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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56 Responses to “Swimming Lessons for House Slaves: The Holistic Approach”

  1. Wow@ When I read the widow/orphan comment, I honestly thought your next sentence was going to the effect of, “I’m kidding. What he really said was…” Do corporate publishers know better, and use crap like the “holistic approach” as a way of manipulating writers, or are they really so clueless that they actually believe properly formatting an ebook is difficult?

  2. I’ve got a new business idea for you. Get pictures of the facial reactions on people like that editor when you break the “news” to them. 🙂

  3. This conversation with Mr. Editor makes me wonder about editors and others deep in the bowels of tradpub: Are they just towing the party line? Engaging in a disinformation campaign? Too lazy to spend an hour on the internet to see what all the hub-bub is about self-publishing? Or are they so snowed by their own industry they truly do believe what they say about self-publishing?

    I spent an hour learning the basics on the internet, and a couple more putting them into practice.


  4. Man, is ‘holistic approach’ coming back? I guess it’s made the full circle through all the industries from whatever New Age commune it was coined in. Yes, yes, there was a time when it meant something. But now it’s become the new ‘paradigm’ (If You Will) of buzzwords.

    As for eBook formatting, Legend Maker looks pretty solid on the Mac (from the samples), and I’ll give it a spin when I’ve got my Mac back, because it looks like a convenient one-button thing.

    What I’ve been doing for my formatting is based on Guido Henkel’s Take Pride in Your eBook Formatting series, using an html editor and Calibre (and Word for the word processing) to do manually what Legend Maker presumably does automagically.

    Either way, it takes less than 15 minutes and looks great. I certainly don’t need an outside guy to do it for any reason other than convenience and time.

  5. Hi Mike,

    Hilarious and frightening on many levels. In my day job, I work on software that produces electronic technical manuals (ebooks for submarines, if you will), so I’m WELL aware of TRADPUBs lack of understanding. Good grief…and these people are supposedly in the business of producing ebooks!?

    Anywho…just wanted to bring up that not all conversions to epub/mobi are alike. Direct exports often don’t deal with relative code, which will cause problems as the epub/mobi is moved from device to device (see Smashwords meatgrinder for an example). If your export does create an epub/mobi file that is completely relative (meaning all fonts, font sizes, spaces, etc. are based on a relative factor and not a specific font size factor), then you’re good to go. If not, then when the text in an ebook changes (resize, font change, etc.), some squirrelly things can happen. Maybe that’s what the dude was getting at.

    Guido Henkel has a quick and easy guide to follow to create relative-formatted ebooks, if anyone doesn’t have a good tool available:


    When the epub/mobi is correctly and relatively formatted, THEN the repagination, rejustification, font type change, font size change, device change stuff all works wonderfully…

    Regardless, it sounds like that “editor” knows as much about the technical aspects of ebooks as my cat knows about Mark Twain.


  6. Your Mr Editor is probably even dumber than you portray him. In times past, old-fashioned printers were craftsmen, and went to considerable trouble over the layout of text. For instance, if faced with a chapter which ended with just three lines at the top of a page, they would try to reset the previous page(s) to make it end at the bottom of a page (or suggest some editing). Similarly they would never let a page end on a hyphen, particularly a right-hand page. Today, with computerised typesetting, and sloppier standards in the editorial office,it is common to find both these things allowed to pass without the publisher noticing or getting it corrected. In other words, before legacy publishers start criticising the layout of ebooks, they might take a look at the shortcomings of their own product.

  7. Hilarious!

    But I had to read the passage about the Table of Content twice. I couldn’t grasp the concept of creating a ToC by hand. A very alien approach…

    Are you sure, the editor was actually from this century? (A time traveler perhaps?)

    Anyway, I dearly love L.E.Modesitt’s work, thanks for reminding me of his work.

  8. I love that you are pushing peoples buttons.

  9. Anthony JP Miller 04. Jun, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    @AJ Abbiati:

    Henkel’s pages are great. I’m running a dual-boot ubuntu/windows 7 Asus, and I got all the programs I need in five minutes (Libreoffice to write in html, and calibre to convert/read epubs).

    @Mike Just a thought. If I did not read Henkel’s pages, I would likely have written in ’97-2003.doc format and produced poorly formatted junk. With that Henkel link though, no more excuses.

    @AJ Abbiati. Thank you AJ for that link. I have a few friends who will benefit from this greatly. Plus, I can teach this stuff in computer class when I finish my B.Ed this coming year. Awesome. I think “make your own e-book story/anthology will be an excellent year-long project for students. Or not, but we’ll see. This does look rather easy now.

  10. @Anthony:

    No problem! Thank Guido, though. He did a great job putting it together. Just goes to show, as Mike pointed out, that people in the business should know this stuff, not to mention knowing it before commenting on it.

