Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On Book Designing

So let's set the Wayback Machine back eight years. I was a newish writer with a legacy publishing contract and a blog, doing what I could to get my name out there. I was approached by a fan, Rob Siders, who noticed that I didn't have a Wikipedia page and offered to set one up for me, free. He was into coding, liked to read and write, and was one of those forward-looking types who understood that tech forged the future whether Luddites wanted it or not.

I thanked him, and asked if I could return the favor someday. He asked me to keep him in mind if I ever needed to do any sort of computer stuff.

Two years pass, I decide to try self publishing on DTP, Amazon's new Kindle platform, but trying to upload MS Word and make it look good on Kindle can only be achieved by going through the entire manuscript, word by word, and deleting or adding formatting marks.

It's awful, time consuming, and I'm sure that a code jockey would know a better way of doing it.

So I contacted Rob. He was able to format my massive Newbie's Guide to Publishing ebook, which was hundreds of thousands of worlds long and has more links and hyperlinks in it than the rest of my work combined.

Rob did it, and it looked better than any of the ebooks I'd formatted myself. So I asked him to redo the ones I'd done, and I noticed something pretty spectacular.

I'd erroneously been treating ebooks as words on a digital page, laid out according to whichever font size the reader chose. Rob showed me that ebooks, like paper books, could be designed.

Average text, in the hands of a skilled craftsman, became a thing of beauty. A work of art.

Rob founded 52 Novels, a book design company, with his wife, Amy. They offer their services for all ebook platforms, and for paper.

I can unequivocally state that 52 Novels delivers books that are better looking, easier to navigate, and all around better, than 99% of legacy publishers.

I caught up with Rob and asked him a little about how his business worked. Indie authors know the importance of great covers (I use Carl Graves at and a flawless manuscript (I use Grammar Rules A to Z), but very few understand the importance of book design.

To make a sketchy analogy, great book design is putting your novel in a tuxedo, whereas simply uploading your MS Word doc is going to the party in ripped jeans and a dirty tee shirt.

Joe: What is it a book designer does?

Rob: More than anything a book designer is a problem solver… not that the authors and publishers we work with are problems. What I mean is that all books have a logic to them, so our process always begins with trying to understand what the author is trying to say. Matching a look to that message—within the realm of what’s possible with ebooks—is sometimes the hardest work we do. Obviously, some books are straightforward so our work follows suit. But more and more we find that authors and publishers are trying to push the boundaries of what we've come to know an ebook to be.

Joe: What’s different about the work you do, and me just uploading my MS Word doc to KDP?

Rob: About half of the people who knock on our door these days have tried uploading a Word doc or PDF, to KDP and are frustrated because something has gone pear-shaped and they can’t fix it… the table of contents doesn't work, or a heading or two or three is wonky, or everything after Chapter 8 is bold, or whatever it is that KDP’s autoconverter produced.

Word is a perfectly fine presentation application, but behind the presentation is a lot of complex code. The more you fiddle with the presentation, the more likely it is you've introduced an enormous amount of inefficiency in the code, as well. For example, the Track Changes feature—while a decent way to manage the editing process—can be brutal to the code.

We've developed custom tools that extract the text from the document to leave us with super-clean code. Once we have that, we can do just about anything we want with it.

Joe: Can you show us an example?

Rob: Yes. Here’s the first chapter from Melinda’s ALICE trilogy as submitted:

Now let’s compare it to what I made:

This particular treatment—which was a premium project—uses embedded fonts and a stylized drop cap to get this look. That’s 100 percent text, XHTML and CSS.

Joe: What makes a finished ebook look professional?

Rob: There are lots of aesthetic things, like drop caps and embedded fonts, that add professional finishes that you just can’t do well with ebook conversion applications or that you can’t do at all with a Word-doc-to-KDP upload. But other hallmarks are typographer’s quotation marks (AKA curly quotes or smart quotes), poetry and verse that use hanging indents, and dynamic image sizing.

Joe: What’s the difference in designing the interior of an ebook and a paper (POD) book?

