Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Sometimes, the Quail Gets You (and Geek Wednesday)

...And Cheney wept. Ah well, them's the breaks, Dick: every once in a while in this crazy culture of ours, justice is indeed done. Sometimes you get the quail, sometimes...you blast your friend's face off. Umm, never mind. Anyway, your boy Scooter now faces 25 years of relatively soft time, and if he actually does any more than 5, I'll be shocked. Scooter will have plenty of time while he's in stir to work on his book and go over the six or seven figure offers from the various publishing giants that he's likely to receive (depending on how much he's ready to tell). All the rest of us, however, who are honest citizens and dream of becoming published authors, will have to try other means, to which end we here offer...

Geek Wednesday

Before we get to our feature piece on web-based book publishing, some followup to our previous posts is in order.

Word imPerfect: I looked into the WordPerfect Lightning beta that I mentioned last week. This is the new arrival in online document processing and office productivity, along the lines of GoogleDocs. Unfortunately, it doesn't really measure up to the Google product.

  • First of all, Lightning is really a sales tool for the WordPerfect suite. It comes with a 30-day trial of the suite, which is tied in with the online document sharing component. Now I happen to think that they have a great product; I've liked it since the 90's when Corel bought WP, Quattro Pro, and Paradox, and bundled them as an office suite (which now also includes presentation software and a mail client). WP itself is very fast for a GUI word processor, offers the option to run and save in MS Word mode, and thus includes all the essential functionality of Word; and QP has always been a great spreadsheet app, since the days it was first developed by Borland. But if you're not interested in adopting a new document management platform, then you're probably not going to be interested in this.

  • Second, this is not a web-based application suite like the Google product is. It requires a download, and the online part of it happens from the base of the local installation.

  • Finally, like Corel's other flagship products (with the exception of Painter), it's Windows-only: you can't run this thing on a Mac (except on XP installed on an Intel Mac). The last working version of WordPerfect for Mac was discontinued back in the late '90's, and it only ran on OS9, so if you're looking for another option in web-based document processing and you have a Mac, this isn't your path.


  • OS X vs. Vista: I found this article from InfoWeek, by a geek who has plenty of background with Vista, comparing Mac OS X with the shiny new MS offering. He points out much of what we've talked about here re. the usability and interface designs of OS X and Windows:

    For Mac OS X, it's the classic English butler. This OS is designed to make the times you have to interact with it as quick and efficient as possible. It expects that things will work correctly and therefore sees no reason to bother you with correct operation confirmations. If you plug in a mouse, there aren't going to be any messages to tell you "that mouse you plugged in is now working." It's assumed you'll know that because you'll be able to instantly use the mouse. Plug in a USB or FireWire hard drive and the disk showing up on your desktop is all the information you need to see that the drive has correctly mounted. It is normally only when things are not working right that you see messages from Mac OS X.
    Windows is ... well, Windows is very eager to tell you what's going on. Constantly. Plug something in and you get a message. Unplug something and you get a message. If you're on a network that's having problems staying up, you'll get tons of messages telling you this. It's rather like dealing with an overexcited Boy Scout ... who has a lifetime supply of chocolate-covered espresso beans. This gets particularly bad when you factor in things like the user-level implementation of Microsoft's new security features.


    We've noticed this too: Windows makes noises and signals at you when you least need noises and signals. Take the OS audio greeting itself: you turn on a Mac and you instantly hear a chime. That chime tells you something: the machine has powered on, connected to the processor, BIOS, and firmware. The chime means, "OK so far, I'm loading the OS now—if you get a problem from here, check your hard disk." Windows gives you nothing until everything is already up and running, the kernel to the OS has long since been found and loaded, and even the GUI is there: then you finally get that annoying shave-and-a-haircut greeting sound.

    Meanwhile, MS is just plain lying about what their operating systems can and can't do. Last week, we saw that the XP-64 download "complete with Service Pack 2" wasn't. I've also got it in writing from the Vista Upgrade Advisor that my old Gateway 1.3GHz P4 with 640MB of RAM is "Vista-ready." Yeah, right: kind of the way Bush was "President-ready."

