Monthly Archives: November 2011

Getting closer to publishing my first ebook

I had a fine weekend at LosCon, and when I returned had a pleasant discovery. Julie had finished proofreading and copy-editing “The Biggest Man in Lilliput,” which is going to be my first ebook.

She’s also doing the cover. Until she finishes that, I’m fooling around with software for converting documents to ebooks.

According to my research, 80% of ebook sales come from two sources: The Amazon Kindle store, and Barnes & Noble Nook. Everything else, including Apple’s iBooks, is small change. The Kindle uses a format called .mobi, and Nook (and many other ereaders) use epub.

What’s the difference between those two formats? I don’t know, and I don’t think I need to. I just need to be able to convert to those formats.

This multi-part series describes how to format ebooks manually. It doesn’t look hard. It looks like it’s just simple HTML, the kind of thing I’ve been doing for many years to create blog posts.

Alternately, you can use packaged software. The free Calibre, which runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, creates ebooks and converts between formats. I use it to manage some of the ebooks I read. But it looks a little complicated for making ebooks.

Alternately, Michael Stackpole, a science fiction writer and self-publishing evangelist, recommends Legend Maker for the Mac, which he helped design. It’s $50 on the Web. The demo version looks a little scanty, allowing you to only make ebooks up to 100 lines in length. So I took a leap of faith and spent $40 to buy Legend Maker from the App Store.

I’m a little hazy on the next steps after I create the ebook. As far as I can see, I can upload it myself to the Amazon Kindle Store, as well as the Barnes & Noble store. I’ll probably hit iBooks too because, well, why not? At some point down the road, I’ll post it to Smashwords, an ebook publisher that distributes to a variety of online stores. Smashwords takes a 15% cut, on top of the cut taken by other online bookstores (Kindle, for example, takes a 30%) cut. I think I can use Smashwords to distribute the book to other bookstores but not the Kindle, Nook, and Apple store. I need to look into that.

Another very important step: Make the book available for sale from here, on this web site. I get to keep 100% of that money. Woo-hoo!

Pricing: Stackpole recommends $1 per 10,000 words, figuring that’s about the amount most people can read in an hour. So a 100,000 word novel, which is a typical length for science fiction and fantasy, would sell for $9.99. “The Biggest Man in Lilliput” is 5,700 words. The Kindle store sets a floor on prices of $0.99, so that’s what I’ll sell it for. Unfortunately, that leaves no room for future discounts, but so it goes.

Marketing is another important step in the process. I plan a series of blog posts describing what inspired me to write the story, a little bit about my research, and the story’s influences. As you possibly guessed just from the title, a certain book by Jonathan Swift was the main influence — the movie wasn’t out when I wrote the story and we didn’t even see it until a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t bad.

I’m excited about this, and I hope you’ll by the book when it’s available.

Where to find me at LosCon

I’m here at LosCon, the Los Angeles science fiction convention, having a good time. I’m speaking on a few panels Sunday, so come by if you want to see me flap my jaws on various subjects. Where to find me:

Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History: What it got right, and what it got wrong. That should be a fun one; I always like to talk about Heinlein. Also on the panel: Robert James, Brad Lyau, and June Moffatt. The moderator is Bill Patterson, author of the biography Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve. Even if you’re not a crazy Heinlein fanatic like me, you should read that biography; it’s an entertaining and informative history of life as it was lived on that alien planet and time known as America in the first half of the 20th Century. And if you are a crazy Heinlein fanatic like me, you already read it — it’s great, amirite? I interviewed Patterson in one of the last episodes of my Copper Robot podcast.

Where: Marquis 2
When: 10 am Sunday.

Online Publishing/Publishing Methods: Also on the panel with me: Maya Kaathryn Bohnof, Yolanada Pascal. I’ve been doing a lot of research into online self-publishing lately, preparatory to getting my own work out. I’ll have something for sale in time for Christmas. I’m looking forward to learning on this one as much as I am to speaking. And that’s saying a lot, in-love-with-the-sound-of-my-own-voice-wise.

Where: Chicago
When: 11:30 am Sunday.

Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blogging and other social media: Technology marketing Web site, what you need to know. The title of this panel is kinda confusing, ain’t it? Basically, I’ll be leading a group discussion about using the Internet and social media for marketing, drawing on my experience as editor in chief of The CMO Site and as a science fiction fan. To prepare for the discussion, I’ve talked with Michael Stackpole, Kate Elliot, Joe Haldeman, and Charles Stross, all of them writers who successfully use the Internet and social media for marketing. If you’re a writer, artist, or have a business you’re looking to market on social media and the Internet, come on down and share some ideas.