    The story/anthology idea is a good one. I’m publishing episodes of my novel as they are written, then planning on pubbing the entire novel in pbook (print book) and ebook when they’re done. But…though it sounds good on paper, and worked GREAT in the past (see serials), I’m not quite sure today’s readership has the attention span to handle it anymore. Most decide to wait for the novel rather than follow a series of shorts. Hell, I know a lot of people who won’t follow a series of NOVELS until the entire series is written…

  11. I love the swimming lesson posts, Mike. While not new information, you have a knack for driving the point home. Im a fan of both your writing and the dragon page. I have a few small press books that have rights reverting to me. I have already posted content on my site as well as digital originals and have had a lot of success, more than i hd with the small press pub.aa however i was with them long enough to learn a few tricks and when i begin to post even more books up. And post them my way, im excited to see how far they will climb. In closing, Mr stackpole, i want u to know you efforts mean so much to not only me but but all the others as well that area doing it, taking the road we are because of aapeople like you, j,a konrath and so many others. Mr stackpole, i salute yo

  12. I suspect “The holistic approach” is intended to refer to an integrated approach that makes works ready for e-publishing and old-fashioned printing/distribution in a single stroke. If so, it might well be a laudable model. It’s only clear that your Mr. Editor wasn’t prepared to discuss its merits (if there are any) with one of the intellectual heavyweights of the emerging e-publishing industry. Or, for that matter, the average man on the street.

    For that matter, I’m still pretty sure it can’t justify 75/25 profit splits or ebook pricing based on hardcover production and distribution or attempts to grab up libraries of existing work.

    As an aside, I think it’s a touch too strong to call Once a Hero “undoubtedly” your best stand-alone novel. It’s surely a strong work, but it ranks in my esteem well behind Eyes of Silver and Talion: Revenant.

    It might be the title with the most artistic merit (I have no idea how these things are measured) and I do recommend it to any fan of fantasy or your writing, but “undoubtedly” is just too strong of a word, especially paired with “best.”

  13. Am I the only one picturing Mr. Editor wearing a pince-nez, tweed jacket and plaid bowtie and speaking in a very nasally British accent?

    I don’t know…that’s the first image that came to mind for me.

  14. Thanks, but you’re giving me too much credit. None of this digital revolution would be happening except for those authors who believe enough in their work that they’re willing to do the tough stuff which will get it out there. Sure, I may be one of those, and I may have started shooting my mouth off early, but it’s everyone else coming up and saying, “Damn, I’ll give that a shot,” that got the thing going. Remember, one guy is a CRANK. One guy who is a crank early and has folks see merit in what he’s saying is a VISIONARY. Same guy, same vision; but it’s the others who make that vision real.

  15. Converting a manuscript to an ebook is remarkably easy. Depending on the amount of italics it usually takes me 30 minutes to 2 hours. Many authors are amazed that it’s that easy to do. I suggest you type “kindle format” into Amazon and you’ll find several books for under $3 that will show you how. Once I’ve added the html codes I use Calibre (free software) to make .epub, .lrf, and other book formats.

    Thanks for this post I found it very enjoyable.

  16. O.O

    I’m appalled but not surprised. When I do grammar tutoring, I usually end up having to teach the college students I’m tutoring how to make first-line and hanging indents with the ruler arrows.


    Sadly, I often encounter the “You will listen to me, because I am EXPERIENCED” attitude. And if someone disagrees or has a completely different experiences, they’re dismissed as irrelevant, even when they have as much or more experience. The attitude ignores that experience can actually be a downside when dealing with changing technologies.

    It also has a tendency to unsettle writers, who tend to be an insecure bunch. (Remember the “What if everyone hates my story?!” moments?) The writers might suspect something sounds off, but when “everyone” is saying it, they assume they must be wrong…

    Until they get a backbone or start hearing the murmurs of others who agree with them. Thanks. 🙂

  17. A nice post, but in defense of Mr Editor, what he was probably referring to is the conversion from an existing print edition to an ebook.

    Most traditional publishing houses don’t use word processing programs to generate print books. They use typesetting programs such as Adobe InDesign (or Pagemaker or Quark in the “olden” days). Editors don’t generally trust automatic hyphenation (for good reason), or widow control. While it is there, it is, like Ms Office’s spell checker, not considered best practice to just let it do its thing.

    While a manuscript usually comes in to a publisher in MS Word or another word processing program, and initial edits are done in that file format, final edits (and particularly any that happen just before the book goes to print, at what was once ozalid or blueprint stage but is now more often a PDF or digital print out from the printer)are made in the file itself. The word file will rarely therefore be the “final” edited copy.

    Creating an ePub from these final files would be relatively simple if each chapter was set up as a separate InDesign file incorporated into an overarching book file, but, if not, then in order to get each chapter to start on a new page (as it does in a printed book), it would require some reworking and the creation and amalgamation of many InDesign files (one for each chapter).

    To take edited text from an InDesign file and put it back into a word file in order to create a file suitable for smashwords uploads would require the editor to remove any soft returns, manual line spaces or em dashes or characters/glyphs etc they had added to the InDesign file that might create havoc in xml.

    So the ebook revolution has necessitated a shift in procedure in publishing houses for new works submitted and backlist titles do need a bit of work to get them into ebook format purely for that reason. A MS coming in now would be edited entirely in word, then converted for ebook formats that require a clean word or rtf version, then typeset in InDesign in individual chapters within a book for a print version, and then that file also saved as an ePub version for Apple.

    His comments about widow control and hyphenation are moot when it comes to eBooks, but perhaps he was talking about having to re-convert a backlist title that has had these manual overrides applied? Just a thought.


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