Rob: It can be night and day depending on the book, but the biggest difference is that designing for paper provides us with a lot of freedom and flexibility that just doesn't exist with ebooks. Paper is a larger canvas. It's fixed in size. And we don’t have to worry about the delivery device because it's the same regardless of who’s using it.

We started as an ebooks-only shop and our workflow still follows that. So, if we can accomplish something in an ebook then the paper is usually a piece of cake. A lot of authors and publishers—especially in non-fiction—come to us having first made beautiful print books that simply won’t work well as ebooks, at least not without a lot of remixing or remaking the content. These are clearly cases where the print design was done in isolation with little or no understanding of the constraints on the companion ebook. Our advantage is that we work in both realms, with the ebook as the foundation.

Joe: Why is it so hard to get good formatting on certain self-publishing platforms?

Rob: There are two reasons. The first reason goes back to what I mentioned before… Word is pretty good at the presentation of text, but not so good at writing well-formed, efficient code underneath.

The second reason is that the platforms themselves are designed for basic, predictable manuscript formatting. This is good because it fits the democratic, DIY punk rock ideal that fuels independent publishing and makes it so most everyone can upload their manuscript and get a functioning ebook on the other side. But what if the manuscript isn't so basic or predictable? Or, worse, what if it is basic and it's still not converting properly?

I've been a Word power user for a lot of years and I wouldn't dream of uploading a Word doc to any of the self-publishing platforms.

Joe: What if an author with out-of-print backlist books comes to you, and all they have are their old paperbacks? Can you convert their books?

Rob: Absolutely! As you know, getting OCR output in shape is a lot of work. Because of this there’s more time and cost involved, but we've developed a thorough process to ensure these ebook projects are as clean as can be.

The first step is the scan (OCR is Optical Character Recognition) and we've partnered with the best in the business as far as I’m concerned. After that, we ensure all the italics and bold type is the way it should be. We fix any wonky formatting issues---things like section and column breaks, missed or inserted paragraph returns, and line breaks breaks where they don’t belong. We then run a spell check to find any remaining obvious OCR artifacts. Once that’s done, we send the resulting Word file to the author to review. They can edit-in-place to clean up anything our process may have missed. Once the author's signed off, they send it back and we make the ebooks. In a few cases, authors have taken the opportunity to do a little rewriting.

Joe: Where do most DIYers go wrong?

Rob: Not having a complete understanding of the limitations of automatic ebook conversion apps. But I don’t necessarily fault them for this. There’s a lot of empowering conversation on the Internet about the facets of independent publishing. Unfortunately, a lot of it is also conflicting. I can see how someone might become frustrated when the results of automated ebook applications don’t match expectations.

Joe: If readers can change their font style and size, why are designers needed?

Rob: So 52 Novels can have fresh seafood flown in daily, buy Ferraris, and send our kids to Ivy League universities! Duh.

Seriously though, one of the advantages to hiring a professional ebook design and development shop—especially one that’s been around a while and can tame code—is that it can remove a lot of the worry over whether the book will make it through KDP/Nook Press/Meatginder intact. We automate some things where we think it makes sense… I mentioned extracting text from a document and that’s a prime example. But much of our process is bespoke-by-design because we believe it consistently produces higher-quality ebooks.

Joe: How many hours does it take to format a 90,000 word manuscript?

Rob: It depends. A standard MOBI/ePub design can be started in the morning and cross-platform tested by lunch time. If the author or publisher has used some kind of literary device—like block quotes, verse, emails/texts, and the like—the process will take more time to ensure we've handled those things properly.

Premium design projects take more time… making and acquiring assets for the project—whether it's finding fonts and navigating licensing, or making custom graphics—can sometimes add a day or two to the code whacking and testing.

Joe: What’s your normal turnaround time?

Rob: It depends on the time of year. Now that the industry has matured a little, we’re usually booking between three and four weeks out; add a week or two to that as we approach the holiday season.

Joe: Let me ask the question a different way. How long does it take, start to finish, to complete a project?

Rob: Ah. I wish there was a short, specific answer, but a lot depends on the author and the shape of their manuscript.

