How the Sausage is Made: BookCountry.com

I met a woman today at the farmers’ market (hi! I forgot to ask your name!) who was interested in my science fiction writing. She wanted to know if I had anything online she could read and I told her, sadly, no, I am very much still in progress on my science fiction novel, and it is not available anywhere.

Then I walked out of the farmers’ market and thought “doh!” Actually, that work-in-progress is available online. Not all of it, but the first section of what will be four sections is up at one of my favorite sites for writers, Penguin’s Book Country.

LiaisonWorkingCoverI started hanging out at BookCountry.com when a Twitter pal let us know she was working on developing it. It’s a terrific place to workshop your writing with loads of other writers and to read and give feedback in return. They have useful message boards, and some other tools to find new work, new writers, etc. They have self-publishing services, which I have never used, though I did test-drive them in beta as a favor to my pal and found them easy to use, with a lovely end product.

If you are a writer, I recommend the place. I’ve had lots of helpful feedback as I’ve ventured into my first sci-fi foray, but there is pretty much every genre represented there. But hey, nice lady from the farmer’s market: you can check out the beginning of that novel of mine right here. Hope you enjoy it!

Breaking the Rules

You have probably heard at least some of the rules of writing. They include things like “write what you know” or “write something every day” or “read widely in the genre in which you want to write.” All writers break at least some of them, some of the time, myself included. In fact, I break a lot of them.

But the one I break most is the one that says to stick with one genre and to brand yourself accordingly.

I thought, when I first started writing, that I would be writing nothing but historical fiction, hence, the subtitle of this blog. And historical fiction is definitely where my writing heart is. It’s the kind of writing I will always come back to and I will brand my real name solidly in that genre. (Okay, mostly.)

But you may or may not know–depending on how well you know me–that I have now published or have in the publishing pipeline, three different (really, really different) genres of writing under three names. And when my science fiction is finished, I plan to put it under a fourth name.

There is a reason the rule exists, after all. The rule exists because momentum is important to a writing career. If I release five things under five names in three years, but never under the same name twice, I face the uphill battle of the debut novelist over and over in spite of having written a lot more than one debut. The rule exists because practice makes perfect and mastering one genre is hard enough without giving yourself a new learning curve every time you sit down to a blank page.

So why have I broken this particular rule into so many splinters? It’s hard to say. While I always have two or three promising ideas in the back of my head, there’s always one that pushes its nose under my chin at three in the morning like an eager puppy, keeping me awake. And so far that hasn’t been the same genre twice in a row. And I haven’t had the discipline to ignore the puppy and get down to work on the more rule-following idea. I just jump out of bed and off we go on a rabbit chase to…space, or Regency England, or…the back of some hot chick’s motorcycle.

For whatever reason, here I am, with too many projects in one hand. I will probably never get any real momentum in any one genre if I don’t pull up and focus. I broke a rule and I will suffer the consequences, no doubt. It’s okay though, I’m pretty happy with my puppies and their enthusiastic notions. I can’t say that I recommend breaking this rule, though. So do as They say and not as I do–pick a genre and stick to it.

But hey–what’s your favorite writing rule to break?

E-book Design: It’s a Thing

When I first started reading electronic editions of books, they were all in the public domain, made available through Project Gutenberg. I didn’t give much thought to their aesthetic value—I wanted the texts. I used many of them to replace battered paperback Penguin Classics that I had been dragging along on many moves over the years. It didn’t really matter if occasionally the scanning process messed with the font, or if an illustration was unreadable. It was free, after all. It was saving me a box or two per move. It was clearing up space on the bookshelves for the first editions by my favorite writers that I still like to collect.

But since I got my first iPad, I have gradually begun to open my mind to actually purchasing e-books. There are times when someone on the Internet recommends a nonfiction book, for example (in other words not the kind of book I like to collect in paper editions) and rather than make a mental note to look for it next time I’m out, I just go to the iBook store and download it. Often the e-book price is slightly lower than the physical edition would be, but not always. Either way, these books are not free, and they are not provided by volunteers, like the ones from Project Gutenberg.

But they have as many—sometimes more—glitches as the free books. It appears that no one at the Big Five NYC publishers has ever heard of e-book design.

I might not have thought much about this if I had not published my first novel in an exclusively electronic format. My book had a cover designer and a book designer. Maybe some readers out there are not familiar with the concept of book design, but think about it. Someone decides what fonts should be used in a book, what size the margins should be, whether there’s a running header at the top of each page and what it looks like if there is, where the page numbers go, how and where italics are used, how to present block quotes, what internal text boxes (think about charts or side bars, for example) will look like. Someone indexes books that require indexing.

No one seems to be doing that—or at most they are half-doing it, half-heartedly—for the electronic editions of books initially released in paper by big publishers. Instead, every single e-book I’ve bought has been riddled with mistakes that make it clear not much is happening besides a quick scan and an upload to e-book vendors. The first e-book I ever bought had an index with page numbers but no links. Page numbers are meaningless on an e-reader, where the text size can be changed by a reader, shifting the entire book’s pagination. So I paid money for a book with an index I couldn’t use. E-book versions of paper books frequently have hyphens in the middle of words that appear (or can appear, depending on a reader’s text size preference) in the middle of page, where they need no hyphenation. This is a sure sign that the book was not designed to be electronic, but simply scanned from a paper version that required a hyphen because its type was set for a particular physical page. Text boxes, side bars, and charts are sometimes unreadable, especially when the font size is increased or decreased (but sometimes altogether, regardless of font size).

