How to Make eBooks and Influence People

Article for Irish Publishing News, 14th of May 2010 By Oisín McGann

When I was working in advertising, websites were only just starting to become popular in business. A number of our clients thought that this would be an exciting new way to advertise their companies – imagine, everyone one the web would see them! But it soon became clear that a website is more like a brochure than an ad – a way to convey more information, after you have made the first contact. You have to get people to your site in the first place, before you can inform about all the great things you can sell them. And how do you get them there?

The same can be said now for any blog, particularly if you’re an author of fiction. You can convey a greater quantity and quality of information – it doesn’t automatically get you more readers, but creates a better, and ongoing, relationship with the ones you have, and helps spread any news through those closer contacts.

So when, last year, I came up with the idea of releasing an ebook novella entitled ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’ to promote my steampunk trilogy, The Wildenstern Saga, I didn’t automatically look on it as a means of getting more sales for ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’, the second book. It could only form part of all the promotional work I do for my books. And I knew getting into this (having done it before), that self-publishing could be hugely time-consuming. And it was an investment of time and effort that was, on the face of it, a completely daft idea considering I was planning to give the book away for free.

I had the idea for the story, and got to work on it in whatever spare time I had. That was the easy bit, and at just over 16,000 words I knew it would be a quick, easy read. I wanted to produce something someone could read during a lunch-break. Once it was written, I was determined to edit it properly, which I did – helped first by my editor at Random House for the broad strokes, than by a few of my family. While that was going on, I did the design up for the cover, incorporating some of the design elements from the covers of the first two Wildenstern novels. The illustration is a mix of painting, photography and a lot of fiddling in Photoshop – much as the original Wildenstern covers were produced by Random House. This was all stuff I had done before, and though it was time-consuming, it was straightforward enough.

But then it came to creating the final, downloadable file.

I could create a PDF from the Word file easily enough; I’ve been using PDFs for years, and they are now a standard output file in print production. As with a printout, what you get is pretty much what you see on-screen when you create it. And I was sure that most people would actually download PDFs. For all the talk about eReaders, most onscreen reading is still done off a computer screen. But I was adamant that people would be able to download this for eReaders too – and I wanted the ebook to work on as many platforms as possible.

As anybody who has tried them knows, PDFs are ugly and clumsy on eReaders. The main reason for this is that PDF formatting isn’t flexible – on the contrary, it’s designed to keep its shape, staying faithful to the creator’s version of the document. If you try to resize the type on your eReader, you get ugly breaks and hard returns all over the place. I wanted the reading experience of ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’ to be as close to a printed book as possible, wherever it was read. I wasn’t prepared to release the book until I had an epub file, which is the most common type now – used by Apple and Sony among others – and a Mobipocket, for the Kindle and the Iliad.

An ebook file is constructed more like a website than a word processing document. Instead of the type being set in place as if you were going to print it, it can flow into different shaped pages – depending on the device being used to read it – and display in different sizes. But you still need decent typesetting to make it readable on the page; line spacing, controlled tracking and kerning (the spacing between the letters), new paragraphs, chapter breaks and so on. So the text in an ebook file comes with built-in instructions telling it how to behave when it fills a page, no matter what size or shape that page is. If you get these instructions wrong when you’re creating your file, you can get some very unpredictable results at the reading end – which completely defeats the point of producing an ebook file.

I started using an application called eCub, but whether it was the fact that I was using a Mac, or (more likely) I just couldn’t get my head around the logic, anything I converted just didn’t come out right. My brother and I started using another application called Calibre, and this one was much easier to use. The tools made it possible to convert a Word document to a very basic epub file. But to fine-tune the formatting, it still demanded a knowledge of html. This is where my brother Marek came in, and after I’d set up the epub file, he got it to work properly and then was able to make a Mobipocket one, although that presented its own problems too.

As I mentioned at the start, there was no point in putting it up on the site and then letting it sit there, hoping people would find it. So I drew up a list of people to inform about it. I didn’t want to spam it, so I chose about thirty people and organizations that I either had a good working relationship with, or would have a specific interest in it. In the month between the release around the 8th of April and the time of writing this article, there have been 368 registered downloads of the book; 292 of those were PDFs, and 76 were epub files. There haven’t been enough downloads of the Mobipocket file to register on the stats. There was obviously a surge in the first few weeks, and now it’s quietened down to a few a day. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how many of the downloaded files have been passed on to other people – they’re out there now, so they could go anywhere. That’s the nature of the beast.

Having done all of this once, it will be much easier to do it the second time round – although it will always be time-consuming – and I will definitely be producing more of these. A bit like free pieces of software, these will be self-contained short stories that work on their own, but each can also create a doorway into the full version – the associated novel that I want to sell. I don’t expect ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’ to work in isolation, it is just another promotional tool. I’ll continue to mention it during my sessions, and like the website and the blog, it will provide a way in for visitors to the site to learn more about what I do. And that has always been the aim.

So, time to get back to writing stuff that pays . . .