On Plans & Agility & Ippy Awards

Updated Wisdom Tree cover featuring gold Ippy seal

This post was, as of even as late as mid-April, intended to announce the availability of the second installment of Nick Earls’ The True Story of Butterfish. I’m looking very forward to uploading those installments and sharing that book with you, but barely more than a week ago we learned, as we shared last post, that Wisdom Tree had won the Independent Publishers gold Ippy award for Best Adult Fiction ebook.

That night, I got to talk to Nick by phone for the first time. We’ve been working together for going on seven years now, but all our communication has been digital. It’s mostly logistical; given Nick’s location, he lives not only around the world but technically tomorrow from me most of the time, and that’s not to mention that though a cell phone can call basically anywhere, they’ll sure charge you for it, and I think I paid nearly five bucks a minute to deliver the good news by voice (WORTH IT).

Within that initial excitement we were still able to discuss current plans a bit, enough to note that we’d planned for Butterfish‘s launch in just a few days, and to rethink that. We’re excited to make it available digitally, and hopefully for it to find a new audience.

In fact, that’s what we’ve been hoping for ages; that Nick’s work will find a new audience. I’ve long held that Nick’s work deserves it — I’m thrilled that Nick has one in his native Australia, but his work isn’t so very Australia-specific that it should find its only audience there.

That’s why we’re holding off on Butterfish for now.

The Ippy award is big. There are an incredible amount of entries, and previous awards have recognized authors like Dave Eggers and Ayelet Waldman and publishers like McSweeney’s, Grove, and Dzanc. It’s basically a who’s who in indie publishing.

So it’s a huge honor for Exciting Press (and me) for Nick’s work to be recognized in that context. We want to celebrate Nick and that recognition.

Which is why we’re for the moment postponing Butterfish. We want to focus for a few weeks on this cooler than cool (ice cold) news.

The good news is that’s the benefit of agility, and Exciting Press. We may be small, but we can pivot quickly when we need to, update sales info and cover images within hours, instead of days or even weeks.

Kindle Create: The Best Thing to Happen to eBooks Since Kindle (if you don’t have Vellum)

Yesterday, I saw  The Digital Reader  post about a new Amazon-created tool for publishing on the Kindle platform, called Kindle Create. The screenshot (right) looked both simple and cool. A what-you-see-is-what-you-get tool that could help turn a Word doc into a Kindle ebook. I’m a total publishing geek, so I was excited all day to get home so that I could download it and try it for myself —

And it’s exactly as described. You import a Word doc, it runs some likely fancy algorithms, and BOOM nicely formatted Kindle book with guesses at elements like new chapters and such.

I’m not sure how the screenshot is appearing for you, but the interface is nice. It’s a simple menu, and then there are three columns:

Contents – which appears to be mostly navigational, and lets you flip through the book based on its chapterination (that’s not a word, but pagination is, and this is based on chapters, not pages, so there).

Preview – which you can move the cursor within, highlight and delete and add.

Text properties – which is basically formatting, so you can highlight something in the preview and change it to a different element. Like make a heading a subtitle, or something.

I downloaded and played with it for ten minutes. I imported a complete copy of Miya Kressin’s No Expectations, which I’m going to be working in this weekend to lay out and design, and it seemed to get most everything right. It broke out the chapters well, maintained section breaks, and where it didn’t it was fairly obvious what I should be highlighting to change so that I could format elements correctly.

From that ten minutes, I’ll say this: it’s fantastic. It’s easy to use, easy to understand, and it has all the basic elements necessary to import a Word doc, change formatting you can see, and export a file ready to upload to Kindle.

There’s an important word in that sentence, and it’s “basic.”

If Kindle Create had been available, say, six months ago, I think I might have adopted it and never looked back. It’s that good. Like Kindle, it’s platform agnostic, available for both Windows and MacOS as Kindle is available for everything from Amazon’s own e-readers to iPads to Android to etc.

And “essential” may be a better word than “basic.” It’s got everything essential you need, and there’s something to be said for essential. Without digging too deeply into it, I don’t see a way to change the design of the “Separation,” but hey three black diamonds is as good a signifier as any.

I specify “without digging too deeply into it” because it may include others, but I just didn’t see them. Just like I think it can handle pictures and videos, but I wouldn’t see that because I don’t really deal with those.

But recently I’ve been using Vellum. I use switched to Apple’s ecosystem after one too many Windows laptops crashed on me and several too many Android phones went without upgrades to the latest, most secure versions, so I didn’t mind that Vellum is a Mac-only program. So is iTunes Producer, which is the only way to upload your book directly to the iBookstore.

Which is what I do. Where Exciting Press ebooks are available on different platforms (we’re still building out), they’ve been uploaded directly to those platforms. Mainly because there are four, total (Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and B&N).

Among those four, Amazon not only has the most marketshare but also the best experience for readers. Honestly, sometimes it feels like Amazon is the only ebook retailer that cares about readers and the experience of reading.

