Friday, November 12, 2010

eBooks for Christmas

I am especially excited at the way that the preparations for the ePublishing stream of the Twelve Trek Days of Christmas are coming along, but what, I hear some of you say, is an eBook? What do they look like? What can you do with them that you can't do with a Newsgroup, forum post, blog or pdf? Why, in other words, should an author go to the bother of publishing his work as an eBook at all?

There is no shortage of general commentary on the advantages - and disadvantages - of ebooks on the internet. There are specific cost benefits, author incentives, and the big debate at the moment is (to oversimplify) whether the retail price of eBooks should be artificially inflated to be the same as the hard copy or not - they are definitely more environmentally friendly!

How does all this affect the fan fiction community? It means that eBooks are coming of age! They are no longer an immature technology, replete with a half-dozen different formats competing on hardware exclusive platforms - reminiscent of the wars between Apple and Microsoft or VHS and Beta - so that we can afford to sit on the sidelines and wait until a clear winner emerges.Today we have a technology that has become accepted not only by the great unwashed but the chic, the rich-and-famous and the tech-savvy. People now looking with envy over the shoulders of those who are flicking through their iPad as against the "what-a-geek" sneers I'd get when I used to read stuff on my iPaq five years ago.

Specifically, this wide acceptance of eBooks means that fan fiction writers can now list their books right alongside those of professional writers! Maybe not on the same websites, you'll not get your fanfic lited on Banes & Noble or Amazon, but there is no reason why we can't have them listed on similar amateur fiction sites. Production-wise we are on pretty much an even playing field, unlike the traditional printing industry, where making a book requires printing and and binding equipment that is beyond the grasp of the amateur (or is it?). With care and attention, you can create an eBook that looks exactly the same as a professionally made one!

How do they compare to the pdf books that we published in 2008? I'll be honest with you and say that eBooks are not as pretty. The 'page-turning' reading applications like Issuu are to my mind, the closest thing you can get to the experience of reading a book on a computer.

This is "The Black Gate" a book by Richard Merk, part of his Banshee Squadron fan fiction series. Richard has whole-heartedly thrown himself into making the eBook stream of this year's Twelve Trek Days a success and it is only fitting that we use one of his books as an example of what we are doing.

The heart of your eBook library, like any library is the way that it is organised. Think about what a public library has to do. They get all sorts of new media in, they prepare it for distribution, catalogue it then lend it out to the general public. Your eBook library needs to do exactly the same thing and, although I will be the first to point out that there are other good options out there, I use Calibre to do it.

Calibre is a freeware, open source software program that acts as an eBook organiser and reader. It is available for free download from the creator's website and, once installed, you are led to the heart of the system which, as user interfaces go, is pretty much self explanatory.

Firstly you add books to it. These can be of any one of a dozen different formats ranging from plain text (txt) through rtf , html and pdf, to a couple of the larger eBook platforms, such as the Mobipocket file formats, and what is fast becoming the defacto standard, ePub.

Once they have been 'registered' and 'catalogued' on the system, they appear on the main screen as a list in the central screen with the "metadetails" shown in the right hand screen.

Once it is on the system there are a number of cool things you can do with your books but, to keep things simple, let's just look at the main purpose you are going to be putting this to - reading your books. It couldn't be simpler! Point and double-click on the entry on the listing or click the listing and then "view" (the magnifying glass) on the toolbar. This will open a viewer to suit whatever format the book is in which looks like this...

 What's the use of a library unless you can read the books though? Once a new eBook is imported into your library you can open up a viewer to read it no matter what format it was originally in. These screenshots are of The Black Gate viewed in the ePub viewer.

Notice that you have a neat title page with a table of contents in a separate window on the left hand side of the screen which you can close down when it isn't needed.

Regular users of Adobe Acrobat reader - the ubiquitous reader of the pdf format - might point out that it too has a window that acts like a contents with screenshots of the pages that can be opened down the left hand side of the screen.

But can a pdf remember your spot and open there when you close your book up at the end of your session? Can you change the size of the font and still get word wrapping within your screen without navigating around what is in effect a "big picture". You can set it to night reading mode, annotate the text, check a dictionary...?

Perhaps most importantly, you can use Calibre as the nerve centre to save versions of the book on whatever device you have connected to your computer - a netbook, smart phone (or in my case a dumb-phone!). Here are some shots taken of the The Black Gate on The-Heir-To-The-Family-Curse's iPod Touch where he has two eBook readers, Stanza (on the left) and Bookshelf (on the right).