writers with families and boring day jobs, not high-tech entrepreneurial cabbies from exotic countries, about the changes in publishing, and in particular POD publishing technology and eBooks. For very little cost, it’s now possible for any writer to publish a book, in digital or print form, and sell it on the internet. Whether or not it gets any attention at all and sells beyond the small circle of the writer’s friends is another question. I’m still old-fashioned enough to be skeptical about self-publishing and aside from this blog, I’m still going at it the old fashioned way: trying to convince someone else to publish me.
But I was intrigued. The biggest challenge to me was the fragmentation of the EBook market in technological terms. There’s the Kindle, there’s the Sony Reader, the Fictionwise EReader, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and now Apple’s iPad. All of these devices are closed and proprietary to some degree or another, but more importantly, are tied to specific content distributers. If you want your book to be available to the widest possible audience, you really need to be able to support all those formats as natively as possible and get connected in to those devices distribution channels.
As a lowest common denominator on the format question, you can use PDF, but PDF documents only work well on real PC’s and not on dedicated devices with smaller screens. PDF files are composed of fixed pages that don’t display well on smaller screens. Either the device shows the entire page making the text too small to read, or if you can zoom in, it makes for very awkward reading as you have to slide the enlarged page left and right and up and down as you are reading. A cumbersome reading experience, especially if you are trying to enter into John Gardner’s fictive dream. The device, like a real book, needs to dissolve out of our consciousness as we read. In order to create the proper reading experience, the text needs to be reflowed dynamically for each device, something that PDF doesn’t do well at all.
There’s another practical matter to consider about PDF format as well. Since it only works really well on a computer, it means that in order to read it you have to be sitting at a computer. By necessity, I do a lot of reading at my computer these days. My writing is published in ezines and I read a lot of them along with various blogs that I follow, but that’s hardly the way I done reading for most of my life. The word sprawled comes to mind as in, “Sprawled on the living room couch.” Most of my reading is done horizontally unless it’s not possible, such as when I’m reading from my computer screen or incarcerated on an airplane. I guess it’s possible to sprawl on an airplane, but it’s not very row-mate friendly.
And in bed. I read in bed. I have to confess that my aluminum unibody MacBook is the sexiest piece of hardware I’ve ever seen, but it’s too awkward to curl up next to it in bed. Mrs. Bubbers would have a problem with that too. So, the small book sized devices offer the most natural reading experience and cannot be ignored. The vendors of these products won’t let you with all those pictures of happy readers outside sprawled out under maple trees gazing at their devices.
While I was pondering these questions, I discovered Smashwords.com, which I discussed in yesterday’s post. Smashwords solves several problems at once. First, it provides the technology to transform your book into all the common formats used by the most popular devices. Second, through their business relationships, they provide access to the supply chains that are supporting all the various devices. Still, there’s the marketing challenge that you need to solve on your own, but at least the technical barriers are removed.
I stuck my little toe in the water and signed up with Smashwords as an author. While I’m still working on a book-length collection of short stories to be published by someone other than myself, I wanted to see how the Smashwords process works. I selected a memoir that I had written several years ago that had been published in the Oregon Literary Review and set to work formatting the Word document according to the Smashwords style guide. It took a few attempts to create a document that would look good in all the published formats after the Smashwords meatgrinder got through with it and also to get approved for their premium distribution program, but in the end, it was a lot simpler than I had expected.
The personal essay, or memoir, that I chose for my little experiment was a piece that I wrote several years ago. It marked my return to serious writing after having quit in my late twenties. The usual reasons: frustration at not getting published, building a career in software development, starting a family, etc. While in the middle of a thoroughly enjoyable (but harmless) middle-aged crisis, I decided I wanted to start trying to write again. Unfortunately, I was at a loss as to where to start and the doubts about my talent had never gone away. Fiction, making things up, was very daunting. I contacted an old friend from my college days, also a writer, who is now an English professor and teaches, among other things, composition. She suggested that instead trying to tackle a piece of fiction right away, I try to “get my swing” back by writing a personal essay. She assigns personal essays to her freshman composition students as a way of helping them work through their fears of writing. She also sent me a copy of one of her own personal essays that she gives to her students as a sample. “Don’t worry about what it’s about, just as long as it means something to you,” she said.
When I read her essay, I immediately understand how I should approach my own. Her first-person narrative was written using the iceberg approach. Like an iceberg, the part that you see, the part that’s apparent, is only the tip and it’s supported by a huge part that’s hidden underwater. For a memoir, the part that’s hidden, but still felt by the reader (if you do it right) is the emotional part. It’s the part that resonates on an almost unconscious level with the reader. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. If you write too little, the reader literally has no idea what you’re talking about. That’s what happens when young writers spend too much time in literature classes focusing on the subtleties in great writing. Get too subtle, however, and you become obtuse. On the other hand, if you write too much, you leave no emotional space for the reader to inhabit.
Maria’s essay was perfect, and in the years since we were students, she’s mastered the approach.
Since we were always a bit competitive, when we don’t deny it, I decided to try the same method and see what I could do. As a topic, I chose a writing workshop that I had taken in my last year at college. It stood out for me because I remembered at the time how important to me it was and how nervous I was even applying to get accepted into it. That was where I began.
A month later I, had completed it and it had been a journey. I’m not one of those who tends to think of writing as a form of therapy. If you need therapy, see a therapist. Nonetheless, during the course of working on the essay, I rediscovered a person I had forgotten. I’ve had no problem writing fiction since then.
For my trial run through Smashwords, I took another pass at the essay and polished a few things that suddenly, four years later, struck me as embarrassing and uploaded it as an eBook. At about 9,500 words, it’s a pretty short book, so I priced it at $1.00. It took several months, but the Barnes & Noble version finally showed up a few weeks ago. I’m still waiting for Amazon. This is all new for both Smashwords and the channels and they’re still working out the technical kinks.
As part of my participation in “Read an eBook Week,” the already low price of $1.00 has been reduced to free. You can “purchase” it and download if from Smashwords here.
Unlike most of my fiction, a happy ending…
As a final note, after reading Maria’s essay, I wrote back to her and urged her to send it out for publication. Neither of us knew that we were submitting to the same place, but much to our surprise, both of our essays were published in the same issue, so in the competition that we don’t really have, it was either a tie or we both won. I prefer the latter.
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