HOW I’M PUBLISHING A NEW SCIENCE FICTION SERIES IN 2019

Why I’m Publishing my First Novel in a Format You’ve Never Heard of

In my new book, Return of the Exile, first in the Salvage of Empire series, the main character, Director Kolteo Ais, has a terrible secret. You’ll learn what it is in the first 3,000 words.

The next 30,000 words get even more interesting.

Why? You’ll have to read it and find out!

The cover

The Face of the Words

This wouldn’t be a colophon if we didn’t talk about fonts, or as typesetters will tell you, typefaces. Typefaces are those really important things that you rarely think about, except when making important life decisions, like “Shall I set my Lost Kitten sign in Palatino or Comic Sans?”

The correct answer, of course, is to use Impact, because kittens are involved.

For the 1st Bubblin edition, these are the faces we went with.

A good heading face sets the tone. Headings are set in Orbitron.

Orbitron

A good body face must do two things well: make the text easy to read, and not draw attention to itself. Body text is set in EB Garamond.

EB Garamond

Of course, because this is the web, what I put in the styles and what you see on your screen could be two entirely different things. YMMV. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Words Themselves

Writing all those words involves a lot of typing. Of course I did not use a typewriter, though that would have been fancy! I used my venerable 20-year-old MS Natural Elite keyboard (KU-0045), connected via a series of dongles (PS/2 -> USB -> USB-C) to a 2016 MacBook Pro.

My keyboard and dongles.
I expect to add another dongle every decade or so.

I might like Microsoft’s keyboard, but I did not use Microsoft Word. Instead, I used Literature & Latte’s excellent Scrivener, as loose and baggy a monster as the novels it’s designed to produce. I love it, though the Markdown it exports has a weird flavor. (It tastes like jelly beans, but with an earthy savor that takes some getting used to.)

And that’s all just for the words. With Salvage of Empire, I wanted to add some visual interest.

Illustrations

I love books with illustrations, and books are becoming more and more a visual medium as technical limitations and printing costs fall away.

While the cover is extremely important, I realized that Salvage of Empire needed some visual punch for the serial episodes that I was publishing online.

Now, I am not an artist, and I have only limited experience with design. Designers and illustrators were outside of my budget for this project. (I very much look forward to the day that I can hire them and save myself a lot of time!)

Until then, I can successfully coordinate colors most mornings, and I know a few basic tricks.

So I hit up the free stock photo websites, did some quick compositing for the more difficult scenes, and engaged my secret weapon:

Primitive.

I simply cherish this software. The output rarely looks worse than my compositing hack jobs. Most often, it can take fairly pedestrian stock photography and make them look… well, sublime.

Picture comparing the original composite and the final illustration.
Before: primitive hack compositing. After: you be the judge.

It’s not faery magic: it still requires some direction and hand-holding. There are just enough knobs to twiddle with to require some practice. It took some time to produce the illustrations for Book 1, but not too much.

And that’s how I’ve been able to illustrate each chapter with limited time and no budget.

Could a professional illustrator do better? Of course!

Story-time.

One of the first bosses I had out of college had a favorite saying: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” He liked to say this as we toured the old rotting buildings that made up the “operations center” of the recreational camp we worked at.

The buildings had mostly been built fifty years prior by unskilled but enthusiastic college students and a handful of supervising adults, using mostly raw timber and basic tools.

They were all soon to be replaced by a multi-million-dollar concrete-and-steel-rebar facility after the conclusion of an enormous capital campaign.

But there would have been no camp, no capital campaign, if they hadn’t pitched those first buildings up with the money, materials, and labor at hand.

This is similar in spirit to the “New Jersey style”, or “worse is better”.

That is, some times, something is in your power to do now only if it can be done poorly. If you wait until you’re able to do it right, it may never get done at all.

So, if something is worth doing, do it, and ship it. Don’t wait. Then, later, if it makes sense, come back and redo it when you have the means to do it right.

So I promise: before I have them install my new money bin, I’ll first come back and hire a professional illustrator to re-illustrate my inaugural series. Pinky swear.

The final product

Once I had a bunch of pretty words and some tolerably-pretty pictures, I needed something to do with them.

There’s a lot of advanced technology that goes into book production these days, from the first press of the first key, to the moment the first pixels fire on a reader’s iPad screen.

Publishing has always been about advanced technology, though, from the moment Gutenberg first figured out how to reliably cast lead type.

Then, not too long ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee first wrapped a paragraph in a <p> tag, and we all lost our ever-loving minds.

Suddenly, “Print is Dead!” ran the headlines. No more “mail”, we’ll all use “e-mail” instead. No more books, we’ll all use “e-books” instead. It will be glorious!

Well, I’ll admit there’s some pretty neat stuff going on these days. iPhones and iPads showed us how to make a device that fits neatly in your hand, like a book. Amazon’s Whispersync showed us the future of distribution: a library in every pocket.

But the books themselves? They’re not glorious yet.

Ebooks have not evolved a lot since their first signs of life. They’re a super-young medium. The Open eBook Publication Structure (the standard that gave us the .mobi format) debuted almost twenty years ago in 1999. It was pretty cool for ‘99, but lacked device support.

The EPUB 2.0 format, launched in October, 2007, was a solid innovation, followed by the Kindle a month later.

It’s easy to forget that it’s been nearly 12 years since the last major innovation in the ebooks space.

