Tuesday, January 11, 2011

my new book

As you can see, I have published a book. I began writing these pieces a few years ago, and I didn't think anything much about them, I just posted them here on this blog. The mysterious origin of them was in part un-mysterious. I had acquired a blog, and I needed to fill it with something. I began to be interested in the dimensions of a blog post and how it is read, and I wondered if it could seem to contain a story, or at least the suggestion of a story. I didn't rationalize, I just wrote. Then, about two years ago, this impulse suddenly dried up, as mysteriously as it started. Or, perhaps, as unmysteriously. My life had changed, I was simply too busy. I'm not going to say anything more about the contents of The Littlest Feeling, but only about what happened next and how it ended up being a book, and perhaps this will be interesting to other potential self-publishers.

Now that the story-writing impulse had died, I began to wonder idly about what I'd got. About a year ago I found time to go through the tedious process of tracking down all the most story-like posts and pasting them into a Word document. I was surprised how many there were. I showed this document to a few people. It was a collection with no title. I think it's fair to say that no-one who saw it was unduly excited. The effect must have been boring and overwhelming at the same time. It's one thing to read a blog post, another to cope with a deluge like this. I was pleased, I felt I was in the zone.

It wasn't until a couple of months ago that I had a bit more time to think about this. I thought of trying to place some of these stories, but I didn't get far with that. The world I knew about was the poetry world, and I had a hard time persuading anyone, including myself, that these pieces were poems. I hadn't realized before how many poetry outlets explicitly exclude prose fiction from their list. On the other hand, I felt all at sea in the prose fiction world. I didn't have contacts, didn't know the scene, and to be honest I didn't feel much fellow-feeling with the micro-fictions that I found there. I didn't find the kind of writing that I liked, nor (I inferred) the readers that I thought would be interested in what I wrote. Perhaps I didn't look very hard.

There is also, perhaps, an experimental fiction scene, I should clarify. I haven't really found it. But for example, the books in the emerging Reality Street Narrative series. I certainly AM a fan of this writing, e.g. Richard Makin's forthcoming and amazing Dwelling, which is strictly non-narrative. Still, one of the reasons I'm a fan is precisely because I couldn't possibly write anything like this. And besides, I'm in awe of Reality Street. That's like, I don't know, Faber or something, in my eyes.

So I got bored with the idea of "placing" my work pretty quickly, and instead I thought I'd play around with LuLu self-publishing, with the result that you see. I don't expect to make a living from the sales, but it's a thrill to have an ISBN number, and it doesn't really cost anything. The rest of this post is about technicalities.

Lulu can publish eBooks or paperbacks (or hardbacks). I'll probably make an eBook version at some point, but the paperback option seemed the most friendly one for my potential reader. I imagined - indeed I knew - that the book wasn't very easy reading. I fancied my reader would need to pick it up and put it down quite a lot, and generally have it lying around, which is also the way I like to read poetry. Besides, I found it easier to model the product on something I knew, and the model I had in mind was a cheap trashy genre novel. That's why the format is pocket-sized and the font is fairly small.

The first thing you have to do is upload the text as a .PDF file, and the cheap way to do that (Lulu's advice) is to download OpenOffice, which I did. I could migrate my .DOC file into it, save it in OpenOffice format (.ODT), then migrate it to a .PDF file. If you're familiar with MS Word, then OpenOffice is easy to use. That said, to turn the document into something that looks like a proper printed book, I had to learn about quite a few features that I hadn't ever bothered with before. The Help files came to my rescue.

1. I had to create a custom paper size, to fit Lulu's pocketbook format.

2. I had to learn about alternating right and left page styles. This is because it's good to have the page numbers in different positions on right and left pages, and also you need to have a broader margin next to the guttering - i.e. the right margin of the left page, and the left margin of the right page, if you see what I mean. There's probably a way of suppressing page numbering on the preamble pages, but I couldn't work this one out so I just didn't bother. I was fairly perfectionist, but there are limits. This is meant to be fun.

3. I had to learn how to make a table of contents. Don't try and do this manually, it will be a nightmare to keep accurate.

4. When you write a document at home or at work, you normally use the default left-justified paragraph format, and that's fine. But it looks really unprofessional in a book. You want full-justified (text flush to both sides of the page). This was one of my biggest headaches, because it won't work properly unless you have a proper paragraph ending (hidden character) at the end of every paragraph. Because most of my text had been pasted from the web, it didn't have them, so I had to go through the whole text putting them in. (And every time you quote verse, you have to switch back to left-justified.) That took me a few hours. The other thing that took me most time was getting the fonts uniform throughout the book, not just the titles and text but the blank lines in between. Otherwise the titles aren't at a uniform height on the page, and it looks really messy when you flick through the book. (To see all this, I had to buy a first-cut printed copy - it's only with the book in your hand that you can really see what's wrong.)

Apart from the text, the other thing you have to upload is the jacket. There are jacket wizards on the Lulu site itself, but the results tend to look pretty amateurish. So I made my own jacket, using Microsoft Publisher. Lulu will tell you the exact dimensions - they calculate the spine-width based on the number of pages. The jacket is made as a one-piece image, with the back cover on the left, then the spine, and the front cover on the right. You can save it as a .PNG file (portable network graphics) and then upload it. You need to be sure that you select 300dpi - the default is 150dpi, but that's not suitable for a professional-looking jacket.

The back cover has to include the ISBN barcode. Lulu create this for you and let you download it as .PDF file, but getting it from there into MS Publisher is a puzzle. In the end I couldn't think of a better way than opening it in Adobe Reader with the largest possible zoom (while still being all on the screen), then using Alt-PrtScr and pasting the whole window into Paint, then cropping it and saving it as a 24-bit bitmap, which I could then pull into Publisher and resize. (My first attempt was similar, but I made the mistake of saving the screenshot as a small .JPG, and when I got the proof copy I could see that the barcode was a bit blurred, which looks really rubbish.)

Lulu "sell" you a distribution package to make your book available on Amazon - it is actually free at the moment. The only proviso is that you have to buy a proof copy of your own book, and then "Approve" the book for distribution. So software and hardware aside, the actual cost of publishing was about £15 - the cost of buying two copies.

So now make your book too! (And when you do, let me know...)

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