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May 7, 2011

Epubbing the Backlist
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:01 AM *

“So,” I said, “what the heck. Why not try republishing some of our short stories in electronic versions? All the cool kids are doing it….”

Bad Blood  The Confessions of Peter Crossman  Crossover  Ecdysis  Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen  Jenny Nettles 
Remailer  The Last Real New Yorker in the World  Philologos; or, A Murder in Bistrita  The Queen's Mirror  A Tremble in the Air  Two From the Mageworlds 

“Why not” included the fact that we didn’t have electronic text versions of many of our stories. Stuff that only exists on a 3.5” Atari ST disk (or a 5.25” Atari 800 disk), and we think we saw the disk sometime in 1993, aren’t easily converted to e-book formats. But, we’re doing it. Fifteen stories so far (roughly half of our corpus), with more to come.

These are promulgating across the world of e-publishing even as we speak; some are available on the Nook, for example; I’m told that others may be in the Apple store, or as apps for assorted mobile phones and such.

And just for Making Light readers, from now ’til June the 6th, here’s a special coupon to get our short science fiction story “Crossover” free. The code is: PR29V

Covers and e-book formatting are by my elder son, Brendan (the guy with the master’s degree in Entertainment Technology).


Comments on Epubbing the Backlist:
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 12:23 AM:

Woo! I was just thinking I needed more reading...

#2 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 12:24 AM:


(Okay, Michael Hart was first. But still.)

#3 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 01:19 AM:

Well, that was a painless way to acquire a few Doyle/Macdonald short stories.

I've always found the Smashwords license a bit annoying -- it says you can't lend the book to anyone else but have to buy a copy per reader. It's not actually an issue in practice for me, since no-one else uses my phone, but still.

#4 ::: romsfuulynn ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 05:06 AM:

seven of them up for the Kindle - don't seen anything except what was already available for Nook. Steve Miller & Sharon Lee's short stories didn't come up quite as quickly for the Nook. (I will explore this more when I'm not just passing through in the middle of the night.)

#5 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 05:22 AM:

I'm slightly surprised that "A murder in Bistrita" has a photo of Edinburgh castle and the Princes street gardens fountain on the front.

How do you deal with stories which don't have any electronic format copies? Is it worthwhile just typing them out from a book?

#6 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 05:58 AM:

I don't know about "worthwhile," but typing them out of a book is exactly how we've been doing it.

#7 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 08:46 AM:

Hey, a Mageworlds story I don't think I've read. Cool.

#8 ::: Bethe Friedman ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 09:16 AM:

Most of the cool kids (generalizing from the current examples I've encountered, that would be Charlie Stross, Diane Duane, Cory Doctorow, and Naomi Kritzer) seem to be doing inexpensive anthologies rather than making the readers download them piecemeal.

That's my preference, both for reading and downloading.

#9 ::: cath ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 09:25 AM:

Have you tried scan + character recognition? Probably depends how flat you can get the page and how close the print is to the spine.

#10 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 09:26 AM:

Jim #6: Well, for us it's surely worth your while, but only you can decide if it was "worthwhile" for you! ;-)

#11 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 06:05 PM:

The anthology is coming after we get all the stories done.

The Confessions of Peter Crossman is a collection of all the Crossman stories. Two From the Mageworlds is a collection of all (both) of the Mageworlds short stories.

It's all an experiment right now.

#12 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 11:18 PM:

It depends on the effort needed to do it, whether it brings a worthwhile direct return.

My experience of e-texts is that a good e-text is a different layout to a good physical text. It needs the errors to be corrected, but it isn't a re-flow of the text sent to the printer.

I wonder if there is a common set of typographical entities, or if e-reader systems have specific preferences on how typographical features are expressed. I've worked with epub, which is essentially HTML, and that seems to prefer æ for æ, while some HTML sources express these things directly in unicode.

I have the feeling that publishers may get better results if they adjust the workflow, so that the e-text for a Kindle release is split off a little before the e-text for the printer. And that stage might be a better archive version, allowing for hardback/paperback adjustments. What we see in a printed version (paper or PDF) can hide some awkwardnesses, such as hard and soft hyphens.

And even if somebody waves a magic wand, and the publishers all suddenly start getting it right, it might be ten years before the authors, doing this sort of re-release, see the benefits as the rights to old works revert.

I used to use Lotus Smartsuite, because it gave some pretty clean HTML. I can see something such as OpenOffice being more useful than MS Word, which was notoriously bad for outputting HTML, a decade ago. Formats such as epub seem to use quite simple HTML: mark-up rather than web-typography.

We need that magic wand.

