Sunday, January 17, 2010

Publishing the old, old way. Part I

December 27, 2009

A recent experience on the bleeding edge of digital publishing made me realize that my business model is more akin to Gutenberg's and Newbery's than to that of the international conglomerates that dominate the industry in these early days of the 21st century. This will be the first of several posts on various aspects of new/old publishing.

I spent much of the last few days fixing some book files that I discovered were badly broken after having them go live on Amazon and elsewhere. In one file the capital letters were dropped about a third of the time. In the other, the entire book was set in italic. These things happen because the conversion process from p- to e-books is neither exact or standardized. Because there are a great many more e-readers being used now than there were just a few days ago, I felt it was important to correct the files before too many people downloaded them. I'm not an expert or a geek when it comes to this stuff, so the learning curve is vertical for me. Using InDesign, Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive, PDFXML Inspector, Adobe Digital Editions, Calibre, and two pieces of hardware—a Kindle DX and a nook—to proofread, I dug around in pages and pages of XHTML source code for hours. I discovered that a single keystroke can wreak havoc on how a text displays. I discovered the key to the kingdom in the CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) files and was able to fix the files. Eventually I was able to generate new .pdf, .epub, .mobi, .lit, .rtf, .pdb, and .asc4 files, and re-upload them to their various repositories. Then I called it a day.

This effort reminds me strongly of my experiences 30-odd years ago handsetting lead type from trays using a type stick. Each font and point size of type was different. The letters were all reversed, i.e. mirror images, because the process was direct transfer, and kerning and work-spacing a line involved inserting thin slivers of metal—and, occasionally, a piece of paper matchstick—into the tray to justify each line of type. Nowadays this level of attention is called "granular". Back then it was just painstaking. Looking for a single keystroke in a page of HTML code is very much the same. Working at this level of granularity puts you into a book in a way that has long been lost, especially if you are also the editor and publisher of the book.

The file in which the capital letters were lost was The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff. The book was orginally published in the US by Henry Z. Walck in 1965. I read it then—I was fifteen years old—and it changed my life. It depicted a model of heroism, loyalty, and sacrifice that inspired and thrilled me. I went on to read almost everything Rosemary Sutcliff wrote and, to this day, I consider her the best writer of historical fiction I've ever read. Many years later, when I was the publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I was able to republish many of Sutcliff's historical novels, most notably the Legionnaire's Trilogy, and, I was able to publish The Shining Company, Sutcliff's last book. In 1985 I personally collected, on her behalf, the Phoenix Award, given to The Mark of the Horse Lord by the Children's Literature Association. The book didn't become available for me to publish until 2006, when I brought it out in paperback under the Front Street imprint. Now, it pleases me immensely to be publishing the first digital edition under the namelos imprint. These last few days, while many people were opening presents, eating wonderful things and, generally, kicking back, I buried myself in the source code, i.e. the words, of a story that has held me in thrall for almost 45 years, reading it very, very closely, comparing it word for word to my copy of the first Walck edition, to make sure I got it right. Who would have thought that the perils of publishing ebooks would bring me back to the core of story that I find so immensely satisfying? What a gift!

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