A cautionary tale for authors and agents

You know, I shove a tanto in my gut and bleed all over the interwebz about my issues with embedded font evangelism in the name of book designer job security, then I get over it and I think I’m done.

Well, Penguin Books has reminded me this morning that not only am I not done, I’m now pissed off as a reader and not as a writer/publisher/e-book mark-up-er, except . . . this is really not about Teh Pretteh. It’s about DRM. I’m fighting the wrong battle. The book designers can go figure out their own lives. I’m a reader first, dammit.

Way back in the day (six months ago), Penguin offered the novella “You Can Count on Me” by Roxanne St. Clair as a free PDF download you could snag from Ms. St. Clair’s site. (It’s not there anymore.) It was part of a Christmas anthology called I’ll Be Home For Christmas and features characters from her long-running series called The Bullet Catchers. I believe there are currently three books in this series, with probably more to come.

Now, I don’t like romantic suspense and I don’t like anthologies and I don’t like Christmas romance novellas, but this looked like a good way to ease me into a romantic suspense series that already had me intrigued.

And it was free. No question.

Yet I forgot the cardinal rule of life: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Dear Penguin:

You suck. And not in the good, hot, naughty kind of way.

The novella is 97 PDF pages long, but it’s 5.25 MB. Why? BECAUSE IT’S A SCAN WITH A BIG FAT KANGAROO WATERMARK ON EACH PAGE.

To give you an idea of how big this is, my 736-page doorstopper’s PDF
is 7 MB. 736 pages >97 pages.

I converted this novella before I realized it was a scan. Easy enough. PDF–>RTF–>IMP.

Except it wouldn’t load onto my eBookWise. WHY WHY WHY? Well, because it’s just too big. The IMP file is 68 MB.

To sum up: Not only am I NOT going to read this free PDF (because I don’t read books on my computer), I’m also going to dump it from my computer (which I never do because even the bad books still belong to me) because it’s a space hog and severely cramps my Vostro’s innards when it tries to open the damned file, and I’m going to remember Ms. St. Clair (poor dear, I know it’s not her fault) for this and only this.

You cost me a lot of time with your chastity-belted freebie, time I could’ve used to make money to buy the anthology the novella came from and buy more of Ms. St. Clair’s work if I liked the novella.

Perhaps authors and agents negotiating contracts with you would do well to remember that your DRM process never gave me a chance to get hooked off your free hit.



Update @8:38 p.m. It was just pointed out to me that the PDF file didn’t actually have any DRM on it. It was just a wildly bloated scanned-and-watermarked PDF. The effect, however, is the same: Make it as difficult as possible for the consumer to read the book. Every time I open the PDF, whatever else is in those graphics (it’s a scan, remember), it nearly crashes my computer.

One could argue that this is where book design and fear of piracy converge to create a virtually (heh) unusable product.

Guest blogging and Tools of Change

I’m over at Publishing Renaissance today, blogging part 3 about how The Bewbies came into existence; in case you missed them, see part 1 and part 2, too!


April Hamilton, independent publishing crusader extraordinary, built a new site called Publetariat, which will serve as kind of a clearinghouse/gathering space for independent-like authors. As soon as I figure out the Nixonian Drupal (you know, tricky dicky), I’ll be adding my voice over there. At least, uh, that’s what I’ve been s’posin’ to do for a while now and haven’t gotten to it. I’m sure April will find a suitable punishment for me.

The O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference went on earlier this week and I followed the comments on Twitter. Fascinating! although I’m not sure any conclusions can be drawn in any direction. Frankly, it seems to me nobody really knows what the hell’s going on in publishing right now. I will just keep on keepin’ on. By the way, a free e-book rundown of the conference is available for anyone who wants one.

A lot of what I saw related to the creative monetization of fiction, which ties in perfectly with The Urban Elitist‘s and my cross-blog series on the same.

The EPUB format drum continues to be beaten and pleasepleaseplease, PTB, do IT! All for one and one for all! The mp3 format of e-books. I cannot tell you how I salivate at the thought.

DRM was preached against as the Great Satan (which it is).

The guy behind the Espresso Book machine spoke. I don’t know what he said, but check out this video.

Some of my independent publishing cohorts and pals had a session. I wish I’d been there!

I’m coming to the conclusion that it will be another few years before e-books are widely read and that at that point, the value of the print book will be in POD pretty, well-made editions, hardback with gorgeous jackets and/or the ability to offer leather-bound and tooled editions or other specialty editions, where the object of the book is the art as well as the content. Until then, the market’s going to be in flux with regard to price, from free to outrageously overpriced. (I’ll blog this later; I have lots to say about this.)