So maybe concentrating there isn’t a bad thing. That’s something for authors to decide for themselves. For authors who are fine with Amazon exclusivity, Kindle Create seems pretty great. Also, Amazon being Amazon, the algorithms that guess chapter breaks seems pretty spot on.

I’m not sure the final file is easily converted to an ePub, though — which may not be surprising, as ePub as a file format is awful. So backwards and difficult to format. (It’s no wonder all the corporate publishers chose it as their “standard” — long after the market had already decided on a different standard on its own.)

Also, Kindle Create is free. That’s huge. Vellum is better, with deeper formatting options, but it also costs $200 for a copy that is available only for Mac.

Another Cover: The True Story of Butterfish

Perfect Skin was the first Nick Earls novel I read, shortly after its release, most likely during the early months of 2002 in January or February. It might have been even earlier, during the final months of 2001 — those months remain a blur to me, loomed over the sudden absence of the shadows of the twin towers. I’d moved back home, then, from Manhattan to my parents’ basement in south Jersey, and my life was a bit of a wreck. It would remain so for a long while afterward.

One thing I remember is browsing my local library’s stacks and reading book after book after book. Looking for authors I enjoyed whose other books I could seek out. Nick was one of those; after finding Perfect Skin I immediately sought out Bachelor Kisses and Zigzag Street and what became known in the US as Two to Go but which was known elsewhere as World of Chickens (if I’m not mistaken) and which is known now as Green.

That was about where my access to Nick’s work dried up, because it became mostly available only in Australia or via import, and I didn’t have access to those channels. I read about The Thompson Gunner but couldn’t get my hands on it.

It was years, then, before I heard about The True Story of Butterfish. It’s a novel about Curtis Holland, keyboardist of an Australian band who sells huge and then . . .

I’m not going to spoil.

Because I’m going to publish it! Nick sent me a copy of it when we first began working together (along with a hardcover of Perfect Skin). These are the perks of publishing your favorite authors.

I couldn’t be happier. I love this story. It’s utterly Nick’s — the sort of story that’s warm and funny and real and hard to summarize in just one sentence. You’re left with describing it as “Well, this retired rockstar moves to Australian suburbs and lives next door to a nubile teen girl and her also-attractive mother. Hijinks ensue.”

Which of course doesn’t do it justice. I mean, just look at that cover!

Look for upcoming posts about timing, so you’ll know exactly where and when you’ll be able to buy brand new Exciting books.

No Expectations Cover Reveal (with bonus Easter egg)

Several months ago, before even the holiday season, Miya Kressin finished her newest novel No Expectations.

I am so sorry you haven’t been able to buy it yet.

Spoiler: it’s so good.

I mean, I knew Miya could write. One need only check out the Asylum Saga to see how well Miya puts words together. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that she’s among the finest prose stylists I’ve ever encountered.

What do I mean by that?

At a word and sentence level, her prose works. And you might say, well, okay, but isn’t that always the case, but no, it’s not. You’ll find a lot of authors whose prose is competent. It gets the job done, keeps the sentences going and the pages turning.

Miya’s words and sentences are something else. Her stories are great, for sure, but there’s an intricacy and craft to her actual writing I find astounding.

With the Asylum Saga, Miya’s prose was working on several levels. Roseen is a complex character with a complex story and complex motivations. There’s a heft to the proceedings; we didn’t call it a Saga for nothing, after all.

In No Expectations, Miya has a ton of fun.

Now don’t get me wrong; I know Miya had fun writing Asylum; I was there for a lot of it, and watched it happen.

But here’s the thing; Miya isn’t just an author I work with. She’s a dear friend of mine, and has been for more than a decade. We met on MySpace and are friends on Facebook, and we’ve played virtual tabletop games and exchanged holiday presents. I’ve never met Miya in person but I know her voice and have heard her laugh.

And that’s what No Expectations is like.

It’s wonderful and funny and entertaining.

It’s also crazy hot and steamy.

Miya sent me a finished draft back in probably October now. I’ll be honest — from August of 2015 through the end of 2016, I was about useless for everything that wasn’t my day job, and even there I feel like I had performed it better in previous years. My wife read it straightaway, so that she could start editing it. There were a couple setbacks there — file losses and transfer weirdness.

And me? Like I said, useless.

But when I was able to start getting back to things, No Expectations was fun. That’s what I was struck by. It’s Miya at her best, great writing and amazing prose and all, but it’s also so much fun. I found myself grinning, laughing. I found myself adoring Julie and aspiring to identify with Reed.

Those names make no sense to you yet, but stay tuned. They’re going to.

Vellum: The Best Thing to Happen to Authors Since Kindle

If you’re an author interested in publishing your work, there are a few key tools you’d do well to invest in, but I think among the best and simplest is software called Vellum. It’s kind of a combination between a word processor, a WYSIWYG book layout designer, and an ebook generator. It’s a simple, elegant way to create a professionally designed ebook without the headaches of proprietary software and trying to run Terminal-level commands like KindleGen and whatever international-but-not-market-standard format ePub demands this month.