    Hard Disk Failures: Finally a followup to our mention of the Google study on hard disk failures. Slashdot reports on a Carnegie Mellon analysis of the Google data which appear to indicate that hard drives fail a lot more often (and sooner) than the industry would like us to believe. Granted, as the CMU experts add, these data need to be repeated and verified through further study—it is somewhat possible that people are replacing hard drives before they are truly corrupt or ruined, just as folks have been throwing out perfectly good PCs after getting a malware infection in Windows. But let's face it: what's the one hardware component of a computer—any computer, PC or Mac—that you tend to worry about the most? Is there an entire industry devoted to backup processors, backup video cards, or backup displays? Nope, just backup hard drives (both external and web-based) and backup software. Someday in the 80-core future, you may be able to keep essential data right on your processors, so that your processing hub becomes a storage facility. Until then, we all have to wring our hands and gnash our teeth over those hard drives.
    _____________________

    Go beyond Vista. Skip the hassles and choose the ultimate PC ugrade 
    at the Apple Store.


    Creating a "Lulu"

    Since the arrival of iUniverse.com, the arena of on-demand publishing has been taking off, and has now developed into a Web 2.0 niche all its own, with Wikis, discussion forums, blogs, and a dedicated online following.

    The core concept is, like many ingenious ideas, simple: I write a book on my word processor; upload the document to a web server, where it is converted to a pdf document. In another part of the website where this happens, there's an applet for designing and uploading the cover. The service then takes all that, prints cover and content, applies glue and binding, and voila—you have a trade paperback publication ready to be sold to the public eager to read your wit and wisdom. For the service provider, there's little overhead: no need to store books, because the publishing only happens when people order the book. Otherwise, everything is kept on servers.

    There is a growing crowd of players in this field: I recently found out about a new one, Blurb.com, which has a downloadable application with an amazing array of design options for authors, in either a PC or Mac interface. I've got their app on the MacBook here, so perhaps I'll try doing my next book there, so we can feature this approach on GW sometime in the future.

    The original player in the field, of course, is iUniverse, which charges fees for printing and distribution. These guys are more like a traditional publisher, because they combine print-on-demand with standard publishing and marketing practices. If you have hundreds of dollars to spend, then this option is definitely worth looking closely at.

    But the product I've used for my four books to date is Lulu.com, which is a free service that lets you upload your content and publish—technically without shelling out a dime. There are costs down the line, of course, after you've published: you pay for copies of your own book, and Lulu also offers a marketing service that gets your book an ISBN number (the bar code thing on the back of any book you see at the bookstore, without which you cannot sell on amazon, B&N, or practically anywhere else), lists it with BOCA (the standard trade organization whose listings are used by most booksellers), amazon.com, and B&N. That costs you $100, and is probably worth it if you've got a truly marketable product.

    Lulu comes complete with publishing wizards, FAQs, a user forum, author storefronts and blogs, and online documentation to help you through the process of getting from manuscript to print. They now feature a very cool, amazon-style content preview that I really like. The quality of their end product, the published book, can be very impressive, depending on what the author puts into it.

    So there is vast potential for writers at Lulu; it's a beautifully designed site that does a lot of things very well. It's also a lot to wade through for someone new to this experience, so what follows is a quick guide for writers who have something to publish but are unclear about where to start with the geek side of things. As you will see, most of the work of publishing a book this way is in getting it ready at your end.


    Step One: Prepare Thy Manuscript: This is the most important part of it all. Let's say you have a Word document (they also take WordPerfect .wpd, Rich Text .rtf, and pdf file types), and you've edited it as much as you can. Perhaps you've even published it online or gotten feedback from friends who have read it, and you're encouraged enough by the response that you're now ready to publish. You've decided on self-publishing because you know you don't stand a chance in a monopolistic publishing industry that is basically the property of Rupert Murdoch and Friends. So you need to get your ms. ready to print. Here are some considerations to take into account re. document prep:

  • Book size: If you have a 300 page ms., you'll want to consider a hardcover or softcover book in 6X9 size with standard glue-and-binding finish. A smaller book (of, say, 100 ms. pages or less) can be ordered saddle-stitched; and a pamphlet-sized book of 30-50 pages or less can be stapled. What you decide here will influence what follows in terms of ms. prep.

  • Book type and page size: If you've got a novel, full length non-fiction book, or reference tome, then a standard page size for trade hardcover or paperback will do. If you have a manual, academic paper, or training document, then maybe a coil binding for an 8.5 X 11 format will be right. You pick your page size according to the way the book is to be used by readers. If I'm buying a how-to manual on building a PC, for instance, I want that thing to be easily readable (i.e., big pages), and I want it to lie flat when I open it (because my hands will presumably be busy making a screamer PC or a massive door stop).

