How We Published a Book!, Part 2: The Paperback

In the last post on this topic, I described the process and some of the code we used to self-publish a book in Kindle format that looks and feels much more professional than most self-published material out there. Since we knew a substantial portion of our likely reader base would prefer a physical book, we worked to publish a paperback book with the same level of quality.

The most important parts of the publishing process that we are utterly incapable of doing ourselves (printing and distribution) are taken care of by Createspace and Amazon. (Thank you, modern technology). Dealing with Createspace is pretty straightforward; I’ll talk about it at the end but really it doesn’t take much to figure out.

The parts that took the real work, beyond the simple writing of the book, were typesetting and cover design.

Typesetting

Typesetting is the process of what most people would call formatting. Createspace requires (sort of) uploading a PDF of the interior of the book. That file needs to have the correct page size and margins for going in a book. Further, to make the book look “real” and not like some dope printed it in his basement, there needs to be certain details that most people couldn’t explicitly name but definitely can sense: things like running headers, correct page numbering, widow/orphan protection, and correct justification. If you don’t believe it, type a page of text in Microsoft Word, then compare that text to a commercially published book. If you look carefully, you’ll be able to spot the subtle details that make a professionally-published book look polished.

So, it’s safe to say that I don’t recommend Word for typesetting your book. It will look like crap. There are a few pieces of software out that that CAN do basic typesetting in a point and click environment like work—well known, but relatively expensive Adobe Indesign, as well as the less-known Scrivener. However, we didn’t want to spend the money for a publishing suite that would be used for a single project. Instead, I fell back on the tool that served me so well in graduate school–LaTeX (pronounced “lay-tek”). LaTeX is not for the faint of heart–but if you’re willing to climb the steep learning curve, it can produce a book which is indistinguishable from a commercial publishing house product.

Like XHTML used to build Kindle files, LaTeX separates content from format. The content is written in plain text using tags to identify chapters and sections, saved in a file the the .tex extension. The formatting is done from a set of files called class and style file, or .sty. For our project, we used the memoir class with a template ready-made for Createspace named, not surprisingly, createspace.sty. These are many little tricks and options that it takes time to figure out, in particular if you want to have options other than defaults, but produces a really nice final product.

The trip from Kindle to PDF required a lot of search and replace to remove HTML tags and put LaTeX tags in their place. This ended up being quite time consuming and meant that there were two different versions of the bok floating around. In future projects, I plan to find a way to have single source of content that is translated into both HTML and LaTeX using an automatic script.

Cover design

Designing the cover of the book was in some ways more of a challenge because it is very easy to end up with an amateurish-looking product. We decided to use GIMP to create a simple cover graphic by layering a public-domain photo and globe graphic over a black background with title, subtitle, and author text. Again, GIMP is. freely available program with Photoshop-like capability. GIMP also has a pretty steep learning curve, but is quite capable if you’re willing to invest time to learn it. Please, oh please, though–DON’T use Powerpoint.

Createspace

Once we had a good inside and outside of the book, it was time to self-publish. We had used Createspace on one other occasion and it worked out really well. They are a print-on-demand publishing company, which means they only print the books when somebody orders them. Though I don’t think it’s required, Createspace makes your book available for sale on Amazon. They will send you a proof for free or a small fee, which I highly recommend as you will inevitably see a mistake, and it’s hard to judge the cover without holding the book in your hands. For example, we discovered a big problem with our margins, and that the shiny cover did not look good, both of which were fixed before the book went live on Amazon. Further, every time we had a problem or a question, their customer service was amazing, especially considering that we had zero up front cost.

Next time (when I get to it), I’m going to relate lessons learned from this project, and a few things to do different next time.

Liberty and the Oakland Fire

I normally have pretty libertarian leanings, particularly in economic and regulation terms and in the powers that government agents have. However, the Oakland fire galvanized my thinking a little bit.

Modern life is made possible by two things that people don’t usually think about:

1) Specialization. A progressive or collectivist would say it was the government’s fault those people died in the fire–they were allowed to continue living in a death-trap. A libertarian would say it was their own fault, they should have known the risks and had responsibility for their own safety.

The problem with the pure libertarian view here is that we are all very specialized. We all know, very well, the things that we are good at, and usually not much about everything else. Police know law enforcement, software developers know how to program computers, doctors know how to cure sickness, and building inspectors know the risks and hazards that come with buildings.

The artists that died in that fire should, perhaps, have had an idea that something wasn’t right; they perhaps should have checked if the place was certified to live in. But they can’t have known the enormous risk of fire because the tinderbox they lived in was like nothing they had ever seen. You don’t hear about big fires because the specialists who write the code and inspect the building have more or less made death by house fire a thing of the past. If the artists had taken the time to understand the risks, they would likely not have been as skilled as artists–and the base idea in a modern economy is that we are all better off if everyone sticks to the productive activity that they are best at.

2) Trust in strangers. We interact with dozens or hundreds of people every day whom we’ve never met, and will likely never see again. In pre-modern civilization, strangers were a source of danger. Today, we put our faith in bus drivers, cooks, policemen, civil engineers, landlords, and politicians whom we barely if ever are aware of. And we can do this because laws and regulations work to ensure that these people behave the way we expect them to.

If I go to somebody’s house, I expect that if a fire flares up, I will: a) hear a smoke alarm, b) have multiple unobstructed routes to an exit, c) the materials are flame retardant enough keep the fire from spreading so fast I can’t get out, and d) that firemen will show up to help. Further, I will expect that the lights, heat, kitchen, etc. operate in such a way that setting the joint on fire is highly unlikely. I don’t have to think about all these things or research them, ever, because of regulations and building codes.

Of course, the fact that some government is good and essential makes it harder to clearly delineate where both the moral limits of government lie (what powers should no government have, ever?) and the utilitarian or practical limits of government lie (what is the “best” balance between liberty and restriction?)