Amazon announced the Kindle platform, store, and device in 2007, and while I was intrigued by the concept, my enthusiasm was tempered by the actual experience. The first generation Kindle was like a Fisher Price publishing toy, with a weird shapes throughout, and its second generation wasn’t much better. Their ebook store was nascent. Were ebooks worth ten dollars?

In 2010, however, Amazon released its third-gen Kindle, the Kindle Keyboard, and it was a revelation. Its design was revolutionary, rather than evolutionary. And by then its Kindle publishing platform had gained some legs.

In fact, it had progressed enough that I showed the device to my editrix and told her, I think I can do this. I can make something like this.

And I did. I had Windows, and I downloaded MobiPocket Creator, and I had enough basic HTML experience left over from MySpace that I was able to roll the code for an ebook.

And that’s what I did. For, like, nearly ten years. I would take Word documents, strip out the editing, put them in Adobe DreamWeaver, recode them line by painstaking line, run MobiPocket Creator in a virtual machine on my MacBook Pro (on which I’d designed the cover in Photoshop), and then save the resulting .prc to a common folder I could upload to Kindle. And then used Calibre to convert for Apple and B&N and Kobo.

If you look at the above and scratch your head, or think it sounds complicated, you’re not alone. It sucked.

Around last year, though, I heard that .prcs were going to stop working as well. And truth be told they’d never worked very well, anyway. So I started looking into alternative ways to build ebooks.

And I found Vellum.

I fell in love with it. Mainly because it made my life easier, made my business more efficient, but there were a few key ways it did so.

One Program, All Formats

Lay out one book, entirely, and when it comes to generating ebooks you can get everything from a .mobi for Amazon to a generic .epub for any bookstore, plus files for Apple or Kobo in between. You only need to generate once and you get every format, and you can rest assured they’re all in good shape.


That’s “What You See Is What You Get.” Coding sucks. It’s all brackets and weird letters and ASCII and character codes. Not so for Vellum. Import from a Word doc and it pulls literally everything in. In any other program I had to hand code “curly” quotes — those are the ones that look curved, rather than straight like plain text renders. But it goes farther than that; in one of the books I recently worked in, one of the characters was producing music for a band from Greenland or Iceland or Finland. One of the countries that puts slashes through Os, that kind of thing. And it just pulled them in.

Prebuilt Templates, Extended Customization

I’ve never counted, but when you import a book, you can use any one of like, nine or so pre-built ebook styles. But each style offers further customization of things like ornamental breaks and chapter headings and block quotes. And let’s be honest, when you’re dealing with books, unless it’s literally part of the story somehow, the best design is basically invisible. No reader or review I’ve ever seen has ever commented “I mean the story was pretty good, but did you notice those ornate dropcaps? Intense!” — which is not to say ornate drop caps aren’t an option. It’s just to say that Vellum offers exactly as much customization is useful to remain professional. Which I think is good; I’ve seen way too many uses of Comic Sans and that Avatar font. When restricted to simple, elegant choices, the ebooks that are generated remain simple and elegant.

Great User Interface

It’s simple and easy to navigate. You know where to put your cover, where to enter whatever information is useful, and how to create new chapters and sections and parts. What’s more, some quick right-clicking around means you can manipulate them pretty easily. Want a group of chapters to collapse among one part? Done. Want to convert a section of text into a block quote, or insert an ornamental break? Yep. Easily accomplished.

So those are why I love it, and it’s reasonably priced. I don’t remember how much it is per individual book generated or for multiple, mainly because I laid out one book and had such a great experience that I was like, hell, even if I only want to generate the Kindle version that experience was still worth $200 (or more). And as soon as I started laying out that first book I knew I was going to be republishing literally everything from Exciting Press anyway.

I think there’s other software that might do the same. Like Scrivener. I’ve heard great things about Scrivener, which I think costs $50 (it’s been a long time since I bought it), but I’ll be honest: the first time I booted up Scrivener I was intimidated by how overly complicated it seemed. I know a lot of writers who swear by it, so it’s definitely worth checking out, but I prefer software that gets out of my way as I’m doing what I want. I don’t want to lay out a book chapter by chapter and have extra notes and images and all those things — I tend to just write chapter after chapter in Pages, sometimes with the rest of a book outlined beyond the scene I’m writing. That’s all I want. Using Vellum, I was able to paste that Pages file in and recreate the same formatting, and the ebooks generated are simple, elegant, and perfect for all the devices I would expect readers to find them on.

Because that’s ultimately what I always want; to create the best reader experience. Vellum has, so far, been the best and simplest way to achieve that I’ve seen, and while $200 might seem pricey, I think achieving that easily is priceless.