Part of the problem is Amazon. After their initial success, they’re coasting in the ebook innovation department, doing the minimum to stay competitive while they build out their new ad platform.

But really, I think the problem is a lack of imagination, a lack of vision, as to what an ebook is truly meant to be.

Enter Bubblin Superbooks. I saw them launch on Hacker News not long ago, and I knew right away that they were going to be different. I decided to go with them for the initial distribution of Salvage of Empire, because they’ve got vision and imagination.

I wanted to do what I could to help them realize their goal of reinventing the ebook.

And let me tell you, the experience of working with Marvin and Sonica has been outstanding so far!

Superbook—What’s Not to Like about Books on the Web?

Bubblin is doing something really neat with their Superbook format.

No, sorry, not that Superbook.

OK, actually, the folks at Bubblin say that Superbook is not a format for books, but rather “a website container only that holds a stack of web-pages together.”

So far, not very different from ePub/Mobipocket/KF8/&co. I’d call that a format, myself!

But this is very different from ePub.

So, formats like ePub are OK for some types of books.

They’re really good for simple running text. Novels look fine in the Kindle app on my phone, and it’s neat that I can switch to my iPad when I get home and keep on reading the same book.

But the format falls flat when you try and do anything more complicated than running text.

You want sidebars? Tables? Charts? Diagrams? Big, landscape-oriented illustrations? Well, they’re all technically possible in the common ebook formats, but they look… well, execrable.

And the #1 reason for that? Fluid layout.

EPUB and friends treat text like a liquid. The text flows to fill the screen. When you run out of screen, you drain the remaining text and start again on the next virtual “page”.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

When I’m setting up a book for EPUB, I have no idea where the page breaks will be.

Ebook apologists like to dump on paper books. They’re heavy. They’re bulky. They kill trees. Yadda-yadda-yadda. Cry me a river.

Man, let me tell you. In the toolbox of Western Civilization, the book is razor-sharp, honed to perfection: an interactive tool for taking complex information and effectively communicating it to an individual in a complex dialectical process that requires years of specialized training to master. A process we call reading.

(Interaction occurs with more advanced technology: an ink capsule stylus, also known as a “pen”.)

And we technologists thought we could throw some HTML at the wall, call it an “e-book”, and cut out early for the launch party.

The Superbook format is different. It’s still HTML/CSS (and Javascript!) like any old website. But Marvin did something counterintuitive. He took a look at EPUB, compared it with a print book, and asked, “what’s missing here?”

Page layout was missing. So he put it back in.

Superbooks are ebooks with “strong layouts”.

So, when you, you charming and good-looking reader, you, are reading Return of the Exile and you say to your (also charming and good-looking) reader friend who is also reading Return of the Exile, “Man, can you believe that scene?” And he says, “Which scene?” You can say, “oh, the one on page 53!” And your friend can go to page 53 in the Superbook, and read the words you were referring to.

Page numbers on the internet? Referential accessibility? Who could have imagined it?

But wait, there’s more! Now that I have a page to lay out, I can do things that I once could have only done in a print book, like full-spread illustrations. I mean, I could still put these illustrations in the EPUB and Kindle versions if I wanted to, but the experience would be janky, and it would feel gimmicky at best.

Superbooks are going to be killer for textbooks, business books, gamebooks, etc. Seriously, check out Marvin’s exemplar book, The Solar System.

The tech is still early, too, and look what it can do! That’s because it’s piggy-backing on all the work that’s gone into the modern stable of web browsers, which have been experiencing a Renaissance of sorts.

Compare that with EPUB and Kindle, which are stuck with Browser-Wars-era markup. (EPUB3 supports lots of cool stuff, in theory; it’s the reading platforms that are the problem.)

Will the Superbook trounce the regular ol’ book? We’ll see. But it’s a huge leap forward compared to the ebook.

Whither Amazon?

Will I publish on Amazon? Eventually, yes, of course. I’ve got that money bin to build, after all. For now, Amazon has the majority of the customers, so I’d be foolish not to go there.

But not yet, because I’ve got time and freedom to wait. I’m a self-published author. Nobody’s directing me as to what I must do.

And I’m enjoying it.

Finding the Fun

Twice now I’ve used that heading, and I’m really getting to like it. The #PulpRev movement is primarily about fun: stories that are fun to read, fun to write.

Fun to publish?

Book publishing used to be fun too. Printing presses first swept across Europe because it was the cool new thing, and like the best new inventions, obvious in retrospect. And who doesn’t enjoy writing out a thought, then seeing that thought printed on a page in neat, well-set type?

Fun is revolutionary. The cool new technology, the printing press, ended up sweeping away the monopolistic hold of the Roman Catholic Church on European governance. Then it crossed the Atlantic and swept away centralized, monopolistic British rule from the American colonies.

In the 21st century, the self-publishing revolution is just about complete: publishing is no longer ruled by the Big 5 traditional publishers. Why? Because self-publishing is so much more fun:

  • to learn the skills to self-publish. (Hard fun, but still.)

  • to see your own name on a catalog page.

  • to try out new technologies thought up by cool people with vision and imagination.

  • most of all, to have the liberty to write what you want on your own schedule, freely chosen.

So, that’s how, as a new author, I’m publishing a thrilling science fiction series for the 21st century. If you haven’t already, do take some time to go read the first book!

I’ve got seven more coming. I think you’re really going to love them. 🤣