  • So let's say you've written a fair-sized book in MS Word—around 200 ms. pages—that calls for perfect binding on a trade paperback. This is the kind of book we see and use practically every day. It's held together with glue and stitching, with a soft, glossy paper cover. Here are some essentials about getting such a book ready to become a Lulu, based on my experience with my previous four:

  • Set your paper size the way Lulu will print it. For our example, this means going into page setup in Word and changing to a custom paper size (File / Page Setup in Windows; same in Mac or use Format / Document / Page setup). Select "custom size" in the Paper Size drop-down and enter 6" for the width and 9" for the height. Click OK, and before you do another thing, select File / Save As, then give your document a new name (mybook6x9.doc), so you don't accidentally screw up your existing document.


  • Step Two: Now comes the hard part. You have to slog through that document, page by page, resetting margins (they should be set at .6" to 1" all around, or else you'll have a cramped-looking text layout in your book); rearranging text, tables, text boxes, graphics, and anything else you have in there; and refining your styles to accommodate the new paper size. You'll also want to change fonts, font sizes, and line spacing to give the look-and-feel of a professional-quality book. Here are some setting changes I made to my books toward this goal:

  • I've found that Georgia and Palatino are nice, readable fonts for paperback books. Times New Roman isn't awful, mind you, but it tends to come out too small. You'll want to experiment with this to suit your own taste. If you're working on a Mac, it's a lot easier, because you can convert any Word document to a pdf (which is what Lulu will do anyway), through the print menu (Print / Save as PDF). So create two or more versions of your document using different fonts for your Normal or Body Text style, convert them to pdf, and look them over side by side to see which font will look best in a finished book.

  • By the way, speaking of styles: if you're not using them now, start. What's the point of having a word processor if you're not using one of its primary labor-saving features? Using styles makes a huge difference in preparing a ms. for a book, because you can make large, global changes to text simply by modifying a style. An average ms. will have roughly half a dozen styles (for example, Normal or Body Text for the major content; Footnote or Endnote text for those; Block Text for quoted passages; Title; Heading 1; Heading 2; and so on).

  • Line spacing: I have found that, when it comes to line spacing, the standard options (single, 1.5, and double) don't really work best for book preparation. I like setting this through the Modify Style dialog: select Format / Style (or use the sidebar/palette feature in Word 2003 or Word 2004 for Mac), then select the style you're in and click Modify. There, you click the Format button and select Paragraph from the drop-down. In the next dialog, you can set the Line spacing to "Exactly" from the drop-down there, and specify a point setting (I often go with 14 pt. for Normal and 12 pt. for Block Text). Again, experiment and find out what you like best.

  • Graphics: Lulu offers full color books, but they are prohibitively expensive for your potential customers (I found that one of my smaller books alone would cost readers something like $30 if I had it formatted with full color throughout). It's much better to offer your readers a book they can easily afford, so you'll probably want to go with Lulu's option for full color cover with black and white interior, unless you have a really good reason for insisting on full color throughout (maybe you've got an art book or a manual that requires color graphics). For preparing a ms. that will be converted to a pdf, the rule here is, the fewer graphics you have to put in there, the better. Use placeholders and experiment with your picture settings in Word to give you the best chance of having something that will stay in place and look professional once it gets into your book.

  • Tables, charts, and text boxes: generally, the same rules apply as to graphics. Avoid color if possible, keep it simple, and adapt your other settings (font, line spacing, etc.) to help your boxes and tables fit into your book format. I have used single-row/column tables as text boxes in my books, and set the background (Format / Colors and Shading) at 5% gray, with reasonably good results.

  • Widow and orphan control: these are those leftover words and dangling lines that flip between pages. They can be distracting to readers and positively maddening to authors trying to format a Word document. Modern versions of Word have widow and orphan control turned on by default; you can check this by looking in Format / Paragraph / Line and page breaks (tab) / Widow/orphan control (checkbox). All your document styles should have this feature enabled. Whatever else you have to do in this vein is purely manual: go through your document (at least twice) and check for dangling lines, words, or ends of text boxes or tables, and then resize, change margins, or use the options in paragraph formatting ("keep lines together"; "keep with next") to control them.

