Sunday, May 15, 2011

.epub, Independence, and Being Nearly 40 (Or the challenges of being a Narnia writer in the Apple age)

I am almost 40 years old.

Now, I know a lady never tells her age.  It's a good thing I never claimed to be one of those.  After all, ladies also iron their napkins and send thank you cards in color-coordinated envelopes.  I don't iron ANYTHING, and I am frankly having a good day if I hop on facebook to tell people I survived the drive home after a wild night out.

But I'm old enough to remember the fantasy of what it would mean to be a writer.  You guys who write, you remember the dream, right?  The original dream, as it was dreamed in high school and college, the dream of writing a short story or poem for a school assignment, and moving your teacher/professor so deeply by your genius that the work was entered in some sort of contest or submitted directly to a friend in publishing, and wham-O, suddenly you're a superstar -- remember that dream?  Oh, I do.  I remember that the dream meant that I would turn in a stack of typewritten pages, and they would magically be transformed into boxes full of lovely, full-color-covered books.

Fast forward 30 years.  Not only did that stupid old dream not come true, but I am now asked to evolve my expectations of what publishing looks like.  Gone are the fantasies of hearing the knock on the door and accepting delivery of a box of hardcover books, every one of which features my name on the cover.  I am now an independent author, and I've been asked to not only understand but accomplish something called .epub.

No. Friggin'. Way.

Okay, look.  I'm not inept.  In fact, I'm a gadget freak.  Between us, the husband and I have two Kindles, three laptops, and two desktops, not to mention smartphones and iPods.  I'm fascinated by what technology has accomplished in the last ten years.  I am a nerd, in fact -- but more a nerd on the user end.  I can usually give people pointers on how to use their gadgets.  Getting raw data into the gadgets?  Not my bag, baby.

So that was my dilemma going into 2011: How do I turn that corner?  I mean, I can convert my manuscript from MS Word to PDF, but after that?  I'm at sea.  And I need help.

But I also didn't want to pay for the full-on service that was being offered by Createspace and Lulu.  It sounded expensive, and I'm sure most of you indie writers know just how little start-up money is given to you when you take on the world of big publishing.  That's right.  Goose egg.

What to do?

Well, fortunately, I stumbled upon the perfect blend of control and assistance:

Look, I know some of my younger, quicker, nerdier friends are disappointed in me right now.  You're shaking your heads and thinking to yourselves, Gosh, MJ, I thought you would at least try to figure this out on your own.  Well, I did try.  I tried a few different programs.  And I failed abysmally.  Don't ask me how I failed, or what I did wrong.  I'm sure it had something to do with megapixels or something.*  At any rate, it didn't work, and I have a full-time job I didn't want to take time off of in order to troubleshoot the malfunction. It was time to reach out.

Ebookburn's interface is simple.  You title your work, upload a cover, fill out a few other specifics, then proceed to entering the book's content.  As a writer, you'll be familiar with the general concept: each chapter is added independent of the others.  This process not only gives you a great deal of control, but it helps to create the table of contents (one of those features people really love on their Kindles and Nooks).  Ooops!  Did you add those chapters out of order?  Not to worry.  You can reorder the chapters using the simple list interface.

Yes, this is a fantastic process, but it is by far not the most appealing part of working with the folks there.  They follow up to make sure your file came out okay.  If you have questions, they become personally invested in the solutions.  If you are a repeat customer, the proprietors will go out of their way to make sure that the files you created with them are perfect.  I don't feel alone in this, and I am more than getting my money's worth out of their service.  Their follow-up sure makes me feel like I'm not alone.

Okay, so commercial over, but does it make sense now?  Being 40 means I don't want to be alone.


*Yeah, this footnote explains that I know megapixels are related to graphics.  Joke confirmed.  (I am not that pathetic.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Ugly Secrets of the E-Book Revolution

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  ~Mao Tse-Tung.

Every revolution is ugly.  Political and martial revolutions employ death camps, hostages, and methods of torture, and in almost every case, it's hard to find the evidence of these crimes, because ad victor spoilarum (to the victor go the spoils), and, apparently, ad victor veritas (to the victor goes the truth).  The successful revolutionaries get to write whatever they want in the history books.

It isn't just political revolution that covers up ugly secrets.  Ideological debate often employs the deep pockets of lobbyists to sway popular opinion through manipulation of the media.  Even revolution in the way entertainment and media is distributed and consumed has closet-bound skeletons.

