Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pressing Matters

The time between the decision to produce a paperback version of my novel and the hand-off of PDF files to the printer turned out to be surprisingly brief.

I attribute this in equal measure to years of apparently still-relevant experience in press prep and production and unfettered heedlessness. But the road to the PDF hand-off was not without its bumps and potholes.

As I have mentioned, I wrote Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead in a way that was targeted to the e-book format. The paperback format was an afterthought. This raised some issues. While most authors—to judge from a non-random sampling of their blogs anyway—seem to do their writing with Microsoft Word or other full-featured word processor, I prefer Notepad++. Yes, I use a fancy text editor—something programmers use to write code—to produce my prose works. Rather than select text and make it bold or italic or whatever, I do my formatting by typing tags right in my file along with the text. I write in Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, the same language that is the source of web pages on the internet—including the one you are reading right this minute. It turns out that the EPUB format (used by most e-book readers) is based on HTML. And once you have an EPUB file, it is fairly simple to convert it to Kindle format, the one used by Amazon and which kind of dominates the e-book market.

Having some experience with HTML definitely helps. Years ago when I volunteered to help my friend Caroline with the web site for an Irish film festival in Seattle, I asked her what program she used to author her web pages—expecting her to name some fancy professional slick web publishing product. She delighted me by replying “Visual Notepad”—a take-off of Microsoft’s line of graphically based programming products. In other words, she was doing the same thing I was—writing all the code with a basic text editor.

So it made total sense to write my book in HTML. Doing that in Notepad++ is not WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) but it’s a simple matter to preview my work by simply loading it into my web browser. When the time came to turn it into an EPUB file, I only had to load it into a nifty tool called Sigil, which allowed me to clean up the EPUB and make it acceptable for online e-book sellers. Relatively speaking, a piece of cake.

I should point out that I am by no means the first one to figure all this out. Lots of other authors have trod this ground long before me. In particular, I found a blogger who calls himself Notjohn very helpful in publicly sharing his own experience and knowledge when it comes to self-publishing, thereby saving people like me lots of time. And lots of other authors have also done the same. Members of the author/self-publishing community are nothing if not supportive of their potential competitors. To their credit they clearly understand that making a living from writing is not a zero sum game and everyone benefits from their mutual support.

So from a technical point of view, publishing my novel as an e-book was relatively straightforward. But when I realized that I needed to publish it as a paperback, it was less so. Unlike an e-book, a printed book needs to have headers and footers and a definite page size and hard page breaks and all kinds of stuff like that. You can’t do all of that with HTML code and, moreover, the printer requires PDF files.

There was no way around it. I was going to have to haul out Microsoft Word. With that realization I found myself immersed in a strange state of déjà vu. You see, that particular software product and I go back a long ways. A quarter-century ago I was tasked by my then-employer with turning that word processor into some kind of viable desktop publishing tool for the purpose of printing books—something that had not been in the minds of the software developers who had written it. I had seen this movie before.

But surely in the ensuing two decades all the hassles of trying to do typesetting, paste-up and press prep with a PC word processor and interfacing with Adobe’s industry-standard software for press jobs had long since been resolved. Right? Right?

This is definitely to be continued…

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