For example, if we deliver a first pass on the Thursday of an author’s scheduled week and they return just a few changes the following Monday morning, then they could possibly be publishing ebooks by week’s end. But if the review takes longer or if they’re submitting lots of changes—anything more than a few pages—or if they’re doing multiple review rounds then they should expect a longer turnaround.

If they have paper, then the timeline extends. We won’t start production on POD until we’ve got ebooks approved and ready-to-publish. It sounds counter-intuitive to not work on the ebooks and paper in tandem, but it actually simplifies project management to separate them. Besides, it can be a little daunting for an author to have ebooks and a POD dropped into their lap to review at the same time. Separating them in the workflow lets the project—and the author—catch a breath.

Some other things worth mentioning:
  • Correx are handled first in-first out regardless of when the first pass was delivered. If someone takes two weeks to complete the review, they could find themselves three or more spaces back in their designer’s correx queue.
  • We find things take a little longer when an author has never worked with us before or if they've never published at all, if only because everything is new to them.
  • New authors also often discover their editing and rewriting wasn’t as thorough as they believed it was. After seeing their book in this new way, a lot of people find typos they overlooked a hundred times before.
  • Authors unable to resist the temptation to revise their work during the production phase should expect both time and costs to increase. We can’t emphasize this enough: manuscripts must be final before they’re delivered to us for production.
Joe: What kind of authors do you like to work with the most? The least?

Rob: We like working with authors and publishers who remember there’s a person making their book.

Joe sez: And as people, Rob and Amy are a pleasure to work with and have my highest recommendation.

One of the jabs constantly made at indie authors is how our books are somehow not professional because we don't have a team behind us.
I'll admit that my books don't support an infrastructure of yesmen taking meetings and buying lunches for agents while renting in the most expensive real estate in the US and giving employees 401k plans and retirement packages from my royalties when they've spent an hour, tops, on one of my titles.  

To paraphrase the wise sage Dean Wesley Smith, if you hire a gardener to cut your lawn, or a painter to paint your house, you pay them once for their service. You don't give them a chunk of your income, forever.

Dean isn't saying don't hire professionals. Professionals are needed to get a professional result. He's saying pay them once, not forever.

You might get a professional product by signing with a publisher. And in return, they leech off of you for years.

Or you can pay a one-time set cost, get the same professional quality, and make your work indistinguishable from what the Big 5 are doing.

Well, almost indistinguishable. Unless you're charging $14.99 per ebook novel. Then no one, not even your own mother, will be able to tell the difference between your books and one done by the legacy industry. Well, that, and the fact that when you finish your book you can release it, rather than have to wait 18 months. And that you have control over your cover art and title. 

I've been saying this since 2009.

1. Write a great book and make it as perfect as you can get it.

2. Make sure the book looks great and provides a great reader experience.

3. Repeat.

If you're a polymath, maybe you can write, do brilliant cover art, edit and proofread yourself, design the interior, and do all of the marketing and advertising by yourself.

Me? Check my sidebar. Those are the folks who help me sell books. 

They could help you, too. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

More On Kindle Worlds

Ann Voss Peterson says:  Almost exactly two months ago, Joe and Amazon launched the Jack Daniels and Associates Kindle World. There are currently 43 stories, and it's been fun to watch that list grow and see all the great reviews piling up.

Watching Joe's project unfold has been especially exciting for me, since Joe and I have also been working with Amazon on a second Kindle World. And now Joe has been nice enough to let me announce that this week is the official launch for the new Codename: Chandler Kindle World!

When Joe first approached me about collaborating on this crazy, over-the-top, action-packed spy thriller series, I was a little intimidated. I'd written romantic thrillers previously and loved writing and reading fast-paced stories. But Codename: Chandler isn't your usual thriller. It's what I like to call an action movie in book form. It is non-stop and bigger-than-life in every way imaginable.

And let me tell you, writing Chandler is a blast!

Just as with the Jack Daniels and Associates World, The Codename: Chandler World is a little different from other Kindle Worlds (as of this writing), because authors who write Codename: Chandler can keep the rights to characters they create. This means is your character can team up with Chandler (or one of the other CC characters) or fight her, or have sex with her, anything you want to imagine!

