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.

As I learned about eBooks, I decided that they were not something I could handle completely on my own. I was not willing to abandon the most important things that go into publishing books, such as good design. Yes, we now live in an age where you can upload a Microsoft Word file directly to an eBook seller. But then you're the author of a Microsoft Word file. Who wants to be that?

I also realized that keeping track of all the directions eBook publishing is going right now would be too much for one person. It is a baffling, disorganized world full of arcane rules and lousy software. I talked to Nix and his partner George Scott, who together run the eponymous firm Scott and Nix. They had just published an eBook novel, and wanted to learn more. We decided to run a three-man experiment.

The experiment started to gain steam in August. I settled on a title: Brain Cuttings, which is the name of the monthly brain dissections at Columbia's medical school, where I held my first human brain. I found a Vesalius engraving of a dissected brain that Nix turned into a suitably disturbing cover. I also played the part of publicist, sending out the file for endorsements. But then I was faced with lots of new questions. Where do you put blurbs in an eBook? After all, there's no back cover for people to inspect. And how do you spread the word when there are no review copies to send in the mail -- and there are no eBook review sections out there?

For a few days in October, Nix wrestled the final version into shape. Today, book designers can use programs like InDesign that are like Swiss Army knives, allowing them to build a book in just about any conceivable way. But there's no Swiss Army knife for eBooks. We were swamped by an army of tiny glitches -- irritating typos and bizarre formatting errors. Many of them only revealed themselves after we uploaded the file onto eBook readers to give it one last look. And then, before long, we were ready to send it off to our distributor. A couple days later, it was for sale at Amazon and elsewhere.

Of course, only then did we notice a few more mistakes in the text, small but bothersome. If we were publishing a traditional book, we'd face a harsh choice: either let the errors stand, or pulp the whole run. That's precisely what just happened to the first 80,000 copies of the first British edition of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom. Our experience with Brain Cuttings was much less painful. Nix updated the files, and a few days later, a sparkling new edition was in the eBook stores.

I'm curious to see how this experiment pans out. I hope that this is a new niche for us writers. By pure coincidence, Amazon has just launched a new kind of product called "Kindle Singles" that is exactly what I and other writers have been thinking about recently. I don't know how the experiment will evolve in the future, but there's one thing I do know: I for one won't be doing it alone. Books are still a communal effort, from creation to sharing.