#13 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2011, 12:14 PM:

As to "Why Edinburgh castle," it was a royalty-free stock shot that wasn't Neuschwanstein. We were looking for something that "seemed more burg than schloß, and more schloß than château" and ... it certainly is.

Bran Castle would be perfect (for many reasons), but, alas! the copyright situation is not ideal.

#14 ::: Hugh ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 12:09 PM:

Any chance of getting the Mageworlds books re-released in electronic form? I quite like Price of the Stars, but I've three times drawn the short straw on bookbinding with that one - I've never had books fall apart as fast and eventually stopped trying to replace it.

#15 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 12:25 PM:

The Price of the Stars? Absolutely. The only question is when and through whom.

FWIW, it'll be available in German translation this coming month, with a simultaneous e-book version. If you read German.

#16 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 01:07 PM:

Will these be available simultaneously in different stores, i.e. Amazon, B&N, and so forth since those are retailers and not actually publishers?

#17 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 01:14 PM:

Depending on what you mean by "these," Dave, the answer is yes.

Observe, B&N and Amazon.

One of the common problems with e-books, as I see it, is that unless you know the exact title/author, or have a direct link, you can't find a given book.

#18 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 06:11 PM:

The Arts section of this weekend's Washington Post had a long article on the e-pub goldrush.

#19 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 08:17 PM:

Please note this from that article:

A word of caution


Don’t sprint to e-pub that novel you wrote on vacation that time but never sent to anyone because your wife said it stinks and what does she know? Well, maybe a lot.

The overwhelming number of self-publishing e-authors are consigned to the same fate as their print counterparts: oblivion.

“We have less than 50 people who are making more than $50,000 per year. We have a lot who don’t sell a single book,” says Mark Coker, founder of, a Web site that helped launch indie publishing.

“When I load all our numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s the typical power curve,” he says. “On the left, there’s a skinny area of the chart where people are knocking it out of the park. And then we have a very, very long tail off to the right, where some titles sell very few at all.”

Belle, the Amazon veep, adds,“There are a lot of books, even low-priced, on Kindle that are not selling at all.

Also, even the most successful of indie authors will say they have discovered that publishers do a lot of stuff that isn’t much fun to do yourself. Designing covers, solving layout problems, finding freelance copy editors, contacting umpteen hundred bloggers, looking up ad costs on Facebook: You know what all that is? Time away from writing.

Hocking, the self-pub phenom, signed a deal with a mainstream publisher because, she wrote on her blog, “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc.”


#20 ::: Hugh ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 08:20 PM:

Jim, as much as I like your novels I don't think I'm going to learn a new language to read them in.

I wish I could set alerts on some books to tell me when they were available in ebook form. There's a nontrivial number of novels I'd pay for again to have the convenience of constant access.

#21 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 08:41 PM:

Hugh, I promise, if the Mageworlds come out in e-book format, regular readers of Making Light ... well, let's say that y'all will be the first to know.

#22 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 10:11 PM:

#19 (re: Public Service Announcement)

"When I load all our numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s the typical power curve"

You'd probably get a similarly exponential graph if you evaluated every manuscript to ever sit in a publishing house slush pile.

The other points -- about the custodianship, man hours, and editing involved in presenting a quality product -- are quite valid.

#23 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2011, 10:14 PM:

When I load all our numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s the typical power curve,

We now insert this statistical public-service announcement.

If you use the term 'power curve' to describe frequency data, you're just asking for Cosma Shalizi to unload both barrels on your data analysis. He even does it to librarians.

#24 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 10:32 AM:

Since covers are point-of-sale ads for the books, I would welcome comments on the covers.

#25 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 10:54 AM:

JDM #24:

The font on about half of them ("Uncle Joshua ..." et al.) is a bit of a turnoff--reminds me a bit too much of that seen on some very bad Baen covers. The artwork itself looks pretty good, but the ones with the photos look more, well, professional.

#26 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 11:40 AM:

Do you have suggestions for better fonts? Should multiple fonts be used?

#27 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 11:55 AM:

I'd say that if people can't read the title, they aren't going to look inside. Some of those covers are problematic. (There are some where I can't tell what the title is, because the text vanishes into the picture behind it. I'd advise looking at them in a thumbnail-type image as a test.)

#28 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 12:10 PM:

You're talking about the ones with yellow text, right?

#29 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 12:30 PM:

It isn't just yellow, there's one with blue, one with red, and one with white.
(Actually, it's a bit like masquerade photo areas: we started using rolls of light-studio-gray backdrop paper (9 feet wide), because every year it seemed that someone would show up in a costume that blended in to the room's wall-covering. And then one year, someone showed up with a ten-foot-tall costume, and another year, someone showed up with a costume in silver-gray....)