Where: Saddle Brook Room
When: 1 pm

That’s three opportunities to see me at LosCon. I’ll also be attending the con today, tonight and tomorrow, so if you see me there come by and say hey.

The Foundation Trilogy: “If you ask me, the Galaxy is going to pot!”

I listened to a big chunk of the audiobook of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation while walking over the past few days. Still enjoying the hell out of it.

The series originated as a series of eight stories published in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1950, then published as The Foundation Trilogy in 1951-53, according to Wikipedia. I’m pretty sure I remember reading somewhere that the very first story of the first volume of the series was actually written last, for the book publication. Let’s say that was 1950.

The publication history is important to know, because it places the series in time. When you read it today, you’re not just reading a ripping science fiction story. You’re getting a glimpse of what a leading intellectual of 65 years ago — literally another century — thought the future would look like.

And what does it look like?

As I’m listening, I’m finding it easy to imagine the Galactic Empire as an art deco science fiction world, like the 1936 HG Wells movie Things to Come.


More images from Things to Come.

The future is big. Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, is a planet entirely covered by a single city, with 40 billion plus people.

It’s centralized. All of those 40 billion plus people are employed in governing the Galactic Empire. Here in the real world of 2011, we’re seeing a failure of big, centralized institutions. But back when Asimov was writing, the huge bureaucracies of the West had pulled the world out of a Great Depression, and kicked Nazi ass. So it was reasonable to assume that a huge, bureaucratic government would be the best way to govern the Galaxy.

It’s REALLY big. The viewpoint character of the first section is Gaal Dornick a young man from a small town in the Midwest come to New York for the first time– oh, wait, no, I mean a young man from a provincial planet on his first trip to Trantor. He is processed in a vast open office, filled with row on row of desks, a room so large that he cannot see the far wall, just desks vanishing off into the mist. A filmmaker around the time Asimov was writing used a similar image; in that film, the scene was soul-deadening wage-slavery. In Foundation, it’s a source of breathless wonder.

Everybody’s in a hurry, everything is crowded. People are helpful but in a brisk way that can be taken for rudeness. Several characters comment that nobody on Trantor goes outside, or sees the sky, ever, and they’re fine with that. One character has to consult instrumentation to find out what the weather is. People take taxis to get where they’re going.

In other words, it’s New York written large. Of course, New York isn’t like that in real life. Not exactly. But I remember a conversation with a shoestore clerk on Manhattan who said he hadn’t left that island in fifteen years. He seemed matter-of-fact about it, even proud. So it’s easy to imagine a future where the entire city is just converted into one big building. And indeed Asimov wrote that future too, in The Caves of Steel.

Some of the Galactic Empire’s technological wonders are things we take for granted today. Super-scientist Hari Seldon owns a pocket calculating machine, which is described as a featureless little slab that displays numbers in red. I remember Asimov bragging about 30 years later that he’d predicted pocket calculators, even getting the colors of the digits right (early pocket calculators displayed digits in red LEDs). It’s also a good description of an iPhone — except our iPhones today are way better than the Galactic Empire’s calculators of 10,000+ years in the future. Hari Seldon can’t play Angry Birds on his gadget.

Seldon is described as so brilliant and driven that he actually sleeps with his calculator under his pillow, in case he is struck by inspiration during the night. If he were that brilliant, he’d sleep with it on his nightstand, as most of the rest of us do today in the real world.

Other than the pocket calculator, information is presented on actual pieces of paper and microfilm. No iPads and notebook computers in this world.

So we’re more advanced than the Galactic Empire in that regard.

Indeed, our technology here in 2011 is in every respect more advanced than Asimov’s vision of the future world of 2011, except for two things: We don’t have a mathematical science for predicting the future, and we don’t have interstellar travel.

Plastic is cool. Saying something is made of plastic in Foundation is saying that it’s a luxury item, hi-tech, top-drawer. Asimov describes Galactic aristocrats wearing plastic helmets, and presenting guests with cigars in plastic boxes. This is unintentionally comical today, after decades of plastic being used for cheap consumer crap. But Asimov wrote before all that.

Speaking of that cigar box; Asimov describes it as appearing perfectly to resemble water. How would that work, precisely? I can’t visualize a box made of water.