But surely the e-book revolution is a victimless crime, right?

Well, no.  Every crime has a victim.

During the digital music revolution, it's not a secret that the big music labels messed it all up for themselves.  There was certainly a right way and a wrong way to handle Napster and the way kids were sharing music files, and the way it was handled -- sending the cops out after 12 year olds who were probably not very aware that what their friends were doing was a crime -- was not at all the right way.  It caused a lot of bad press.  In the end, it was resolved with the smooth advent of iTunes and the iPod and the introduction of Digital Rights Management (DRM), but in the meantime, the kids suffered, the artists suffered, and the labels lost their mojo.

What's the difference between that situation and this one?  Well, on the surface, the e-book revolution appears to be about empowering the masses, in much the same way that Napster tried to brand itself; however, the people who have the power now are the artists themselves.  The writers can now write their books, and instead of being trapped in an endless cycle of submission to agent and, if they're lucky, to editors at big publishing houses, they can take their work directly to the reader and let them decide.  Readers can get books on the cheap, and writers can get royalties at higher margins.

But wait! you may be saying.  That sounds like a victimless crime!

That it does, until you realize that independent/self-published authors take a lot of shortcuts in bringing their work to market.  They do not benefit from a big publisher's resources.  They do not have a talented, experienced editorial staff to go over their manuscripts with a fine-toothed comb, or an art department to design a winning cover, or a promotional team to make sure the title gets noticed by media outlets.  They do not have an agent present to hold their hand, encourage them, and take care of the business aspect of things while the author gets to live his/her life and, most importantly, write.  The better self-published authors find themselves compromising everything in order to get all of these things considered, let alone addressed, and often burn themselves out trying to primp and pimp their manuscripts.  Even so, manuscripts often hit the e-reader with obvious spelling or grammar errors.

So who are the victims?

First: Agents and publishers, but I think some of that they brought upon themselves.  We all know the stories of the millionaire self-pub Kindle superstars by now, and those of us who are taking this seriously use those stories as messages of hope.  How did those authors escape the industry that is supposed to be the authority on what is fit for consumption?  The agents and publishers have a new model to pursue, and they have to find the sweet spot in this new paradigm -- or there will be deeper repercussions.  Frankly, I do not really want to see this industry crumble.  I just want to see it adapt, experiment, and try to reach out to this new digital publishing age.

Second:  Readers.  I was raised at a time that print books were king, and every one of those print books was produced by a large publisher and meticulously edited.  I grew up surrounded by properly dressed sentences and exhaustively groomed words, all of them lovely and cared for.  My patterns of speech and writing are driven by these words.  I shudder to think that there's a generation of kids being raised around words that have not been so fussed over, ugly, abandoned things who can tell a story, but don't do it with any respect for convention or tradition.

These are our victims, folks.  These are the prisoners of war, who wait for us to decide their fates and don't want to be abandoned.  Their mistakes were made with blindfolds on.  Do we give them a second chance?

Maybe.  At least I wanted to let you know they were out there.  I've answered the question for myself with full understanding of the consequences.  Have you?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Back in the Saddle -- And Riding.

A few things you should know about me:

1.  Last year, I published my first book through a small publisher.
2.  At the end of last year, talks broke down between me and that publisher over lack of communication.
3.  At the beginning of this year, I terminated my relationship with that publisher.

I do not enjoy talking about these things, so after today, I won't.  I know that my story is not unique.  I know that other people have gone through far worse.  I only wanted to let you guys know that the result of this protracted drama is good; I'm no longer beholden to anyone else, be they individual or corporation, for my work.  It is a lot of responsibility to carry the burden alone, I'll admit . . .but it's also immensely rewarding when the work is a success.

So the buzzword today is empowerment, or giving yourself permission to try, to plan, and to not wait for permission from someone else.

What's new, you ask?

I've created my own imprint name: Phoenix House Press.  I'm working with a talented group of writers.  And I'm committed to getting you the best of my work.

So stay tuned.  Things are about to get really, really interesting.  :)

Now available: CORONA: Special Edition!  Featuring a new prologue and expanded chapters.  Find it on the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook.  Print version coming soon!

Corona: Special Edition (The Chronicles of Jaenrye)