Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ebooks: Does Size Matter?

 In the usual recondite fashion, the answer to this is: ‘It depends’. But when it comes to e-readers, if you haven’t considered this question when publishing your latest e-book you could be in for a tricky ride.

Part of the problem has arisen from the manufacturers of e-readers making out how adaptable their products can be, how any book can be scaled or made to re-flow to fit the viewing screen, either automatically or at the whim of the reader. This is all very well, but it has lead to the bamboozlement (it’s a real word I looked it up) of an entire industry concerning their products —as well as a certain amount of decapitated chicken behaviour as to how to best go about designing e-books. The simple answer to all this is size, and the guide to this already exists in the distilled wisdom that the publishing industry has managed to accrue over the last few thousand years. Over this period, though some books have been intended to be more or less portable, the common factor has been that they have all been designed to be read by a human being.
Just because Apple, Amazon and a few hundred technology companies in that last couple of years have come up with some electronic gizmos that display words and images, doesn’t mean that people’s fingers have got smaller or their eyes closer together. The reader (ie the meaty thing with a brain) is still for most purposes the same as the guy peering at clay tablets 5000 years ago, and the common issue is display size.

The thing that we call a ‘book’ covers such a variety of printed paper creations that the idea of trying to squash digital versions of every book into every kind of e-reader seems almost laughable, but this is what the manufacturers want you to believe can be done, both as a reader and a publisher.
The platform a book is read on makes a huge difference and it is as well to draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to what you create for them. The wikipedia chart provides a very helpful view of display sizes for most of the current e-reading devices, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that most fit into just two size ranges: pocket-size, and mid-size. If the industry is planning any large size, flexible screen fold out or roll-up devices they haven’t let on yet, but as things stand you should be aiming at one of those available, not both.
The ubiquitous Kindle (and it’s competitors) is not a multimedia device, or a games platform; it is best suited to being an e-novel platform. Pocket sized, eye-friendly and within the size limitations, perfectly suited for that purpose. It’s screen is 3.6 inches by 4.8, or 600 x 800 pixels. Writers of novels are fine here, text works well and it doesn’t suffer too much from being re-flowed as some formats have a habit of doing (If you’re publishing a novel you will have an easier time of it than creating anything involving pictures). But if a reader tries to view a comic, a magazine or a big picture book on one of these small sized devices, they will see something, but they are going to be missing out on a major part of the experience. If you are publishing a big bumper book of recipes with full spreads of chocolate treats, the kindle is not going to be your platform. Think in terms of size; either don’t publish for this type of device at all, or consider making a tailored, cut-down version that fits the screen and doesn’t have to be re-sized (heck it may even boost sales if people like the small version, there’s a good chance they will buy the big one as well).
Producing image heavy books for the ipad is another game entirely; the ipad and similar sized interactive tablets are all roughly 7.75 x 5.82 inches, 1024 x 768 pixels, which is larger than the e-novel readers but still designed to be portable. Size should also be considered right at the outset here as well; the reader should be able to comfortably view the page without having to change or drag the image around too much, or they may find it frustrating. Merely converting your existing picture book onto a common format and letting the reader deal with it’s viewing is unlikely to get the sales you might hope for. Taking the whole book apart and re-designing it to fit the magic 7.75 x 5.82 inches may take you some time, but it will be much more reader friendly.

We are enjoying a honeymoon period at the moment where the technology is new and the audience more receptive, people are forgiving of the quirks and foibles they encounter in the systems and publications they are buying, but they will very quickly tire of having to make too many clicks and gestures that interrupt the flow of the reading experience. Yes, the i-pad and its ilk allow for all sorts of interactive fireworks in your book, a route that leads into the realms of games and multimedia, but making the product the right size for the platform will do you favours in the long run. Think about how people are going to read your book; if you want people to read with their eyes not their fingers, then make sure it is designed so that they can do that easily. At the end of the day, size does matter and you should have that in mind when you set out to publish.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Ho Bloody Ho, a Christmas Tale

As the nights grow cold and the days grow short I find my mind turning to more seasonal matters and the creation of little Christmas treats. No, not mince pies or gingerbread stars, but a gift served in 140 character helpings, a new twitter novella for all who care to follow, entitled @HoBloodyHo —it even has flashing lights on the profile pic (when viewed on twitter itself).