The title of this blog post comes from a line of dialogue in Foundation where a character laments the decline of the Galactic Empire. I’ve seen it cited as an example of how clunky the book is to modern eyes. I say phooey to that. I say it’s charming, as is the characters’ use of “Space!” and “Galaxy!” in lieu of swear words.

“Boardwalk Empire:” Thanksgiving at the Darmody house has got to be all kinds of awkward

We love this show. Or, at least, I do. Julie watches it with me and does not appear to be having a bad time.

I can foresee how this season ends: Jimmy Darmody dead, killed by the Jewish butcher who gets tired of waiting for his liquor. Harrow escapes, to return in some future episode down the road. Nucky Thompson triumphantly returns, to punish the people who betrayed him and take up his position once again as the Treasurer of Atlantic City.

It’s hard to imagine the show without Jimmy Darmody and his family. They’ve been central. But it’s hard to imagine it ending up any other way.

Even by the standards of Boardwalk Empire, relationships are deranged between Jimmy Darmody, Momma Darmody, the Commodore, and Nucky. Momma Darmody “kissed his little winkie.” Nuff said. Jimmy hates Nucky because Nucky pimped Momma Darmody — which is true as far as it goes. But Jimmy and Momma ally with the Commodore, who is the person that Nucky whored Momma out to. And, while Nucky was kind to Momma (turning-out-as-whore aside) and like a father to Jimmy, the Commodore raped Momma — and Momma still hates him for it — and ignored Jimmy for Jimmy’s whole life. And yet Momma and Jimmy turn on Nucky and ally with the Commodore. Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE BATSHIT CRAZY, that’s why.

Thanksgiving at the Darmody household has got to be all kinds of awkward.

I could totally watch a series about Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein as they’re portrayed in Boardwalk Empire.

I love a show like Boardwalk Empire or The Sopranos where all the characters are evil, and you choose who the good guys and bad guys are based on their likability and personal courage. Nucky is the hero of Boardwalk Empire because he is the main character, and he is kind to Margaret and her children and basically anybody who doesn’t threaten him, although he is also ruthless, a liar, and a crook. Darmody and Eli are bad guys because they betray Nucky, but really he’s no better than they are.

Is there a name for this kind of genre? I remember reading that it was popular during the Renaissance; I seem to recall Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe (a supporting character in Shakespeare in Love) was a drama of this type.

Trying out The Hit List as a possible OmniFocus replacement

I’ve been getting dissatisfied with OmniFocus for months now. It’s just too complicated. And it’s too rigid in some ways.

OmniFocus is a high-maintenance app. I was spending too much time working on my to-do lists, and not enough time getting things done.

What I’m looking for is something much simpler.

I’ve looked at a few Mac and Web-based to-do apps recently and none of them seemed satisfactory. Then I saw this recommendation for Potion Factory’s The Hit List ($50). I spent a little while Saturday afternoon copying my tasks from OmniFocus to The Hit List, and now I’m trying it out. So far I like it.

The plus side:

  • The Hit List is much more flexible than OmniFocus about the order in which you display tasks. I can easily create a list of things I want to do today, put the list in the order I want to do them in, and then get to work. I haven’t found a good way to do that in OmniFocus.
  • The Hit List supports tagging, which OmniFocus does not. Tags are a good way of organizing tasks, although you have to watch out you don’t go crazy with them.
  • The Hit List has an iPhone app and over-the-air synching.
  • It has a nice-looking user interface. It reminds me a lot of Cultured Code’s Things. Actually. I can’t remember why I gave up Things.
  • The app makes extensive use of keyboard shortcuts. I’m not usually a big fan of keyboard shortcuts; I have trouble remembering them. But The Hit List does a good job with them. And The Hit List has a hints bar at the bottom of the app window that displays the most common keyboard shortcuts. I love this. All apps should have it.
  • When you create a new task, it appears at the top of the list. In OmniFocus, new tasks appeared at the bottom, and I couldn’t figure out a way to change that. For me, more recently created tasks are likely to be more urgent, and therefore should be at the top of the task list.

The minus side:

  • No iPad app. I can live with that.
  • No Outlook integration. Outlook is my company standard mail and calendar client. I can work around the lack of Outlook integration.
  • Poking around the Web site, I see users complaining that development is extremely slow, and that the developer is unresponsive to support requests and bug fixes. In particular, there seems to be an ongoing bug with recurring tasks and the iPhone app. Over the air synching seems to be problematic.
  • The Hit List, like OmniFocus, has a quick entry window. You type a keyboard shortcut, and a little window pops up that you use to type in a task when it occurs to you, without breaking flow of whatever else you were doing. That’s great. But the quick entry window doesn’t let you link to email messages. You have to do that from within the application window itself. That’s inconvenient; I create to-dos to respond to email a lot. I found this script to add email messages as tasks with links to the original mail message in (rather than Outlook). I tested it and it seems to work; we’ll see how well it serves in real life.