Joe explains in more depth in this blog post. But here's the TL;DL version:

Joe sez: The takeaway here is that writers can do cross-overs and mash-ups, which is a fun way to cross-pollinate fans, and could never be done before in KW.

I encourage everyone reading this to check out the Codename: Chandler launch stories. Simply click on the title under the cover art below.

In the upcoming weeks, many of these authors will share their experience on this blog. As far as experiments go, this one is pretty big. It has never been done before, and we're in uncharted waters. I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

And if you're interested in writing in the Jack Daniels and Associates Kindle World, or the Codename: Chandler Kindle World, you can. You don't need my or Ann's permission or help. You don't even need to tell us. You can do it entirely on your own. It's easy, and you keep half the royalties. All you have to do is follow the Codename:Chandler guidelines. So check those out, check these out, and mix your characters with ours.

Looking forward to seeing some cool stories!

Here's the list of titles so far:

Her codename is Chandler. She's a spy for a secret government agency. Trained to be the best of the best, no man is her equal. 

That is, until she meets Repairman Jack. 

Travelling to the Big Apple, Chandler isn't told what her mission is. Only that it's a big one. Forced to scavenge for weapons, she meets up with New York's #1 vigilante, and sparks fly. 

But Jack and Chandler have more to deal with than each other. When a blackmail scheme turns into a terrorist plot, it will take their combined efforts to save the city. 

Or die trying. 

Iconic Codename Chandler meets Texas transplant Samantha (Sam) Lacroix at a high school under siege in Chicago. 

Action and interaction boil and overflow over each other in this fast paced, witty encounter between two experienced crime fighters. 

Having to deal with four kids (teens and younger) caught in the cross-fire, is just a bonus.

She's an elite spy, working for an agency so secret only three people know it exists. Trained by the best of the best, she has honed her body, her instincts, and her intellect to become the perfect weapon. 

A deadly parasite has infected several people in the city of Chicago. But they were only the test subjects; a psychopath's experiment before unveiling his real plan. 

Chandler's mission is simple: execute the CDC researcher who released the parasite before he unleashes it upon the entire city, and possibly the world. 

But things are not as they seem, and the mission does not go as planned. 

Hang on tight. Things are about to get deadly.

Rick Ryker is a courier. He will deliver anything, anywhere, no questions asked. He has never failed to deliver his package. Until now. 

Chandler is a government assassin. She will kill anyone, anywhere, no questions asked. She has never failed to take out her target. Until now. 

Ryker isn’t supposed to open the package. Chandler is supposed to destroy the package. They both go against orders…and their decisions set in motion a game they have no choice but to play. A game where the world is the playing board and the stakes are everyone on it. Ryker and Chandler don’t like to play by the rules, but if they get caught cheating, the consequences will be disastrous. 

FATE is a Codename: Chandler novella that takes place between EXPOSED and NAUGHTY.

What happens when Chandler is sent to the grim city of DenMark in Upstate New York to kill a man? She winds up running for her life from a secret society named The Mannerbund Group. Like Hydra Mannerbund is an ultra secret group that creates atrocities throughout the world. Unfortunately for Chandler Mannerbund has one small snag - OzValt Grant. 

OzValt Grant, former Sniper, former homicide detective of the Fifth Precinct for the city of DenMark is one of a kind. He has one foot in stopping all the evil at work in DenMark created by the sinister covert Mannerbund Group/ They want him dead. When Chandler gets shot wandering down an alley in Grant's vicinity what happens? THEY RUN LIKE MAD. 

This is the first story in a trilogy following the evolution of the relationship between assassin Chandler and jack of all traits, OzValt Grant.

Unstoppable Agent

An ultra-covert organization has taken up a contract for a nigh-unkillable madman who masquerades as a philanthropist. When elite spy Chandler has the target in her sights, success lays just one squeeze of the trigger away . . . or so she believes. Instead of her mission ending, things are about to take a weird twist.

