To e- or not to e-(Book)

In Books, eBooks, Electronic Publishing, Internet, Open source on April 6, 2013 at 12:34 am


Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | June 12, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers


A well-known Canadian author and I were walking into an event at the 2010Vancouver International Writers Festival. She was trying to identify what she felt was different about the festival that year. The publishers, she said, seemed out of sorts somehow.

I pointed to the Kobo tent, where a long line of people waited to put their names in a box to win a free eReader.

“Do you think that has anything to do with it?” I said.

We looked at each other and shrugged.

Once we were seated inside, the moderator announced a draw for a free Kobo. He made a few uneasy jokes about the disappearance of books. Kobo was one of the sponsors of the festival.

The price war between what was then Canadian-owned Kobo andAmazon’s Kindle had begun earlier that year.

I imagine it this way: while the big box stores and publishing conglomerates are busy fighting it out, somebody looks up to see a mid-air battle of two fire breathing eReaders. Everyone watches, wondering how the outcome up there will affect the swordplay on the ground.

That’s the thing. Nobody seems to know what the eBook means for the future of publishers, writers, and booksellers.

Much less the book itself.

Opinions vary wildly. Some point to the new freedom and independence for writers. We won’t need those pesky publishing houses anymore, doling out piddling royalties or those bothersome editors tightening up our prose. Others outline the seven easy steps to making millions writing eBooks. A few go so far as to insist that the book, as object, will go the route of the DVD—and maybe as suddenly.

Skeptics claim that an eBook will never replace the pleasures of the book itself.  Prophets of doom warn that the eBook is yet another way in which corporations can snatch bread from the mouths of starving writers.

Until recently, I was pretty much in the second camp. The eBook seemed the latest in a series of bizarre events in an industry in which everyone—agents, editors, authors, marketing departments, distributors, and booksellers—is intent on working against each other.

Two things changed my mind. First, a sense that the few remaining doors to traditional publishing had closed to me. And second, a conversation I had with local software developer John Neffenger who has discovered that he can dramatically improve the quality of an eBook by using fixed-format PDFs instead of EPUB with its “reflowable content.” What’s more, these PDFs can fit a variety of eReaders.

What occasioned my conversation with Neffenger was my increasing frustration with the publishing world. In the last 15 years I had searched for a small press willing to bring out a paperback edition of my first book of short stories along with a new collection. The short answer from editors and then an agent who wanted to represent me was that no one was interested in short fiction any more. Everyone wanted novels. And yet I kept seeing really great short story collections being published here and in the US. But even those small presses said no thanks.

I had also written a book of non-fiction, a handbook for journal keepers, which my agent got excited about. “Be still my heart,” began the email she sent after she’d read the manuscript. This is what was going to make me viable as an author—something along the lines of self-help. If I could prove myself in sales, a publishing house just might allow me to bring out a slim volume of literary fiction.


Alas, it was not to be. The editors who saw it said the book was not aimed at a specific marketing niche. They complained that it promised neither health nor wealth in seven easy steps. They were right. Call me old fashioned, but I have qualms about promising what I know I can’t deliver. Besides, your health and wealth are none of my business. What I wanted to offer in book form was simply what I had offered in workshops over the past 20 years—exercises that might enhance people’s journal keeping practice. The results were up to the reader.

I’d begun to think about self publishing and was encouraged by a colleague at the Maine College of Art who wrote books about metalsmithing. He was put off by the poor design of most books on the subject, so he started his own publishing company. What finally convinced me was seeing a book that friends of mine had worked hard to get published by a large New York publisher. The book was poorly designed and poorly made. It looked awful. So I gave Tim a call, and we got to work on what became Wild & Woolly: A Journal Keeper’s Handbook. In the end, we produced a book I was proud of: beautifully bound, with excellent illustrations by Melissa Sweet, printed on quality paper.

Which brings me back to my conversation with John Neffenger, who is convinced that he can create more beautiful eBooks with higher resolution illustrations than are generally available. That’s what got my interest.

“EPUB is popular,” says Neffenger, “because of the disparity of device screen sizes, from 4 to 7 to 10 inches—iPhone, Kindle, Android tablets—it’s all over the place. And the only way to deal with that is to do web pages that are kind of adjustable. Words flow and shift depending on the device it’s displayed on. That’s the problem: sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”

The problem with the more fixed-format PDF is that it can’t adapt to the page sizes of different readers. It occurred to Neffenger that it might be possible to create a few different sized PDFs that would be usable on a variety of readers.

“I discovered that the devices had settled on basically three page sizes—phone, eBook reader, and tablet. So it’s do-able. You just make three different PDFs. That got me excited. I like typesetting that’s as good as a book, and you can’t do that with EPUB.”

Which is not to say writers interested in creating eBooks should not use EPUB. Just the opposite, says Neffenger.

“Though you might have to make books available in proprietary formats for the Apple bookstore,” he says, “do the primary copy in an open format like EPUB first. Then do the conversions you need to get your book into proprietary formats like Amazon and Apple.”

This is a subject about which Neffenger is passionate. And it brings up issues that the layperson might not consider, such as authors’ future access to their own material.

Open, non-proprietary formats are important, says Neffenger, “because without these free formats we are locking up the world’s information in formats that are owned and kept by someone else.”

He offers an analogy:

“Putting your work in a proprietary patent-encumbered format is like sticking it in a safe deposit box with two keys—and someone else has the other key. [At some point in the future] you may well have to pay someone to open the box to get into your own content—which is a frightening concept.”

Take a company like Apple, for example, who makes a free program callediBooks Author. Sounds good. Writers and artists love Apple. Some of the advantages include easy inclusion of video and audio files. Sounds very good indeed. But hold on a second. First drawback: the books you produce on iBook can only be read by an iPad, thus ruling out Kindle, Nook, and other eReaders, including the ones used by most libraries.

Furthermore, this “free” program is covered by Apple’s royalties and patents. Apple kindly gives you permission to access your own work. If at some later date, Apple decides to charge an access fee, you will have to pay Apple to retrieve what you thought was yours alone.

“You want to put your valuable creation into formats you can open without a toll,” says Neffenger, “formats you can get into 100 years from now, whether or not the company still exists. Otherwise someone else decides how you can get into that box.”

So I have begun a weird and incomprehensible process:  publishing an eBook—a high quality, high resolution piece of work that I can make available to the websites of independent booksellers as well as Amazon and Google. Not because I want to make a million dollars, but because what’s in the book may be useful to people who keep a journal.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Are you thinking of publishing an eBook? Or have you already? Let us know about your experience in the Comments below …


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