Fortunately, there’s a two-week free trial of The Hit List, and I plan to give it a good workout. If it works for me, I’ll buy it, and won’t expect any upgrades anytime soon.

If it doesn’t work, well, I guess it’s back to OF. Maybe I can make OF work for me. Or I’ll take another look at Things, although I’m not optimistic about that app’s future. I hear good things about Remember the Milk, too.

Re-Reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy”

I just started listening to the audiobook of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, which I last read when I was a teen-ager. I got a bug in my ear to re-read it after a review by Jo Walton.

First impressions, based on my memory of the books and my having listened to about five minutes:

The Foundation Trilogy retells Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as space opera, with a Galactic Empire replacing the Roman, and the entire Galaxy — millions of inhabited worlds — standing in for the Earth.

It really helps to know something about Asimov, the period in which the stories were written, and how they were written. The trilogy was written during and just after World War II. This was the period when America was at its greatest power, and we often compared ourselves to Rome.

Asimov was an American, an immigrant, and a New Yorker who didn’t travel or even go outside when he could help it.

As Walton notes, the planet-sized city of Trantor is New York in the 30s, where Asimov was a teen-ager, writ large. Back when Asimov was writing, technology meant that things were going to get bigger and faster — the Hoover Dam! Skyscrapers! Airplanes and cars! Today, technology means things get smaller — iPhones! Genetic engineering! So it was reasonable to assume, in Asimov’s day, that cities would one day grow large enough to encompass whole planets.

The Foundation Trilogy assumes that the Roman Empire was good. That’s a supportable position. But the people Rome conquered might disagree with it.

I love that thing Asimov does where he starts each section with a quote from a made-up history book, the Encyclopedia Galactica, supposedly written a thousand years after the action of the novels.

The first few minutes of the book spend a lot of time talking about how travel through hyperspace works in getting starships around the galaxy. That would all be completely unnecessary today, it’s just a given in science fiction.

The viewpoint character of the first section is a young man on his way to Trantor (New York, remember?) to participate in the Seldon Project. I’ve also been listening to Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann, a spoken-word memoir of the physicist Richard Feynmann, who was Asimov’s contemporary, and also a New Yorker. Feynmann traveled from New York to participate in something called the Manhattan Project. It’s hard to avoid seeing parallels.

That’s a lot to get out of five minutes of listening. I hope I enjoy the rest of the book as much.

Creative writing: What I’m working on

I started work on another novel this weekend. This means I’m currently working on:

  • Two novels and two short stories in various stages of revision.
  • One novel, newly under way.
  • One more story waiting to be revised.
  • Another story which I’m seriously considering trunking, while maybe cannibalizing the characters and situations for some future work.

Yes, I know this sounds like I have become the guy who’s always starting things and never finishing. But I was eager to get started n the new novel. And I have a plan: I want to always be working on something new, while also revising, publishing, or promoting something else. So really I’m only working on two things currently — the new novel and one story I’m actively revising — while the other work is waiting.

I’m really enthusiastic about self-publishing and e-publishing right now. I’ve talked to some professional novelists and book editors and they support it as well. That’s important, because as little as five years ago, these same people viewed self-publishing as a massive con job (with certain narrow exceptions).

What’s changed? E-book readers, of course, like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook and their iPad apps. Also, Amazon CreateSpace¬†for self-publishing print books, along with the collapse of Borders making traditional publishing less attractive by removing a huge percentage of the nation’s retail shelf space at the stroke of a lawyer’s pen. I’ve been reading blogs by Mike Stackpole, Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, as well as James Macdonald, all of whom have had successful careers at traditional publishing, all of whom are now exploring self-publishing. And I’m thinking: I can do this. Publishing on the Internet has been my sole source of income for eight years now. I know how this works.

I got to talk with Mike Stackpole a bit at World Fantasy Con a bit more than a week ago (actually, more like I was allowed to be a fly on the wall while he talked with another pro), and came away with the insight that the sweet spot for e-books is likely to be series of 50,000-word short novels with recurring characters and situations. And that’s the new novel. It’ll stand on its own as a short adventure novel, and also serve as the beginning of an open-ended series.