Friday, January 29, 2010

iPad, ePub and the Future of Bookreaders

I had been waiting for the announcement of Apples tablet computer, not particularly because I wanted one, but because the rumor mill had been talking about deals between Apple and various book and magazine publishers. Being in the backwaters of the publishing ecosystem, I wanted to be ready to piggy-back onto whatever new opportunities opened up.

So, the announcement came, and iBooks was demoed. I had definite mixed feelings. It looks nice, of course. I expected that, but Apple's own book store/reader combo was to be based on the existing ePub standard. I had half expected Apple to set a new, higher quality, standard. I wanted the e-book reading experience to evolve.

At the same time, I have already been in the process of supporting the ePub format with my novels, so this meant that I would not be shackled with the effort of supporting yet another format. This is good. I already support mobipocket/Kindle and ePub, in addition to the print editions. Making corrections when typos are discovered is a pain, and it's not a matter of correcting some master copy and generating the various distinct versions, not without putting sloppy text out there for the readers.

Thinking about my feelings on the issue, I realized that I have no way to solve my goal of producing e-books that match the quality of the print. It may be solved, but if so, it will be done by software engineers, not by book publishers.

When a paper book is laid out with the industry standard tools like InDesign, expensive software justifies and shifts the text in large blocks, with manual corrections to make sure that the two page spread looks smooth and evenly balanced, with no distracting artifacts of spacing to get between the reader and the words. Once it's complete, the text is frozen in place into a PDF and marked onto paper.

When an ebook is displayed, the source material has no layout, and relatively inexpensive web browser like software quickly lays out the text line by line. An individual line of the text may look good, but the screen as a whole may look poor. Add to that, a limited font selection, chosen by a reader based on the whim of the moment or personal taste rather than with an eye to compliment the words, and even a perfectly created source ePub file can never be expected to look as good as a well designed paper page.

I struggle against this, but I know I can never fix it. Some software engineer, with a knowledge of the 500 years of technical development since Gutenberg, maybe deep in the depths of Adobe, will have to take the sophistication of the high end layout programs and make a version that will run blazingly fast on cheap handheld computers. Then, some enhancements will have to be added to ePub version whatever to allow knowledgeable designers to at least hint what should be done in terms of fonts and textual variation.

What's sad is that I'm not a good layout designer. I'm new at this. Yet, I'm already hitting my head against the limitations of ePub and the other ebook formats.

That's why, in spite of the fact that I may be able to sell more books sooner because Apple has chosen ePub, I'm a little disappointed they didn't expand the technology. Maybe in version 2.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Comic Book Appreciation

I see via twitter chatter that it's Comic Book Appreciation Month in January. That's convenient. My current work in progress Pixie Dust, which is having its ARCs printed as I write, was definitely my comic book appreciation novel.

Jenny, the diminutive physics grad student who lives this adventure was into the weekly pilgrimage to the comic book stores with her boy friend when she was in high school and also had a younger brother with a talent for drawing his own stories. So when she gets caught in a dark matter explosion and it changes her, old comic book tropes come readily to her mind as she tries to get an upper hand on the problem before it kills her. For one thing, she needs to sew up a magnetic costume to gain control over the contamination.

Inspiration comes from everyone from Superman and Wonder Woman to She-Hulk to Spiderman to the kids of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Old fond memories aid her in solving the physics and murder mystery that drives the story, and even the novel is structured in twelve 'Issues' rather than chapter by chapter. If I had a lick of graphic talent I would have illustrated it, but alas, you go with the skills you have. Maybe after it wins a Hugo, I'll have the budget for a fancy second edition.

Now the question remains, should I do some kind of promotion by giving away comics from the twelve long boxes that are stacked up here to the left of my desk?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Creating the Pixie Dust ARC

Advance Reader Copies (ARC) are early versions of books that are printed in limited numbers and sent to reviewers in hopes that early buzz and quotable reviews can be gathered in time to add them to the final released book cover. Since the big name reviewers like Publishers Weekly request these ARCs four months in advance, this step is also one of the reasons why it takes so long to publish a book, once the manuscript is completed. Of course, you can skip this process, but in doing so, you give up any chance of getting the important marketing edge.

Honestly, it's never worked for me. Small fry are usually ignored by the big reviewers anyway. Still, hope springs eternal, and going through the steps of creating and distributing ARCs does make the finished product better, as it adds editing steps and time to notice any last minute errors.

This time, I'm even showing you the cover early. It's not done yet, as more front cover text, like my name, isn't even there yet, and there's the whole spine and back cover to compose. Those can't be completed until I finalize the interior layout and thus fix the page count. The spine width is dependent on how many pages there are. So many things to do, and they all have to come in the right order.

Pixie Dust is a change from my previous novels. It's a little longer and with a 20's something university grad student protagonist rather than the teens of the Small Town Big Ideas series. It's slightly out of the range to call it YA, but if you liked the others, you'll likely enjoy this science fiction tale as well. Especially if you can appreciate a 4'10" physics grad student with Tinkerbell as a nickname.

It was also my late mother's favorite of the novels I shared with her, because of the mystery story aspects. Wanna guess who will be on the dedication page?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Travel Days in 2009

It's that time again to tally up all the travel days from my calendar and add it to the spreadsheet. Sad to say, 2009 had the fewest travel days since I left the regular workday world. This was, of course, an effect of the economy. Still, 71 days on the road is more than some people get, so I should be happy. The bulk of it was the Canada trip, when we crossed from Saskatchewan to Newfoundland and it was a memorable trip indeed. Even more so as it was unplanned. I got the word that Lighter Than Air had won a Golden Duck award, to be presented at the Worldcon in Montréal. Would I be there? Well, I hadn't planned it, but now it wasn't an event to be missed.

Starting off to attend a wedding in Amarillo, we went north visiting Chamberlain, South Dakota where Falling Bakward was set so I could donate a couple of books to libraries there, and then north into Canada. After that, it was a race to see how much we could see before we had to be at the convention.

Once the event was over, we kept heading east, visiting Quebec, Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edwards Island before crossing over into Maine and then back to Texas. Mary Ann is doing a set of photo blogs on the trip and you should go visit there.

The only other trips of any length were to science fiction conventions, Conestoga in Tulsa and Archon in St. Louis.

I hope to add more conventions this year. Be sure to invite me. I don't need much of an excuse.