Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Electronic versions of my novel

I seem to be moving towards the completion of the adventure of having my novel All the Earth is Mine published as an electronic book. I first tackled this question on June 2 by placing the following request in the Apple discussions forum concerning the Pages word-processing software tool:

Please point me to explanations concerning the transformation of a Pages document (a novel) into ePub format for the iPad.

Even though the two elements of my naive request (Pages and iPad) were located in pure Apple territory, the few replies were wishy-washy, as if nobody knew exactly how to advise me. Most likely, there were people who did in fact know the Pages/iBooks situation perfectly well, but they refrained deliberately from trying to guide me. In any case, I had the impression (and still do) that I was setting foot in a constantly-emerging domain, where little is hard and fast yet.

Since iBooks use the open ePub format, I started to examine its technical specifications, and investigate the tools and resources that might enable me to implement an iPad version of my novel. At that stage (middle of June), I didn't yet own an iPad, but I downloaded a free tool named Adobe Digital Editions that lets you read ePub documents on your everyday computer.

For a few days, I experimented with the idea of using the iPad as a platform for genealogical documents such as They Sought the Last of Lands, but I soon discovered that things get messy when you try to display densely-structured genealogical documents on anything other than a nice big computer screen, so I abandoned that idea.

On the other hand, I soon created an acceptable ePub version of All the Earth is Mine running on the above-mentioned Adobe emulator. Mastering the ePub format turned out to be much easier than what I might have imagined. Still, this experimenting didn't bring me any closer to the underlying pragmatic question of how I might get my novel accepted by Apple as a genuine iBooks publication.

A breakthrough took place when I struck up a relationship with a much talked-about Californian aggregator (intermediary between authors and the various eBook platforms) named Smashwords, run by a friendly and helpful guy named Mark Coker. I decided to collaborate with this firm. Now, there are three basic facts that a Smashwords author needs to know:

1 — An author doesn't pay Smashwords explicitly, but the company takes a cut of actual book sales.

2 — Smashwords uses a robotic converter tool named Meatgrinder, which produces output in several formats, for Apple's iPad, Amazon's Kindle, etc.

3 — The input supplied to Smashwords by a would-be author must be presented in the form of a technically-impeccable Microsoft Word file.

At the start of of my relationship with Smashwords, the third point almost floored me. Really, for an author like me who masters the ePub format (not to mention many elegant word-processing systems), must I really get back to using that archaic gas plant called Word? I was a hair's breadth away from telling Smashwords that I thought they were joking, and that I would look for a more sophisticated aggregator. But, since I didn't wish to be thought of as snobbish or bigoted, I went along with Mark Coker's suggestion of shelling out a hundred bucks to obtain a nice new copy of Word. [That was the first time in my life I've ever paid a cent to Microsoft. Several decades ago, when I used to do freelance journalistic assignments, it was rather the marketing folk of Microsoft who invited me on a helicopter ride to a luncheon in a fabulous castle in the Parisian region. But times have changed.]

Today, I understand that, if Smashwords demands an impeccable Word document as their launch platform for publishing, it's for two reasons:

1 — Word is indeed a high-quality word-processing tool, used universally, and

2 — Smashwords produces several different electronic varieties of each book they process, which means that they require a firm starting-point.

As of today, I can read a Smashwords version of the novel on my iPad:

A Smashwords version of the novel looks fine on my Amazon Kindle:

Apparently, there's another version that works on the Sony device. So, as an author, I can't complain about the ubiquity of the Smashwords approach towards electronic publishing. Let's see, now, what happens from a marketing and sales viewpoint…

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