How Writers Can Turn Their Archives into eBooks


For about fifteen years now, writing books has been an essential part of my life. But this summer I started to rethink what it really means to publish a book.

This year well-established authors like John Edgar Wideman began to do something radical: they started working directly with eBook sellers like Kindle and Lulu. I was reminded of the early days of blogging. Blogging presented a new way to publish an article. A writer could get an idea, create a piece of whatever length the idea demanded, and publish it with the press of a button. I started blogging myself, and have done so ever since. But I didn't give up writing those conventional articles; blogs simply opened up a niche that didn't exist before.

This year eBooks began opening yet another niche. I would never bother reading a 30,000 word blog post. An article of that length would be too long for a magazine, and too short for a traditional book editor. The numbers just don't make sense for either industry. But if you're an author with an ill-fitting piece of writing you think is good -- good enough that people might want to buy it -- you can just publish it yourself and put your hunch to the test. No warehouse required.

EBooks have also been changing the experience of reading, not just writing. This summer, my wife and I spent a few days on Appledore Island in the Gulf of Maine. There's a marine biology laboratory there that transmits a powerful wireless signal across the island. My wife brought her iPhone and used her Kindle app to download a novel. Surrounded by herring gulls on a beach, she'd finish one novel and then crave another. With a tap of a finger, she had one. Day after day, she devoured books by the sea. Now I can see how 35 million titles have been downloaded to iPads over the past few months.

It was high time to play around. We writers always have lots of pieces in the can -- stories killed for no good reason, pieces we wrote for the hell of it over a crazed weekend. In my case, I realized I had the makings of a short book about the brain. I write a column about neuroscience for Discover, and earlier this year I also wrote a piece for Playboy on some wild-eyed notions of how you'll be able to upload your brain into a computer in the not-too-distant future. Fortunately, both Discover and Playboy carry on the noble tradition of returning the rights to articles to their authors, rather than treating them as work for hire. I could bring together some of these pieces as an eBook and see if it would become something that people might actually want to buy.

The first thing I did was consult with Charles Nix, my friend and personal book design god. I cobbled together a Word file and sent it to him to show him what I had in mind. It took him a couple hours to transform it into a bare-bones eBook. If I wanted, I could have uploaded it to Kindle right then and there. But I knew that the manuscript was far from ready. I updated the older pieces with new science about the brain, cleaned up clumsy language, and sliced out repetitions.

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Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as Discover, where he is a contributing editor and columnist.

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