Unsuspecting Bookworm

Venkat has been dreaming of becoming a field agent for the Malleus Librum Society, a secretive organization dedicated to recovering ancient grimoires. That dream has just come true, but at a sanity-threatening price. Shadowed by a fast talking mentor with a supernatural secret, Venkat must retrieve De Vermis Mysteriis, a five-hundred-year old black magic spell book penned by a necromancer.

Unspeakable Evil

In addition to vast wealth and unsavory criminal resources, the megalomaniacal Jeeves Peabody has access to otherworldly allegiances and horrifying allies. He is a formidable opponent, one neither Chandler nor Venkat can succeed against alone.

Unlikely Allies

Two women from wildly different worlds must band together against this common foe. Their chances are slim. Even working together, how can an elite superspy and a magically-minded librarian triumph over a villain aligned with the forces of soul-crushing doom?

Unknown Threats

In a world teeming with mystic and mundane dangers, ignorance is no defense, but even a little knowledge can be deadly . . . The only way to survive is to amass enough

Scary Intel

Chandler, one of three surviving identical septuplets all trained as government assassins, is determined to leave her old life far behind. Finally feeling at home in the country of Panama as a grade school English teacher, her sisters find her and she is forced to choose between running or staying to fight for her new life. 

STAY takes place after the events in THREE by J.A. Konrath and Ann Voss Peterson and continues the thrilling adventures of Chandler in an exciting new Kindle Worlds story. STAY also introduces Melissa Stone into the Codename: Chandler world. To see more electrifying adventures with Melissa, be sure to check out Steve DeWinter’s Peacekeepers X-Alpha series.

His codename is Heathcliff. He's an assassin for a secret government agency. Trained to be the best of the best, Heath has only two flaws; his insatiable thirst for revenge, and the inability to resist a beautiful woman. 

Crusading lawyer Charlize Street is determined to be one of the good guys. In a city like Detroit, justice is hard to come by, especially in the halls of power. So when a senator known for doing good deeds is smeared with criminal allegations, Charlie is determined to clear his name. But she isn't prepared to handle the senator's sexy bodyguard, a man who exudes both charm... and danger. 

Once Charlie starts looking into the case, she finds herself with a target on her back. But she's not alone. Heath insists on helping her, although she can sense he has his own agenda. Soon the heat is coming from more than just the people who want to stop her. And she wonders if there is anyone in the Motor City she can truly trust. 

STREET is the prequel to DETROIT RULES, book one in Linda Style's new STREET LAW series.

She's an elite assassin and spy. The ultimate weapon. Her mind, body and instincts have been trained to perfection. 

Codename: Chandler 

A mercenary is preying on Chicago’s citizens – and he has help from one of Chandler’s fellow assassins. 

Chandler teams with David Garrett, an MMA fighter and spy, to track down and terminate these killers even as another mortal enemy watches from the shadows. 

RESCUE by J.A. Konrath (coming soon)

Her codename is Hammett. She assassinates targets for a secret government agency.

But sometimes work becomes personal.

His name is Tequila. He's a leg breaker for the mob, currently retired. 

But sometimes retirement doesn't stick.

They say that no one knows what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. 

They also say that bad attracts bad.

Hammett and Tequila are about to find out if those old sayings are true.

Four more stories have also been added to the Jack Daniels & Associates Kindle World:

Someone is killing random people in New York and Chicago. 

The blood of innocence have been spilled, or are they innocent... 

When a serial killer case comes to Chicago Detective Herb Benedict is stumped. Several dead but with no correlation except that the ballistic tests have come back positive for the same suppressor used with different calibers in Chicago and New York. Damn! It is a serial case. Herb contacts his old friend and former partner Jack Daniels for her professional opinion, but Jack is up to her eye balls in baby duty - literally. 

Checking the NCIC database Jack finds out that the serial killer has left several dead in New York State, most recently in a small city named DenMark. Jack knows DenMark well, especially one of it's former boys in blue, OzValt Grant. Against her better judgment Jack contacts the DenMark Fifth Precinct inquiring about the serial killer connection as well as Grants current whereabouts. 

It doesn't take long for the bullets and blood to fly once Jack and OzValt Grant hook up. 

Sleeper Towers Fall is the first volume of another explosive Jack Daniels/OzValt Grant trilogy. 

