Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why are there so many typos in self-published e-books?

I began reading a very interesting sample from a young-adult science fiction novel I downloaded from Smashwords. It has fresh ideas, a well-thought-out universe, an exciting and unique plot, vibrant and interesting characters, and an absolutely stunning cover. What's not to love? Well, I hate to mention it, but there were four typos on the first page. In the second chapter there was a bad plot-line error, probably the result of the author planning to go in one direction and ending up going in another. I have continued to find sporadic typos but my interest in the book has not waned. I am anxious to read each new chapter to see what events and adventures will unfold.

Does this mean that it doesn't matter if a book contains errors? That we should be able to pass over misspellings and grammatical mistakes without comment? Of course it doesn't. Despite my enjoyment of this book, I would have liked it even more if I hadn't had to cringe over each mistake, if my concentration hadn't been broken by having to go back and reread an unpunctuated sentence or paragraph to make sure I got the proper meaning.

Those of us who publish our own e-books have a responsibility that traditionally published authors do not have and have never had--to act as not only the book's author, but as its only copy-editor and proofreader. No, your girlfriend or your mother do not count (unless, of course, they are professional editors).

I truthfully don't think that any author wants to be thought of as in any way illiterate. If we are talking about 2 tables, we mean two tables, not to tables. If someone finds a mistake like this in one of my own books and tells me about it, I will immediately--and somewhat shamefacedly--correct it. In fact, in a previous blog post entitled "The world is my editor," I encourage my readers to do just that.

But let's go a step further. Let's make it easier for our readers to let us know that our books contain an error or two. In the example I used above, I tried mightily to find a private email address so I could send the 29-year-old author a few of my comments without having to post them on her blog where everyone could see them. But there simply was no way--not even a message button on the book's facebook page. I regretted it, but I thought maybe the author would feel more gratitude for the comments than irritation that they were made publicly.

Here's my idea. Why not make it possible for readers who have purchased the book to communicate with authors from within the e-book itself? If you are reading along and see the word tomatos, just click on it, bring up an email window, and type, Hey, man. It's tomatoes. Yes, there is potential for abuse, but abuse is more likely to come in the form of a review, which, again, can only be done on Smashwords by people who have paid for the book they are reviewing. As both an author and a reader, I would favor this idea or something like it.

If  proofreading and copy-editing are to be necessary tools for today's authors, then let's see this as an opportunity to learn even more about our craft than yesterday's authors. Readers have new opportunities too; for the first time in history, they have the ability to actually help in the creation of  a work of literature. When I see fine new writing--like I see in the e-book I am reading--I want to do everything I can to help it succeed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What's in it for me?

Recently, one of my formatting clients emailed me with some very nice compliments about my work and particularly about the way I am following up to make sure that her book is getting through the Smashwords and Amazon systems in good shape. Then she asked, "What's in it for you?"  So I'll tell you.

I've had many jobs in my life, but in most of them I have found myself around books and writing. I have worked in libraries, clerked in bookstores, owned a bookstore, edited not only educational materials, but literary magazines. I have even been a publisher--still am, in fact. Some of these jobs were unpaid, at least in green currency. No matter. Being around books and writers keeps me in the literary scene, inspires me to write my own works, and gives me hope for the future--something to strive for.

Owing a bookstore was a high point in my life until the megastores like Barnes and Noble came into town with the expressed intention of putting all other bookstores in the area out of business. I still loved going in to work, but something had changed. Instead of being a labor of love, it became a job. I am delighted that my bookstore is still operating--although under new ownership--but I feel no longing to have it back.

Instead, I feel an affinity with e-books, and when I learned about Smashwords and its policy of encouraging independent publishing, I learned all I could. I learned how to format e-books by formatting some of my own. The process was longer than I suspected because it required a lot of study and experiment, but I managed to get the books up in a way that suited me perfectly. It was at that point that I felt I knew what I was doing--especially when I compared it to what other people were doing. Yikes! Then I was fortunate enough to get on "Mark's List" of Smashwords formatters, which enabled me to format books for others.

And what a pleasure it is. I know most of you will doubt me when I say this, but I truly love formatting books. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, it doesn't matter. I enjoy getting to know each new author and find out a little about the way they live and write. I have formatted books for authors in the U. S., Japan, England, and Canada and have enjoyed interacting with each one.

And I don't want to format the fruit of someone's hard work--sometimes their life's work--and leave them hanging between worlds, wondering what to do next. How much should I price my book? How do I get an ISBN? Should I make my book DRM? Why is my book still in Review? Why can't my friends see the sample? There are dozens, or even hundreds, of questions like this, and I know the answer to most of them. And if I don't, I am very likely to know exactly where to go to find out. Why should my clients have to wade through dozens of pages of FAQs or wait for days or weeks to get  replies from Smashwords or Amazon? Hell, they want their books available now. 

So do I, and helping them to make it so is fun.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Every story has a story.

More than twenty years ago, one of my co-workers at the Florida Department of Education showed me a photo she had taken of an old, abandoned church she had discovered in a wooded area near her home. It was a creepy picture, dark and viney, like something you might find in an Edgar Allan Poe story. You could almost feel the dried bat dung on the rope in the creaking bell tower. I remember her saying, "This would make a good setting for a horror novel, wouldn't it?"