In other news, the XY Tax Deduction went rooting in the cabinet and brought me a can of corn to make for him. So I did. He said, “I not hun’ry.”

The forbidden Apple

So let’s try this again and I will make myself very clear: I’m seriously pissed.

Apple rejected my book from its iApp store on the basis that it has the F-word. Now, I’m sorry, but the fact that the F-word is in my book is the least of its crimes (they must have missed the “cunt”), so…“fuck”? Really? But that’s not the point.

And you can download the Stanza (free) or eReader (free) applications to your iPhone, download my book, and read it that way, so all is not lost. But that’s not the point.

Some people call this censorship. I don’t; they’re well within their right to accept or reject any book they want. But that’s not the point.

The point is also not that Apple is cutting off its nose to spite its face. For whatever reason I don’t understand, they’re wishing-washing on e-books.

1) There is no iBooks.

2) There is no restriction of explicit lyrics and explicit/violent games and R-rated movies in the iApp store, which leads me to believe that the restriction is solely for e-book applications. Why? Are we discriminating against reading as a leisure activity? Why?

3) At the same time, Apple made a deal with ScrollMotion to provide a host of e-books as applications, but I notice they are of the young adult variety, which is a pretty safe bet, content-wise. However, they’re wrapping these up in DRM. Why?

4) Not only that, but some of them are seriously over-priced. More than the hardback!!! Gah.

5) When I actually looked at what was in the e-book section if the iApp store, it was classics in the public domain (good!) and puppies-and-kittens (no, seriously, books on puppies and kittens) and manga (in which I have no interest whatsoever). Yeah. Selection. I can get a better selection of books to read at Wal-Mart, albeit I have to go there and buy dead-tree books.

6) On Teleread, the speculation is that spikes in iTouch sales are good for e-books, but is that true for e-book applications?

Nothing Apple is doing on this front makes sense to me. David Carnoy’s Knife Music (read his whole post) was rejected for the F-word, but this wouldn’t have even come to light if he weren’t already semi-high-profile (which fact is okay with me, but it’s happening all over the place, not just with him). I mean, they’re adding e-book applications a little bit. Here and there. Snootily.

On a purely capitalist pig basis, wouldn’t you think this would be a market they would want to exploit? I can only conclude that Jobs simply carries an utter abhorrence for The Book and does not want to exploit it for another revenue stream.





But not…books?

Creating e-books: The easy way


In my last episode, I instructed you to go learn (X)HTML/CSS. I was gently taken to task for that with the point, “writers shouldn’t have to learn code.” While I am of the opinion that for some writers, this is not only true, but that they should be kept from any computer interaction whatsoever, I’m afraid it’s just not realistic in the long run. You will learn something, even if it’s only the paragraph tags and all of it will be useful to you at some point.

Yes, you can use blogger.com or wordpress.com or any other sign-in platform for your blogging.

Yes, you can use Word and PrimoPDF to set type and distribute your work as a free PDF.

If you want to:

A. want to offer more than one file format (PDF) and/or

B. want to charge for your work

you’re going to have to either pay someone to do it for you or learn how to do it yourself.

There are quite a few places that will help you with #A.

FEEDBOOKS. As far as I can tell, if you use this service, you must offer your work for free. If this is not acceptable to you, just don’t use their service. (And if this isn’t true, let me know because I scoured the site and couldn’t find any “payment” type information. ) Also, you must manually build your book. Now, this has its pros and cons. The con is that it takes a while. The pro is that you can make it look purty with a little care and attention without having to learn much (if any) (X)HTML/CSS.

BOOKWORM. This is a peculiar service in that you may upload your own book, but the only format you get is the EPUB format. It is also more for reading than publishing (as far as I can tell; more information on this is welcome).

SMASHWORDS. This is the Q-DOS of e-book building/formatting. It’s very quick. And yeah, sometimes it’s dirty, especially if you don’t format your Word document correctly (as in, according to standard word processing practices and to SmashWords’s style guide). That’s the con. The pro is it’s fast and you can charge for your work.

I’m making several assumptions here. The FIRST assumption is that you want your book to be in as many electronic formats as possible. The SECOND assumption is that you want to have those formats available to you on your own hard drive for dissemination as you please. The THIRD assumption is that you want your work to have widespread visibility across the interwebz. The FOURTH assumption is that you might want to get paid for your work.