Lately, private detective, Harry McGlade has had a lot of free time on his hands since a few questionable photos of him in bondage ended up on social media. Things change when a woman with a problem and a last resort knocks on McGlade's door. 

Abby Leray is out of options. Her sister disappeared six months ago after signing a contract to wrestle in Mexico for the wrestling organization Lucha Doom. Fearing that Francis was sold into sex slavery, Abby turns to McGlade to bring her sister home. To do so, McGlade must infiltrate the underbelly of Lucha Doom where wrestling may just be a front for something much bigger. 

Harry McGlade is a character who appears in J.A. Konrath's Jack Daniels's series. Jack makes a cameo in LUCHA DOOM. 

LUCHA DOOM is an 11,000 word novella filled with humor, violence, mystery, and several scenes that will make you say, "That's just wrong." 

You've been warned. 

Toronto police Inspector Bill Roberts is called to the scene when mutilated remains of a body are found in a dumpster. He soon discovers a connection between the body and a series of unsolved reports of missing people in the City of Toronto. 

Six months after Lt. Jack Daniels of the Chicago police is almost blown up in Toronto, she returns to get an award for her help in catching a hit man. While she is there, she begins to suspect her partner Herb may have joined the ranks of Toronto's growing list of the missing, and insists on taking part in the investigation. Jack joins forces with Inspector Bill Roberts in a race to discover the disturbing cause of the disappearances before Herb becomes the next victim. 

With guest appearances by Jack's former partner, Harry McGlade, and by Jack's cat, Mr. Friskers, this story will keep you flipping pages non-stop until the end. 

This novel is approximately 240 pages, and ties in the Jack Daniels characters of author J.A. Konrath, and the Bill Roberts characters of author Silas Payton. If you like either of these authors on their own, you'll love this story bringing their two worlds together. 

Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack Daniels" of Chicago's Violent Crime Unit has faced serial killers, terrorists and assassins. With a quarter of Chicago's police force sidelined with the flu, Jack finds herself doing double duty arresting drunks. That is, until she gets that phone call no one wants to get. 

Gil DiMauro was a friend of Jack's. When Gil’s beaten, bloody corpse is pulled from the river, she vows to find the killer. 

Only, things aren't what they seem. 

Murder, blackmail, revenge and insurance fraud all figure into a conspiracy with a dirty cop at the center and Jack Daniels hates dirty cops. 

The Japanese Slipper Murders is a 12,000 word story (about 40 pages long) written by Gordon Hopkins, a professional fraud investigator and author of the novel, FRAUDSTERS. 

After barely surviving the horror of the Parkside Strangler, Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels and her friend, P.I. Jillian Varela, decide to head to Cancun for a little well-deserved R&R. 

But instead of a relaxing two weeks at a five star, luxury resort, a grisly death lands at their feet, and a young girl is arrested. 

It should be simple, but in Mexico, you are guilty until proven innocent. And if the Policia Federal find out what Jack and Jillian are up to, they'll be spending a long time in less than luxury accommodations. 

And finally, a book that I've been meaning to mention, and one that will be featured in an upcoming blog post:

FBI Agent Nick Bracco arrives with a team of agents along with his mafia-connected cousin Tommy to help search the underground for the terrorist. 

When the teenager kills a Chicago cop, a vicious manhunt engulfs the city. Bracco reaches out to Lieutenant Jack Daniels for her help with local connections like longtime bookie, Tequila Abernathy, and she agrees to join the task force. 

What Bracco doesn’t realize, however, is that Jack knows of the kid and believes he is trying to escape from the terrorist organization that trained him for the job. A belief based solely on her intuition. 

The problem: There’s powerful intelligence verifying the existence of a terrorist cell with an explosive device set to go off in downtown Chicago on Black Friday. 

With just hours to go, Jack finds herself chasing the teenager alone and unarmed, ready to test her instincts. 

Bracco believes the teenager is there to detonate the bomb. 

Jack believes she can save the kid and find the bomb before the terrorists push the button. 

Someone is wrong. 

Dead wrong. 

And the citizens of Chicago will have to pay the price.