This Yuletide story follows the eventful days and bitter thoughts of a man to whom life has not been kind, struggling to find kindness within himself while working as a shopping centre Santa.

Don’t worry it’s not slushy or sentimental; Dickens it isn't.

The tweets will begin being broadcast from Mid December (The exact date has yet to be finalised) and will run right up until Christmas. The story will unfold as a series of tweets by the main character Jim.
After my original experiment with this format for the @BadHairDaze story, first broadcast in April 2010, I’ve learnt that, not only does every tweet need to contribute to progressing the story or characters, but they need to be regular –at least 4 a day. To create a story arc that works over the time period along with the usual 140 character limitations of twitter is both a challenge and an accomplishment for me. Once I start broadcasting the story I cannot stop, or take time out until it is finished. With @BadHairDaze this was a major commitment and I was tweeting from laybys on car journeys even several days from my laptop at wireless hotspots during the London Book Fair. This time round I’ve learnt the benefits of scheduled tweeting via Tweetdeck and I intend to put up each day’s tweets in advance.

Currently the writing is running a little behind schedule, I’m about a third of the way through the process and more than a little nervous about getting it done and edited before it goes out. However, here is a selection of tweets from the work in progress as a twitter trailer.

Tuesday 9.00
Got in this morning, and some joker has messed with the sign overnight; rearranging the letters to say: SATAN’S GROTTO. Like it.

Tuesday 9.30
Wish we could keep it as Satan: Been bad this year, little Johnny? No presents for you then and your immortal soul’s gonna burn in hell. 

Tuesday 15.30
Keiley does all the wrong things for me. I can’t believe she's only 18 –it's the elf outfit, it shows all her bumps too effectively.

Tuesday 16.15
I can't bloody believe it, one of the little SOBs just peed on my lap, I don't have spare trousers issued for such eventualities.

Tuesday 16.30
A quick rinse under the tap in the gents and a towel on loan from Keiley and I'm back in business. Trousers are still wet. #HoHoNo

Tuesday 19.00 
Got to travel home with damp trousers, I'm not looking forward to it; it's perishing out.

Tuesday 20.30
Called Rita’s to speak to the kids. Robby was out again, but Jin was in –we spoke for about a minute; she wanted to watch some TV programme.

The story will be broadcast from mid-December, start following to catch the first tweets as they come out. @HoBloodyHo a Christmas gift to all of twitterdom. Now that’s got to be better than a mince pie.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Macro Approach to Fine-Tuning a Novel

Editing a book on my floor.

If anyone has been following my twitter updates, they’ll be aware I’ve worked my way through two further drafts of my novel: The Different since finishing the first in February. My second draft was intended to tackle the narrative; making sure the slight changes to the story I’d made during the writing process made sense overall. What I ended up doing was pulling the whole thing apart and writing another twenty-thousand words. This wasn’t to bulk up the word count (I’d already hit my target in the first draft), but to create a stronger narrative sense and much needed structural continuity.

Early on I’d chosen to write three distinct story threads: the main protagonist, her father, and first person recounts of her back-story. The way these three elements worked together meant that I had to pull the novel apart to be able to edit them. The third draft has been about getting the narrative to flow as a whole, and in the last two weeks I’ve undertaken a major edit of the chapter order.
With three story threads the order has been a bugbear for me throughout, and in the end I printed out summaries of each section onto paper and laid them all out on the floor. It was incredibly helpful to see the whole story laid out this way, better than a digital flat-plan. At first I used the order from the first draft, but I quickly saw how I could insert the back-story elements in a more interesting way along with one or two changes to the other sections. By the end of the process there were only a couple of trouble areas where the order of events either conflicted with others or just didn’t hit the beats in the story in quite the way I wanted.
As these were time based, I went back to one of the methods I’d used early in the planning stage; I’d found that creating a calendar based timeline (mine was taken straight from April-July 2010) had helped in organising the order of events and I was amazed that the original timelines were still mostly relevant to the updated story. Using a timeline allowed me to quickly identify which elements I could re-order and still have a story that made sense.

Employing macro editing methods has enabled me to slot my chapters together with confidence in the knowledge they will work over the whole book. I know it is worth planning a book before writing it, but doing this again after the second or third draft has been very useful. Certainly something worth doing with any books I write in the future. Taking a step back (in my case quite literally) to look at the whole book can ensure that it not only works on a logical level, but will allow it to unfold in the best way for reading.