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Note “She supposed” about halfway down the page. In this larger font it is hyphenated. In the smaller font (right), it appears in the middle of the page and is not.

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Bonus! E-books can cheaply incorporate color. This is usually prohibitively expensive in print. I was pleasantly surprised when I got the galley of my e-book and noted this detail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My own book—and others I’ve seen that were produced to be exclusively electronic books—are absolutely beautiful inside. They are designed for the font to shift. They are designed to be read and make visual sense on a multiple e-readers. If they have indexes, they use internal links, not page numbers. Sometimes they have external Internet links that will take a reader directly to a cited source or to more information.

Some of you may remember that I decided to self-publish another of my novels. I produced both a paper and an electronic edition of the book. The two editions required completely different design processes and considerations. When something is going to be printed, it has to be perfect in its static final state. When something is going to be electronic, it requires a mobility in design that will translate well on different e-readers at different font sizes. E-books also allow for some design features that are trickier in print.

Now that I have noticed this difference, I am aghast that big publishers feel okay about scanning a print book, slapping a price on it and uploading it for sale. If a self-published writer did such a thing they would be rightfully criticized—possibly in condescending tones—by readers and other book critics. It is egregiously unprofessional. Selling a scan of a paper book and asking people to pay for it strikes me as roughly equivalent to stapling together a raw manuscript and asking a brick-and-mortar bookstore to stock and sell it.

Why don’t big publishers put their paper books through a real, electronic-specific redesign before selling them as e-books? I’ve done it. It takes a day or two. Someone who does it a lot could probably do a couple books per eight-hour workday, honestly. It would cost very little if anything. It is a job that screams “entry level” or even “unpaid intern.”

Oh, look! Someone took the time here to helpfully let readers know the index doesn't work and to point them to the search feature in their e-reader. How much harder would it be to add links, so, you know, the index actually works?

Oh, look! Someone took the time here to helpfully let readers know the index doesn’t work and to point them to the search feature in their e-reader. How much harder would it be to add links, so, you know, the index just works?

Not doing it feels like a slap from the publisher. It is disrespectful to the reader and implies that all the publisher really cares about is the extra money they might make by putting the book into another format. But those of us with dedicated e-books know that good e-book design is as necessary as good paper book design. We would just as soon forgo a final proofread of our manuscript as we would real internal book design.

I’m not sure what to do about this problem besides complain. Right now I’m planning to leave reviews of all the e-books I’ve bought that have these problems (which to a greater or lesser extent, is all of them except the e-books I’ve bought that are exclusively electronic). I am not getting what I pay for if the index doesn’t work, or the information in the text boxes is unavailable to me. It’s disappointing, because the convenience of e-books is really appealing, even to a bibliophile with four thousand paper books, like me.

Since getting my first e-reader, I have come to see the potential for a Brave New World with all kinds of access to all kinds of books for all kinds of people. Unprecedented access is already here. Even more is possible. But come on, publishers, show a little respect. Step up and take as much pride in your electronic product as you do in your paper one. Then you’ll have me for a customer, hook, line and sinker.

Quickly

Some good news! That February project has been accepted by Jack’s publisher, Musa Publishing. It will probably be released in either December or January, so not soon. But my writing partner and I are high-fiving and snoopy dancing. Join us!

Reincarnation

I am sorry to report that I have not been writing much of anything since finishing that big push with my writing partner in February. (But we did finish! The project is currently in waiting mode while others make decisions about it. If there is news on that front, I will certainly let you know.)

I caught some horrible winter nastiness in late February and didn’t really recover for about eight weeks, after which…I fell ill again with something else entirely. So it’s been a Netflix heavy spring for me, rather than a writing heavy one. But I have high hopes for the month of May in which I mean to get a lot done on that science fiction project I told you about long, long ago (in a galaxy far, far away? Feels like it!)

I have some old friends who are absolutely certain that my terrible immune system is passed down to me cosmically from a former incarnation in which I was a consumptive suffragette who wrote scathing political op-eds to Boston newspapers from my sick bed, dictated to my devoted romantic friend-slash-secretary.

The older I get, the more plausible this explanation seems.

But I have done a couple of small creative projects. It is my intention to start producing e-book covers for other writers of small budget but high standards. The reason I want to do this is because I made the cover for “Jump” and had so much fun doing it, I wanted to do more. So I solicited a couple of friends in need of covers and have been practicing on them. You can see the results here and here.

I intend to keep practicing on gullible desperate  indulgent friends in need of covers until I have a nice little portfolio of different genres of covers and then I will start charging modestly for the service. If you think I would consider you a pal, and you could use a cover, let me know. I’d like to try some different genres to get a broader range of experience.

Meanwhile, anybody read anything good lately? I’ve mostly been plowing through some nonfiction that would probably only be of interest to me, but what’s new and good in the fiction world these days?

Progress

I’m proud to say that my writing partner and I seem to be right on track with our plan to finish this novella in the month of February. It isn’t easy–we are both typing our fingers off.

For me, it helps that the weather has been terrible even for a Midwestern February. There is little temptation to do anything at night but sit by my fireplace and write. Perhaps we’ll coin a new genre called “blizzard fiction.”

A little housekeeping update: I’ve put “Jump” on Amazon, where it is listed for .99 cents (and comparable prices internationally). Amazon will not allow me to make it free, but I wanted it there for the visibility. If you would like to read it, though, DON’T give Amazon .99 cents. Go instead to Smashwords or B&N.com (also, the iBookstore, soonish, I hope) and download it for free.

I have also started doing e-book cover design. More on that after this novella is in the can and submitted to a publisher!