Monday, August 08, 2011

My Excellent (If Occasionally Head-Banging) E-Book Adventure

What do best-selling historical novelist Sandra Gulland, marketing guru Seth Godin, genre-writer Joe Konrath, spirituality writer Mare Cromwell, goddess and tarot expert Kris Waldherr, and Kevin (What Technology Wants) Kelly have in common? They've all made a foray into the swashbuckling and glitch-ridden landscape of self-publishing e-books. Add Yours Truly to the growing list. No, I have not abandoned my publishers, but I am publishing some of my own e-books.

In 2009, when Unbridled Books published the hardcover edition of my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, they didn't waste more than a moment before bringing out the e-book. It was news in 2009, though it isn’t anymore: the e-book market is exploding. And what of my other books? Like the above-mentioned writers, with several books published more than a few years ago, I own the digital rights because my various publishers didn't care to keep them or, going further back in time, didn't even contemplate them in their contracts. I figured, how difficult can it be to upload an e-book? So I expanded my writing workshop company, Dancing Chiva, into publishing and, voila: a catalog of e-books.

Miraculous Air, my memoir of travels through Mexico's nearly 1,000 mile-long Baja California peninsula, is the one I am most delighted to have been able to turn into an e-book. Based on my travels in the late 1990s, it's a book I put both shoulders and heart into, and even now, more than a decade later, I think it's one of the best things I've written. Originally published in hardcover by University of Utah Press, and still in print in a paperback edition from Milkweed Editions, it has found many readers over the years but, I know, travel books are the most fun to read en route, yet, with suitcase space at a premium, even the most avid readers often pass them up. Got a Kindle? Problem solved.

But preparing e-books-- as Kevin Kelly's blog posts should have warned me-- has not been as easy as I anticipated. First, one has to prepare an absolutely clean unformatted Word doc, a tedious and frustrating task when it comes to a nearly 500 page book originally written in Wordperfect. (True, for a fee, I could have farmed out that job, but I wanted to learn how this works.) It turns out that, though one can convert a Wordperfect to a Word doc easily, when it then goes through the program for e-books, the punctuation comes out all whichwaysly wacky. (What to do with a 500 page manuscript where every dash is now a question mark?!) Then, the programs for converting Word docs to Kindle are riddled with glitches: figuring out how to address these required many hours with my computer coach (bless you, Rubén Pacheco). Then, there are more decisions than turn-offs on the highway through LA: ISBN? Tags? Which comes first, the Kindle or the Nook? PDF or iBook? How to navigate, itunes, and etc? Which program to use for the cover? Cover image? Font? What to do with the maps?! What price?

And now, publicity. Ayyy... Buy my books here. Read all about Miraculous Air. Kindle version of Miraculous Air here.

In sum, I have been getting an all new appreciation for the multifaceted and time-consuming work publishers do. What I want to do is, um, write.

But here's the elephant: sometimes, for some books, a traditional publisher is not the answer. And nor are brick-and-mortar bookstores. As I told Jada Bradley in a recent interview for

"There are several works I want to publish but that I know are not commercial, so in attempting to place them with an agent or directly with a publisher, I would be wasting my time and theirs. But I believe in these works; I know they have readers, relatively few as they may be. For example, this November, I am publishing my translation— the first into English– of Francisco I. Madero’s Spiritist Manual. Mexican historians have written about this unusual and little-known work, and it certainly deserves to be brought out in English with a proper introduction. Why not for its centennial?"

Later this year I will also be publishing an e-book edition of a very unusual memoir of 1860s Mexico, from the Bancroft Library, Marie de la Fere's My Recollections of Maximilian. In writing my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, I came upon this and several other works (most in the public domain) that I would love to be able to bring out of the musty back shelves of libraries and share; with Dancing Chiva, I now have the platform to do it.

Similarly, my essay, "From Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion," about a journey to the Emperor of Mexico's castle in Trieste, Italy, is not, on its own, long enough to interest a traditional book publisher. (They prefer to publish books with spines.) But there are people interested in Maximilian and Trieste, and willing to pay a small fee, thank you very much, to download the e-book.

Nonetheless, when I have a new novel, believe me, I will send it to Unbridled Books because they know how to get reviews, get the book out of the haystack and into quality bookstores. We can't be all things to all people. Time is scarce. As someone who writes, I am glad indeed that there are people out there who want to take manuscripts and turn them into books, and then find those books readers.

So what would I advise other writers about self-publishing their e-books? There's no formula; what's right for one writer with one title, might be different for a different writer or a different title. First, check in with your intentions. Second, make a realistic assessment of the costs and benefits. (I have more to say about intentions here.)

Alas, a realistic assessment of costs and benefits is not easy. My own experience, including my recent adventures in e-book publishing, has shown me that writers tend to underestimate the amount of work publishers do.

Though publishing e-books has been more time-consuming than I anticipated, knowing what I know now, I would still bring my older books into digital editions under my own imprint and publish works I believe in but that would not appeal to a traditional publisher. On the other hand, I want to spend most of my time writing, so when it makes sense for me and for them, I will continue to work with established publishers. But when it doesn't make sense, how wonderful to be able to publish what I want to publish! The amazing thing is, this is true now for anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, and the determination to do it.


Deborah Batterman, "Self Publish(?) or Perish: 5 Links on the New Digital Imperative"

Daniel Crown, "The E-Reader Boom Begins"

Kevin Kelly (of Wired fame) on Screenpublishing

Kindle Direct Publishing video tutorial and step-by-step instructions

Novelist Sandra Gulland, "E-Books: Feast or Famine for Writers?"

Novelist Nina Vida, "How One Writer is Riding the E-Book Revolution"

Seth Godin, "You Should Write an Ebook"

Joe Konrath "What Works: Promo for Ebooks"

Nate Hoffelder, "Vook Explains Why $3, $4 or even $9.99 Isn't Always the Best Price for an eBook"

Christian Harder, "E-Reader Reality Check: 4 Limitations to Consider"

C.M. Mayo, "At Play in the Fields of Keynote: A note on designing e-book covers"