For the rest of the day, I thought about that question, and that night I sat down and wrote part of the first chapter and a few ideas for characters and future chapters. I gave them to her the next day.

My co-worker was Anne Petty, who is now an established writer of dark fantasy novels and stories, a world-renowned J. R. R. Tolkien scholar, and the publisher of Kitsune Press. The book would be called Hell and High Water.

For the next six months or more, the two of us wrote on the book, little by little, meeting often in the conference room where we would spread out our chapters and notebooks and discuss motivation, direction, description, characterization. and all the other intricacies that make up a well-told story. We generally wrote alternating chapters, then discussed them and made constructive criticism. We didn't always see eye to eye but were always able to compromise on the language. And most of the time the compromise turned out to be better than either of our original suggestions.

The rigors of sending to literary agents and publishers got the best of us quickly, and the book went into our respective desk drawers and computer files (floppy disks, then). But that didn't stop us from continuing to write together. Over the next two years we planned and completed two additional novels connected to the first not so much by character, but by locale--the north Florida Gulf Coast, with all its myths and legends. The two additional novels in what we have always called "The North Florida Trilogy" are titled Museum Piece and Time Piece. They too, after brief tussles with agents, were consigned to invisible segments on a floppy.

Until now. With the increasing popularity of the e-book--and the fact that we're not as young as we once were--Anne and I realize that we finally have a chance to get these three novels out to readers. All three have been fiercely edited and rewritten over the years into a form we both are excited about. Hell and High Water is the first of the novels to appear in e-book form, and is available on Amazon and (where, when you purchase it, you own it (and all revisions) forever, in all formats. It is inexpensive (about a quarter of what you'd pay for a new paperback) and readable not only on e-book reading devices such as Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks, but on your computer screen as well.

Oddly, Hell and High Water did not end up as a horror novel. We call it, instead, literary suspense, as are Museum Piece and Time Piece, which are currently undergoing Anne's final review. They will appear at intervals in the upcoming months. We will, of course, let you know in our blogs and facebook pages, so stay tuned.

I think that, after so much waiting, the books deserve to be read.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Scary writing.

It has become a tradition for me to read a book of horror or ghost stories during October--the month of Halloween.  This year I have chosen 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, and Martin H. Greenberg. Some of the authors are famous in the genre, like H. P. Lovecraft, O. Henry, and Sheridan LeFanu, but most of the names are completely unfamiliar to me. As a former bookstore owner, an unknown author used to be a kind of a rarity. Just for grins I looked up a few of the strange names on Advanced Book Exchange and was only mildly surprised to find that many have no book publications. One author, Thorp McClusky--who has written the best story I have come to so far--has only one and it is a book on chiropractic medicine.

Looking at the publication history of these stories, I began to understand. Many of the stories were first published in cheap horror magazines with names like The Popular Fiction Publishing Company or Weird Tales--both of which were published in the 1930s. In other words, pulps. During the 1920s-1940s, pulps came in many genres--western, action-adventure, romance, and horror. They were purchased by the masses because they were so cheap and because they were sometimes so outrageous that tired working people could lose themselves for an hour or two and forget about the Depression or the conditions in the factory. But lots of magazines meant that there had to be a lot of writers and many young writers published their first stories in pulps--Ray Bradbury, for instance, and John D. Macdonald. Some, like these two, became famous later, most did not. In fact, I suspect that a great number of pulp writers published less than a handful of stories in their lifetimes.

The advent of the e-book is changing all that, yet I can see similarities between some of the stories I look at on Smashwords and those in 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories. For one thing, most of them are, well, ghastly. The fact that many of the authors in 100 Ghastly Stories do not have full-length books tells me that they were beginning writers who never made it. But the writing tells me the same thing--poorly thought-out plots, thin characters, and abrupt endings are the products of writers who don't know any better. The same is true with most of the e-book stories I read or sample, but with one difference: the paper-published stories have been gone over more closely by a professional editor and proofreader. Many of the e-book stories or novels or poems or whatever have not been gone through at all, except maybe by the author's brother--who is generally less educated than the author. But like I said in my last post, it is the duty of everyone who reads e-books to let the author know about silly misspellings, bad grammar, incorrect descriptions, or even stupid dialogue.

Although I am still halfway determined to get many of my novels into print via agents and editors, I am taking steps to make sure that all of my work--which includes 10 novels, three books of short stories, five books of poetry and more--will all be available as e-books before I die. That will ensure, to hopefully a greater extent than those writers whose only story was published in Weird Magazine sometime in the thirties, that my work--all my work--will be available to whoever is willing to search for it.

Hats off, then, to the editors of 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories, for doing their homework and bringing back to life so many forgotten authors. I only wish that electronic book publishing had been available for writers like Edith Lichty Stewart, Otto E. A. Schmidt, or Harold Ward, who continue to haunt the existing issues of pulp magazines and horror reprints, but nowhere else. What of the hundreds of stories that they wrote that ended up in an attic--or in the fire on a cold night? I wish I had them now.