#30 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 12:56 PM:

Which specific titles? Anything can be changed, and this is a learning experience.

#31 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 01:09 PM:

I'd agree the yellow color can be hard to read, but also the placement of words over a complex picture (The Queen's Mirror & Jenny Nettles). Bad Blood is a little low contrast, for a non-yellow example of the coloring problem.

Two From the Mageworlds is, I think, the best of them. Very clean.

#32 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 04:18 PM:

I agree that Two from the Mageworlds is the best.

Peter Crossman, Last New Yorker are also good. For Crossover, I like the design, but the authors' names are hard to read. That probably doesn't matter as much as for books on squashed trees, since the name is going to be displayed somewhere else on most e-book platforms.

Titles for Queen's Mirror, Jenny Nettles, Philologos, A Tremble in the Air are hard to read.

For Remailer and Ecdysis it's easy to read the title, but the pictures don't thumbnail well. For Ecdysis I had to go to Smashwords, expand the image, and tilt my laptop screen at just the right angle to see the picture properly. To some extent that's the problem with A Tremble in the Air, which is much better at Smashwords than in thumbnail.

In general, I think you could do with more variation in brightness, lower color saturation, and less fine detail (or fine detail that matters less). The cover of Ecdysis would be good printed on a mass-market paperback, but I don't think it works so well as a small digital image.

You may want to design separate, simplified, thumbnail images, if the ebook platforms support them.

#33 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 04:27 PM:

What jumps out at me on all of them, except The Queen's Mirror, is the lack of margin. I'm sorry to say that it looks amateurish; if I were judging these books by their covers, I'd assume the worst.

#34 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 04:31 PM:

What do you mean by "margin," TexAnne?

#35 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:00 PM:

This may not be what TexAnne meant, but I do notice that the title text goes right to the extreme edge of the image on most of them. For example, the M and S of "Mageworlds" each appear to touch the edge.

#36 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:00 PM:

The words go all the way to the edges.

#37 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:01 PM:

janetl: Jinx, jinx, you owe me a Coke! Yes, that's what I meant. Is there a design word for that?

#38 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:08 PM:

On the point about color and detail: looking at my iPhone and at Amazon, the printed covers that translate best to the relatively small digital image are ones that look noticeably spare at book size.

For example, the Hunger Games trilogy, China Mieville's The City & The City and Kraken, Felix Gilmore's The Half-Made World.

The covers for the new Liaden short-stories are excellent. Barbara Hambly's new ebooks likewise -- the detail doesn't get in the way in the thumbnail and is visible in the larger-size image.

Baen covers tend to work poorly: high saturation and lots of detail.

#39 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:13 PM:

Yes, and the margins. I didn't notice it explicitly, but TexAnne and janetl are right.

There are some professionally-designed book covers that do that (Holly Black's new series, for example, and the ebook version of Ender's Game), but only to achieve a specific effect.

#40 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:25 PM:

TexAnne: many of the covers do have better margins at full size -- go to Smashwords, and click on the cover image to see the full version. It makes a big difference to some of them. The Peter Crossman cover is very good at full size (which is presumably the printed cover for the Lulu POD version)

Unfortunately, the potential readers will see the thumbnail and then maybe a 1x2 inch version, not the full-size image that's larger than my laptop screen.

This suggests designing at the sizes it's going to be viewed at -- it's the opposite problem to designing printed covers, which can display more detail than a typical computer screen.

#41 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 09:37 PM:

Edinbro' Castle, top an' tower,
God grant ye sink frae sin.
An' a' was frae the black breakfast
Earl Douglas gat therein.


As it happens, I'm from the branch of the Macdonalds where the elder son always happens to have "Douglas" as a middle name.

Thus my father was William Douglas, I'm James Douglas, and my elder son is Brendan Douglas.

#42 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2011, 09:15 AM:


That was... non-trivial. "You need an account." OK, generate an email address, generate a secure password, file for future reference. "There will be an email, with a link, to complete registration". Fine. URL why you no work? "Sorry, a fault happened." OK, password recovery, try password from earlier. Webpage, why you no log me in? OK, try other browser. That worked.

Now, try again from the phone, to complete the check-out, so I can store the e-book where it can be read. That worked, too.

Jim, not your fault at all, I look forward to reading the book, based on the (so far one, purchased as an actual print book, as an original sale, to boot) I have read.

#43 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2011, 10:16 AM:

Thanks, Ingvar. We loves us all our fans.

But, maybe you could write up your adventures in Getting An E-book as a post somewhere? It's still early days, and not as easy as some folks might think.

#44 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2011, 02:05 PM:

And we've added another short story: "Up the Airy Mountain."