  • Table of Contents: you'll need one of these for a good-sized book with several sections, chapters, or parts. Use Word's Table of Contents feature (Insert / Indexes and Tables / Table of Contents) to set up a working TOC in your document, and experiment with different styles and formats. As for an index, if you and your readers can live without it, so much the better. Because if you need it, that's a somewhat more complex thing to configure in Word than TOC. It can be done, but it takes time and patience. In any event, the last thing you should do before you save your document for the last time and get ready to upload it to Lulu is to update your TOC (select anywhere in the text for TOC, right-click, and select "Update entire table"). You want to be sure that your finished book doesn't direct a reader to the wrong page from your TOC.

  • Content essentials: speaking of contents, your book should have a title page, TOC, chapter or section headings, and (if applicable) footnotes or endnotes. My own preference on the last is for endnotes, because they are easier to manage. Incidentally, Lulu has an odd way of converting Arabic (standard) numbered notes to Roman numerals, which is annoying; and I haven't figured out the solution to this one.

  • Content items you don't want to overlook: a two or three page Preface is generally helpful, and you can include a dedication page, acknowledgments, or an epigraph (a poem or quote, for example). You'll also want to make your own copyright page: this is usually found on the flip side of the title page, inside the front cover. It has information on the author, title, publication date, ISBN, genre, LOC classification (if applicable), and rights being claimed for the author. It will also contain any disclaimer that you may wish to put in there. For instance, in my Tao of Hogwarts book, I used the copyright page to let any passing attorneys know that my book is a work of literary criticism, and thus makes no claim to affiliation with or endorsement from any copyright holders (such as J.K. Rowling, her publishers, or Warner Bros.). You can also use the copyright page to include any personal or contact information about yourself that can't be fit anywhere else (email address, website URL, that sort of thing).


  • Step Three: Upload, Design, Publish. Once you're comfortable with the styling, look-and-feel, and formatting of your ms., it's time to go to Lulu and do the relatively easy part. You just log in (or register for an ID), click Publish, select your book type and size, enter all the details into their form, and upload your Word document. Once Lulu has converted it to a pdf, use the "View print-ready pdf" feature before proceeding, and go over that pdf in detail. It's best to save the pdf page that opens in your browser as a pdf and then open it on your machine locally in Adobe Reader, where you can full-screen it and adjust the view options to your liking (you can view one, two, or four pages at a time, depending on your display real estate). Once you're through with that and satisfied, go ahead and approve the conversion. Then you'll be taken to a cover design applet, which is nicely designed with separate sections for front, back, and spine. You can use Lulu's library of designs and background colors, or upload your own graphic files. Preview everything you do there before proceeding, and get others to look at it if possible before you go ahead and publish. They also have an option for uploading your own one-piece cover design, but this takes more graphical design skill and patience than I have. If you have a knack for that, though, it's a great option to look into.

    Step Four: Pricing and Marketing. After that, you're taken to a pricing page, where you'll select how you want your book to be available (public or private; pdf download and/or printed form only), and how much you want to charge for it. Lulu will take a slice off the top and pay you a royalty on each copy sold. For example, my Life Lessons in a Time of War carries a price of $9.00, and I get a royalty of about three bucks for each copy sold. But believe me, you're not going to make a killing on this publishing route, take my word for it. I've sold about two dozen books since I've been doing this, and I market them here and at my other website, which together get about thirty or forty thousand page views a month. But then again, I may simply lack the talent or the message to be popular; your book might take off like gangbusters. But it's been my experience that success is less a matter of expecting a particular outcome than of welcoming whatever human benefit is generated by your work.

    Once you're through, you'll want to start letting the world know you've got a book out there. And, of course, you shouldn't. Order an author's copy (make sure you're getting the reduced price) and wait the week or two that it takes Lulu to format the electronic copy at their end, print a copy, and send it off to you. Then, read it carefully, cover to cover, scribbling notes in it as you go. Make whatever changes you feel are necessary (there will be some, at least), and go back to Lulu with a revised Word document and click the "Revise" button next to your book's title at your author page; and then go back through all the steps above until you have a new edition that can be in turn reviewed and hopefully approved for sale.

    From that point, you're on your own. You can spend the $100 it takes to have Lulu get you an ISBN number for your book, a listing in BOCA, amazon, and B&N; but the marketing of your product is, in the end, up to you. I've concentrated on web-based advertising, mostly at my own sites, for my books; and I've also posted them to Google Books. Beyond that, I'm eager to hear from anyone who has good marketing ideas for this kind of material—post your thoughts to the comments.

    1 comment:

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