So let’s talk about SmashWords.

I heard about SmashWords from Eugene Woodbury quite a while back, who used it for his novel Path of Dreams, but I dismissed it because I thought the work had to be offered free. Then Zoe Winters used it for her free novella “Kept.” Okay. But then Aaron Ross Powell used it to offer his draft of The Hole in more formats than Kindle right after I bitched about it. Then RJ Keller used it to offer Waiting for Spring, and that’s when I had the V-8 moment.

I figured, well, what the hell, I’ll try this thing. So I took a vignette from The Proviso‘s world (not in the book) called “25 to Life” and decided to put it on Smashwords.

CAVEAT: “25 to Life” did not call for fancy formatting like The Proviso does. The Proviso has blog posts, e-mails, news clippings, court transcripts, social services records, a wedding announcement, and other specialized formatting that required different fonts, spacing, and margins to make those items look good. If you have something like that, this WILL NOT WORK for you.

Assumption 1. That you want your book to be in as many electronic formats as possible.

They have this nifty little API they call the “MeatGrinder.” It will turn a plain, properly formatted Word document into any one or more of the following digital formats:

Format Full Book
Online Reading (HTML) View
Online Reading (JavaScript) View
Kindle (.mobi) Download
Epub (open industry format, good for Stanza reader, others) Download
PDF (good for highly formatted books, or for home printing) Download
RTF (readable on most word processors) Download
LRF (for Sony Reader) Download
Palm Doc (PDB) (for Palm reading devices) Download
Plain Text (download) (flexible, but lacks much formatting) Download
Plain Text (view) (viewable as web page) View


As you can see, that’s a lot of variation. I got both The Hole and Waiting for Spring in the RTF format, as that was the easiest for me to convert to my eBookWise reader. Powell asked for $2.99 and Keller offered hers for “you set the price.”

Assumption 2. That you want to have those formats available to you on your own hard drive for dissemination as you please.

I don’t even know if you have to buy it yourself (if you set a price) to download which formats you want to offer from your own site or elsewhere, but even if you do have to, you got off cheap in both time and money.

Don’t be an ass. Be courteous and leave it up on SmashWords. They did the work for you.

You will NOT be able to get a straight HTML document to download and then tweak to other formats, which is good.

Assumption 3. That you want your work to have widespread visibility across the interwebz.

The founder of SmashWords, Mark Coker, says: “Our mission is to give every author a chance to find their audience.”

SmashWords is gradually gaining in name recognition and usage. Augment your presence on SmashWords with placement of your work elsewhere on the ’net. It benefits you and SmashWords (you know, the people who did the work for you).

Assumption 4. You might want to get paid for your work.

There are several payment options at SmashWords, which I’ve addressed. In my first “creating ebooks” post, commenter and indie author champion Morris Rosenthal told me about e-junkie.com, which is a payment portal for downloads. He’s had quite a bit of success with this method, though I can’t vouch for it at this time (although I do intend to check it out).

However, as far as I know, SmashWords is the only independent e-publishing vendor that offers an API process AND a payment portal and quite frankly, there’s just nothing else that beats that, even if you do have to sacrifice a little formatting.

So after having put “25 to Life” up on SmashWords, used their API, seen their output, what do I think?

The HTML and Java versions (the ones that you read on your computer) are very pretty and you can adjust fonts, colors, and sizes as you like.

The plain TXT ones are, well, plain text. It says “may lack some formatting,” but if you know anything about plain text, you know that means NO formatting.

The EPUB (use with Stanza for iPhone/iTouch, Adobe Digital Editions) format doesn’t seem to have centered anything, but I can live with that.

The LRF (Sony) and PDB (Palm) didn’t pick up the italics, which is something I CAN’T live with, but it’s being worked on right now (no promises!).

The PDF looked like a manuscript because, well, it comes from a plain Word document, so you know that going in.

The MOBI/PRC (Kindle, MobiPocket) looked great.

The RTF is obviously going to look just like a Word document, and it’s my go-to for conversion to IMP (eBookWise), so I don’t care how it looks.

If you follow the SmashWords style guide to the letter, you’ll have a slew of decent-looking e-books (including EPUB!) as defined by my last post on “the page” and you’ll get them in about 3 minutes, along with a payment portal.

SmashWords is an elegant little API, and it’s still in beta testing. I can’t wait to see what it’ll be at full force.