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August 31, 2011

I'm Outta Here






I hope you can forgive this perfunctory feed-the-beast post, but the thing is, I’ll be leaving on vacation tomorrow—unless mean old Typhoon #12 has other ideas*--and thus will not be able to post again until late September.

As the sharper-eyed among you will have noticed, I have knocked a couple of dollars off the price of the ebook version of my latest opus, Wussie: In Praise of Spineless Men. Simultaneously, I have launched an epub-format version of the book through an entity called Smashwords so that users of iPad, iPhone, Nook, Sony Reader, etc. can obtain and read Wussie without having to get the Kindle app and go through Amazon.

Having wrestled at length with each of the two major ebook formats, I dare offer the following observations re their strengths and weaknesses. I caution that this analysis will be of interest to ebook readers and would-be authors only. For anyone else, this spiel is apt to have an effect similar to that of hearing Ted Striker’s life story on an ill-fated airplane.


The Kindle format (“mobi")
Bear in mind that I make no claims to advanced computer skills. I can edit a movie on Adobe Premiere replete with green screen effects. I can record and arrange songs with multiple tracks. I can maintain this site.** That’s about it. So I had a steep learning curve when I first approached ebook formatting. That said, I found the mobi format relatively painless to work with. It had these considerable advantages.

Advantages
1. Kindle lets you keep a lot more of your formatting than the epub format does. A lot more. You can have a fairly great variety of font sizes in a Kindle book. You can underline and italicize words or paragraphs with ease. You can indent whole paragraphs from the left margin, as you would want to do when, say, inserting a long quotation. You can’t make a bulleted list, but you can put in fake bullets using Insert→character. Epub wouldn’t even recognize the fake bullets, so I had to resort to asterisks.

2. At the publishing stage, Kindle Direct Publishing allows you to preview your whole book before making it available to the general public. If your images aren’t showing up or you find other glaring problems, you can simply leave that version of your book in limbo until you resolve those issues at your leisure, and then override the flawed version with a superior version. No one else can see your book until you're ready to show it.

Disadvantage
The creation of an NCX file simply remains beyond my level of kung fu. An NCX file, among other things, allows the ebook reader to easily flip ahead to the start of the next chapter when she finds herself bored or offended by the current chapter—or, say, to flip back to the start of the previous chapter in order to figure out who a character is. Absent an NCX file, the reader has to hit next-page, next-page, next-page over and over to get where she’s going. Thus, it’s an instrumental device for making ebooks feel more like book books, and there is a way to do it for Kindle, but I can’t tell you what it is.


The Apple/Nook/Sony format (epub)
Again, my only experience with this format has been via Smashwords. It’s too early in my relationship with Smashwords to give you a review of them one way or the other, but the vibe at this point is positive. I found founder Mark Coker’s formatting manual clear and easy to follow, at least as far as this genre goes. At any rate, it certainly is no fault of Smashwords that epub is such a pain in the ass.

Bear in mind that I do not possess any Apple products or the Sony Reader, so I have been able to view my epub book only through the free Adobe Digital Editions reader on my PC.

Advantage
At least on ADE, the NCX file was successfully created and is wondrously handy. As chicks used to say on Total Request Live: "Woooooooo!"

Disadvantages
1. All the formatting goodies mentioned above for Kindle are absent in epub, and more: Despite repeated attempts, I could not succeed in formatting any centering. Again, I’m aware that there are ways to do this, but they are beyond me. As viewed on ADE, all my chapter headings and images, which are properly centered on Kindle, are left-justified. The operative words here are “on ADE.” On the free sample of the book, which is HTML, all the centering is honored, as are underlines, italics, etc. I can’t guess how the thing looks on an Apple device or a Nook. I wish someone would tell me…

2. As soon as you hit the “publish” button on Smashwords, Voila, you’re publishedj--ready or not. After that, you can easily enough view your document on ADE, make changes, and publish a new version—but in the meantime, potential customers might snag the free preview of the flawed version. In fact, four such potential customers checked out the free preview of a grotesque early version of my book and, not surprisingly, did not return to purchase the full book.


Conclusion
The absence of the NCX file is a serious flaw, no question, but on the whole I think the experience of reading Wussie remains far more pleasant on a Kindle than on devices that rely on the epub format. And remember: professionally edited ebooks that are uploaded to Kindle generally do have the NCX file for easy navigation. This being the case, if you’re hovering between e-reader options at the moment, I would advise buying a Kindle—or getting the free Kindle app for your Apple device.



* According to the World Meteorological Organization, the bastard does have a name: Tropical Cyclone Talas. But here in Japan, we aren’t that big on naming things, so it’s just plain old Typhoon #12 as far as we’re concerned.

Really, this antipathy toward naming things is taken to the extreme over here. As you may have heard, apart from the major arteries, even city streets here have no names. You direct a taxi by saying, “Go to the street that runs behind the Sotetsu supermarket” or some such.

When I worked at NU, I lived just off a street that was utterly nondescript except for a large clock that rose on a thick twenty-foot pole from the midst of a parking lot. I drew up a map which I copied for students who wished to visit me that labeled the thing “Huge, Erect Clock.” More than once, I got a call from a naïve sophomore girl asking for more detailed instructions. “We’re at the Huge Erect Clock,” they would say, “Now what do we do?”

Sometimes I find myself wondering how many of my old English-teaching colleagues will be there waiting for me when I get to Hell.



** Upon proofreading, I realized how defensive that list sounds. It reminds me of a guy I worked with briefly during my early years in Japan. He had a PhD in history from an Ivy League school and was in Japan to research a book on Japanese soldiers who were displaced at the end of World War 2. Because his stay was so short, he made little effort to acquire the language.

The owner of the business would shuttle this gentleman and myself to various companies to show off his exotic foreign pets, and everywhere we went, the first question asked was “Can you speak Japanese?” When they discovered that I had a little facility with the language, there would ensue the customary chitchat and compliments, while my colleague twiddled his thumbs.

This neglect was hard on him, because he had a PhD and was an asshole. So when asked “Do you speak Japanese?” he could never be content to just say no. He had to say, “No. But I can speak Russian, French, Spanish, German, and a little Chinese.” As the months went by, he would spit out this litany with increasing intensity bordering on rage, and the innocent Japanese office workers would retreat behind that vacant smile that means
Why are you yelling at me?