#45 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 06:44 AM:

James D. MacDonald @ #43:

I could, perchance, write something up while it's still border-line fresh in my mind and stick it on the web, somewhere. Or, even, send it by email to someone, if that's preferred.

Haven't had a chance to leaf through the download yet, as there's been other things in the to-read pile and the daily hours available for reading are rationed (the travel to and from work, basically; although the recent multi-continent work trip saw quite a lot of printed matter being consumed).

#46 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 07:57 AM:

Ingvar: You could even post it right here, since it's on-topic.

#47 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 07:47 AM:

James D. MacDonald @ #46:

Huh? I thought only trusted posters were trusted to make posts (rather than comments). I may well be mistaken. I shall endeavour to get something down in a file in the not-too-long distance, nonetheless, before the comedy of errors has passed out of my mind (too much, at least there's my comment to remind me of what was).

#48 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 08:29 AM:


I meant as a comment in this thread. Though any of the front-door posters could promote it to a main post.

#49 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2011, 07:53 AM:

Jim @ #48:

You mean like this?
So, in an attempt to lay my hands on more Doyle/Macdonald (why do I mentally spell it as MacDonald or mac Donald?) goodness, I tried downloading Crossover.

Well, I am at least border-line computer-savvy, so this should be easy, right. Click on the link, click purchase, fill in the voucher code and off we go.

Turns out, it's not quite that easy. To purchase anything from SmashWords, you need to be signed in.

Fine. Abandon "download from teh phone browser", over to the workstation, create a dedicated mail address for SmashWords (increases traceability, pretty quick if you run your own mail-server, do it if you can), generate a random password and off we go.

mail (eventually) arrives. With a links. Wahey! Only problem is that it's an HTML-only email and as I am a bit... conservative when it comes to my own mail, I had to read the raw HTML and try to locate the right link. some reading later, there's a tell-tale 'Click Here' in an <a href...> </a> and we're good to click.

Only... the page behind the link doesn't work in all browsers. Because eth page I saw said (essentially) 'hey, you're trying to add an account, you'll be getting a mail with a confirmation'. OK, broken page, it should still have registered, they normally do. So, click on 'Log in', fill out the mail address and password, and... I get the login page, again.

"Maybe," I thought, "the registration didn't work?" So, I tried to register again. Only to be told I was already registered. Fine, do a password recovery. An email (again all-HTML) arrives, followed the instructions and, indeed, it still doesn't work.

So, off to another browser, try to log in and... Yes. It changed from 'Log in' to 'Welcome'. Surely now it would just work? Back to ML, to find the link again (the SmashWords search interface is kinda annoying, I found), click on 'Buy' and now I am actually presented with the relevant page.

At this point, I was close enough that abandoning the purchase felt a bit silly. I had, after all, managed to go further than I had done, three weeks earlier, when the 'Please register an account' was enough of a bar.

So, do the purchase dance, enter the voucher code, click on 'Update', click on the purchase button and now we come to the Good Thing about SmashWords...

At this point, I could point the browser in my phone at the site, log in and download the ePub file there, so I didn't have to leash the phone to the workstation. It would just have been vastly easier for me, if I hadn't had to register, in the first place.
FWIW, I really liked Crossover.

#50 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2011, 08:36 AM:

Hurrah for liking it!

And my goodness, on the hassles on getting that far. Thanks for sticking with it, and thanks for posting the story of your travails.

A less-hardy individual might have given up.

#51 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2011, 05:59 AM:

Jim @ #50:

My attempt the day after your original post went up was quickly followed by "nah, I give up, this is too complicated". But, hey, free books.

#52 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2012, 05:36 PM:

Beth #8: Most of the cool kids ... seem to be doing inexpensive anthologies rather than making the readers download them piecemeal.

Showing my true commitment to self-publishing, it's only taken me a year to come up with the anthologies.


It's okay to tell your friends about the codes: Tweet 'em, put 'em on Facebook, blog 'em, it's all cool with me.

#53 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2012, 09:02 PM:

Jim, thank you for the free-this-month option. I look forward, one of these days, to being able to actually buy books again--but until then, thank you for the gift of more good stuff to read.

#54 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2012, 09:21 PM:

Thanks, Jim!

#55 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2012, 01:18 PM:

For reasons that escape me, our short story "Crossover" had more sales at Amazon in July '12 than it had in the previous three months combined. None of our other stories had a spike that month.

Beats heck out of me why this should be. (Particularly when the same story is available bundled with four others in an anthology that's sold no copies at Amazon in the same period.)

Smashwords' reporting is so fragmented that it's too early to tell if there was a similar spike for the same title in the same period across the other e-book sellers.

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