Swimming Lessons for House Slaves: The Holistic Approach

It was a Sunday morning, last October, in Columbus, Ohio; at the World Fantasy Convention. I’d spent the weekend talking with authors about the digital revolution. I was talking with L. E. Modesitt about the whole e-publishing thing, giving him the pitch. Lee’s a very smart man, and I wanted his perspective on things. And as I was talking with him, a New York editor who had spent many years employed by a big publisher sat down and listened. I won’t name him, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.

At a break in my presentation, the editor said, “But, Mike, you’re wrong.”

That surprised me. Frankly, I don’t hear that said very often. On the subject of digital publishing, pretty much not at all. And, I’ll admit, I heard the sentence as, “Mike, you’re lying.”

So, I said, “What do you mean, Mr. Editor?”

“It’s not that easy to make ebooks.”

“It isn’t?” I asked.

He replied, “Well, in New York, we have to take the holistic approach.” (Emphasis mine, but it was there in his voice.) (Note: This is the first instance, in this conversation, of Mr. Editor attempting to argue from a position of authority, a basic fallacy. See if you can spot the rest.)

I immediately asked (in perhaps less than a friendly tone), “What the hell does that mean?”

“Well, you see, we have to deal with things that you don’t.” He smiled. “For example, we have to deal with Apple’s approval process.”

“Really,” I replied. “Are you aware that I was the first author to have books available in Apple’s App store? Were you aware that Apple’s approval process for book apps as concerns content is based on one of my stories?”

Mr. Editor was a bit taken aback. He riposted. “Well, you see, in New York, we have to take the holistic approach.” (At this point I realized that “holistic approach” was some buzz-word bull-crap being slung around in publishing offices in New York.)

“Yeah, like what?”

“Well, do you do widow control? Do you deal with hyphenation?”

I admit, the question took me by such surprise, that what I should have knocked out of the park, I merely blooped into short centerfield. “Um,” I asked, “are you aware that in word processing programs there are little buttons you hit that take care of widow control and hyphenation automatically?”

This, apparently, based on Mr. Editor’s expression, was news to him.

Lee, God love him, interceded at this point to calm the conversation down. He allowed as how we might both be right on certain points. Mr. Editor chose that moment to realize that the meeting he’d been waiting for was going off someplace else, and he headed out.

I use this story to illustrate the lack of understanding of what’s going on with ebooks and ebook production. The question about widow control and hyphenation, as ridiculous as it seemed above, is made even more so ridiculous when you realize—as I did about 3 minutes later—that it’s completely immaterial. Widow control is something used to keep little sentence fragments of 1-4 words off their own line. Hyphenation is necessary when you want to produce nice, fully justified type in a book.

Both are techniques used in the creation of physical books. They make things look nice, and save pages.

But they are utterly immaterial in ebooks. If I change the font, change the type size or even turn justification off, all the widow control and hyphenation goes away, or is handled anew by the reading software.

Or, try this example: I recently purchased a number of books from major publishers to read on my iPad. In paging through, I noticed something very curious. The book designers had taken great pains to provide, on a page toward the front of the book, an interactive Table of Contents. I know, you’re thinking to yourself that an interactive TOC is a great idea, and it is. It’s also a lot of work to code the HTML for it. The problem with it for the reader is simple: to get to the interactive Table of Contents, you have to physically page back to it, or use a slider at the bottom of the iPad screen to go back to it.

It’s the equivalent of putting your favorite t-shirt at the bottom of a big pile: it’s just not convenient to get to, so it goes unused.

And here’s the funny thing: the very act of making the book into an epub creates its own interactive Table of Contents, which is available from any page at the touch of a button!

Read that again. Yep. New York publishers using the holistic approach are paying book designers to hard code something that readers can’t get to easily, all the while having the same data organized into a Table of Contents automatically. They’re spending money to have a job done that is already being done, and they’re making the process that much harder than it has to be.

This is why they tell you, dear House Slave, that creating ebooks is too hard for an ordinary person to manage. They believe it. This coming from folks who don’t know that hyphenation is also automatic; and don’t know that many word processors already come with an option of exporting a file as an epub, ready for sale.

I fully expect that folks will think that a) Mr. Editor is just one guy and hardly representative of an entire industry and b) that I’m being unjustly hard on traditional publishers. My point is, of course, that tradpub has thoroughly misunderstood what the digital revolution means. At the same time, traditional publishers have convinced themselves that they knows exactly what’s going on. Their belief is based on a steady diet of disinformation, shaky statistics and unjustified self-assurance that they know what’s best for writers and readers—best being what is best for traditional publishers.

The facts of the digital revolution are stark and simple: readers pay less, authors make more and make it faster. Readers have embraced ebooks. The question is not “if” they will buy a reader, but at which price point for which machine. There are over 100 million smart phones which are empty boxes waiting to be filled with reading material. If an author doesn’t have work available electronically, he is leaving money on the table.

As I noted above, many word processors already turn out properly formatted ebooks, or the raw files you need to let Amazon or Smashwords do the heavy lifting. If you work on a Mac, as I do, Legend Maker from Zapptek.com is an inexpensive powerhouse of a program that turns out both epub and mobi formats. (Full disclosure: I helped Michael Zapp develop the software and I use it to turn out all of my digital editions.) I upload the files straight to Amazon and B&N; Michael Zapp tosses them into the iBookstore.

The Masters of Traditional Publishing have a vested interest in having writers believe that they are the single solution to reaching the digital audience. After all, they take the “holistic approach.” As nearly as I can tell, this means they do it the hard way, pay too much to have it done, overcharge the customer, and underpay the author. And before you think I’m being hyperbolic, remember, prior to 2009, before there was an ebook market, the industry standard share for ebook royalties was a 50/50 split between publisher and author. Beginning in 2009, after the Kindle proved the existence of a market for ebooks, the industry standard became a 75/25 split in favor of the publisher—and that became a dealbreaker in contracts.

So, today’s swimming lesson, dear House Slave, is simple: Ignore those who are telling you that you can’t swim without the holistic approach, or without them. They, after all, are sinking. Without you, without the work you produce, they and their holistic approach is going straight to Davy Jones’ locker

You, on the other hand, can just relax and float along with the rest of us, enjoying a nice day in the ocean.


Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet snagged books of mine, please consider making a purchase now. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.

Once A Hero is undoubtedly my single best stand-alone novel. It’s a fantasy that tells the story of Neal, a hero slain doing battle in a genocidal war to destroy the Reithrese. To save humanity, he abandons everything, including the chance to spend the rest of his days with the love of his life. And then, five centuries later, he’s pulled back from the grave to undo something he did and, quite possibly, unleash a horror greater than any he’d known. It’s full of action, adventure, romance, twists, turns and philosophical themes dealing with genocide and prejudice. Though I wrote it a long time ago, I was hitting on all cylinders when I wrote it. If it is the only book of mine that will survive the ravages of age, I’ll be quite happy. It’s available for the Kindle, and for sale directly off my website for any epub compliant ereaders.

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