Ebooks: a note from the pro-am self-pub frontier

by Diane Duane
Work in progress (ain't it always)

I just want to direct everybody’s attention to Chris Meadows’ article here, which is brilliantly expressive of some of the problems I’ve been noticing a lot more acutely of late from early sorties into the production end of ebook management.

Some of you will have noticed that I’ve been overseeing a project whose time (I think) has come — international editions of the Young Wizards novels. The YW books’ North American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, only holds publishing rights for the US and its possessions, Canada and (for whatever reason) the Philippines. When UK YW fans (who had print editions in the early 90’s) complained to me that they couldn’t purchase the books from Amazon in their ebook editions, I checked with my agent’s contract lady to make sure that self-published ebooks would be kosher, and then started to see what I needed to do about it.

It’s been an interesting journey. My first stab at ebooking happened over at Smashwords (where the Door Into… / Middle Kingdoms books are available). They make the induction into the process as easy as it can be made, I think, explaining the basic issues of how and why a document file (or previously typeset document) must be stripped for ebook formats. And I have no complaints about their distribution of the Door books, particularly into Barnes & Noble: for the past few quarters they’ve been doing pretty nicely.

But with the YW books I was forced into a situation that Smashwords could not be used to solve, due to the territorial restrictions attached to the works. Smashwords has no mechanism to control what territories books are sold into, and to prevent them being sold where you don’t want them to be. Amazon and B&N, obviously, do. I investigated all kinds of other possibilities that would enable me to run around this particular problem… but even the best of them (the DianeDuane.com site’s present implementation of Zen Cart) was imperfect. Finally I realized that whether I liked it or not, if I was to reach an audience of any size (LIKE SOME OF THE REST OF THE PLANET, shrieks the Auctorial Subconscious in ill-concealed irony) with the YW novels without violating my contracts with HMH, I was going to have to take up the cudgels of bottom-to-top ebook production.


To say that the learning curve has been exciting would be kind of an understatement. And endless issues arise. Formatting. (Doc file to Sigil. .Epub file to Threepress.org for validation and preflighting. Learning how to hand-correct XTML so that the Threepress validator will accept it. WHAT KEEPS TURNING THOSE VLINKS BLUE IN THE FIRST PLACE WTF I DON’T EVEN, screams the Auctorial Subconscious. When the file validates, Calibre to .mobi for the Kindle. [Though paradoxically, the best conversions at the Amazon end seem to come from the .epubs.])

And leaving aside the straightforward formatting issues, then comes the proofing of the source docs. And the business of editing egregious things in the original books without changing the texts enough to annoy the original readers, who want books that look like the ones they have in print. (Yet this soon becomes an issue of its own, and in the case of the first four books in the YW series, we will be issuing Young Wizards “New Millennium” editions with revised timelines and some things fixed that have needed fixing for a decade… like the tech in Deep Wizardry and High Wizardry.) Fixing typos in the original texts. Etc. (Oh, and covers. Fortunately both I and Lee, my long-suffering tech lady, are very good with Corel and/or Photoshop.)

And then of course there’s the issue of where to get electronic texts to correct for books that were originally, you know, typed on paper. …What, scan them? In my thousands of hours of spare time? I don’t think so. Why do that when various well-intentioned people have over time scanned my earliest books, sometimes even run them through several people to proof them, and then made them available via P2P? So I borrowed those texts back, thank you very much, and used them for my basic documents. (And in all cases, they still needed to be corrected. Sometimes the people doing the original scanning were none too sure of what a word meant, or how to spell it. I fortunately don’t have this problem.)

What matters, though, beyond all the scutwork implied above, is that before the basic documents get anywhere near Sigil or Calibre, they have been read through three or four times, by me, with the Blue Pencil of the Mind at the ready to deal with the typos. (And you have no idea how sick a writer can get of her own work doing this.) And then Peter, who is the Proofreader of Doom, goes over them. And you know what? Things still get missed. That is when I get philosophical, and take this quote, which appears possibly prophetically at the front of So You Want to Be a Wizard, as the consolation for such discoveries:

…By necessity every book must have at least one flaw; a misprint, a missing page, one imperfection. …The Rabbis…point out that even in the holiest of books, the scroll resting inside the Ark, the Name of Names is inscribed in code so that no one might say it out loud, and chance to pronounce properly the Word that once divided the waters from the waters and the day from the night. …As it is, some books, nearly perfect, are known to become transparent when opened under the influence of the proper constellation, when the full Moon rests in place. Then it is not uncommon for a man to become lost in a single letter, or to hear a voice rise up from the silent page; and then only one imperfect letter, one missing page, can bring him back to the land where a book, once opened, may still be closed, can permit him to pull up the covers around his head and smile once before he falls asleep.

— Midrashim, by Howard Schwartz

…But the point is, we try to get it right: we try to get each book to that just-one-character-wrong point. Which is why I get absolutely incensed about new books coming from the publisher yet somehow littered with errors.

Yes, I know that the publishing world is in crisis, yes, I know perfectly well that there are fewer and fewer people being required to do more and more work — I clutch my head in sympathy every day as I hear in my editors’ voices how tired the tons of extra work are making them. But particularly at the ebook end, something has to be done, because the product that is being turned out right now is just not cutting it.

I got a Kindle a month or so ago for quality-control purposes, because I just wasn’t sure in my gut of guts how well the various Kindle-for-X apps were rendering what you actually see on the thing’s screen. (Doubtless I would want to do the same with the Nook, but I can’t publish directly into the Nook store because I don’t have a US bank account, so the heck with you until you sort yourself out, B&N.) It’s a useful tool, as sometimes errors that I missed on the computer will pop out clearly in the Kindle’s bigger text. And needless to say, I’ve also been picking up other people’s books. I picked up a Kindle copy of Mosse’s Labyrinth last week, and while some parts of it look very nice, there are recurring formatting errors that I know perfectly well would be easily corrected. But no one took the time. I would never have allowed a book to leave the house in the state that Labyrinth‘s in. And this is a book that spent umpty days on the NYT Bestseller list and made somebody or other buckets of money. Could they not have spent enough of all that lucre to get the HTML proofed? Seriously?

(sigh) I’m presently in the middle of proofing A Wizard Abroad and resolving some cover design issues… when I can take the time from the work I’m supposed to be doing, anyway, which is creating new stuff (FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO PROOFREAD, PLEASE GHU!! wails the Auctorial Subconscious, histrionically shredding a Kleenex). But it’s all worth it, because this is work that needs to be done to keep from snapping the sometimes spiderweb-thin thread of a reader’s concentration. These days we cannot afford to lose readers, cannot allow them to be pulled out of a really good page of fiction by a backwards set of curly quotes or a scan-induced typo so godawful that it would make Thoth Himself weep. (“Arroz con Polio?” AAAAAAAAAGH.)

Someone needs to do something about this… seriously. Meanwhile, I feel reduced to holding up a sign of the in-jokey kind some “Father Ted” fans were holding up at the protest in front of the Irish parliament some weeks back. It said:





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