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You might get the impression that digital publishing is somehow new and exciting. Actually, it's been around for a while, but mainstream media seems to have just noticed and we're all just catching up.
There are some people who have been involved in indie publishing for years now and April Hamilton is one of them. I've known April online for nearly four years now and she continues to innovate. Here's a guest post about her latest project which is fascinating as I am someone who shares a lot online.
In my latest book, Overshare, over the course of a particularly challenging 13 months in his life a young man unwittingly, publicly reveals his increasing stress level and alienation from his wife, family and friends through his posts on social media sites. It was a scenario I'd witnessed in real life, and watching this person's life unravel before my eyes was a sad and thought-provoking experience. I felt sorry for the obvious stress this person was under, and on the other hand, couldn't help thinking about the quantity and quality of very personal life circumstances and details that can emerge from the sum total of one user's social media accounts. I was immediately inspired to write a novel based on these events, but I knew a very large part of what made the story so powerful was the way I'd originally experienced it: as a voyeur, peeking into the social media windows this person had left open to the public. As I've written about this elsewhere:
Then it hit me…Why not show the reader my protagonist's actual social media web pages, containing his status updates and others' responses to them, as well as his blog posts, but purposely limit the content to only what a member of the general public would see? To make the reader's experience as realistic as possible, I knew I'd have to mimic the look and content of the most popular social media sites very closely, and the resulting book would have to be presented in full color. To produce such a book in print would be cost prohibitive, but with the advent of color ereader apps and devices, it seemed an ideal fit for a totally new kind of ebook.
This approach would definitely be best for duplicating my original experience, but it posed numerous technical challenges. In order to create the illusion of real social media sites, I'd need photos to represent my protagonist, his friends and family members, and the events he'd be likely to post about. The next obstacle would be creating my own versions of the most popular, real-world social media web pages, to which I'd add character “status updates”, photos and blog posts. Assuming I could accomplish this, I'd still face the considerable hurdle of getting my carefully-constructed layout and graphic design to survive the ebook conversion process.
Preserving Complex Formatting
I'll address that last issue first, the conversion, because I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking I'll be providing step-by-step how-tos for preserving complex formatting in an ebook during the conversion step. Even with my background as a software engineer and web developer, I had to outsource the final formatting and conversion tasks to someone very well-versed in working with a type of formatting tool known as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). CSS controls and preserves complex formatting in web pages, and all ebooks are essentially a specialized type of web page.
Once I'd created my graphics to represent the various social media web pages and had collected the photos I'd need to insert in those pages, laying everything out in MS Word was easy enough to accomplish using tables. But I knew from experience, all but the most basic tables, whether created in MS Word or HTML (web code), would not survive the conversion process. And for this particular book, it was absolutely critical that my imitation social media pages look EXACTLY the same in the finished ebook as they did when I created them. Consider the screen shot from the book below, which may look like a screenshot snapped off a website, but is actually a two-column MS Word table with graphic elements and text inserted in its cells:
Anyone who uses social media will immediately recognize this “web page”, and will understand the information it contains. Imagine how much less realistic and recognizable this “web page” would be if this exact layout could not be presented in the finished ebook.
There's lots of talk lately about how authors need to be moving in the direction of ‘enhanced' ebooks (e.g., features like interactivity, full-motion video, embedded audio, full color and heavy use of graphics) if they hope to attract and retain a readership going forward, and I don't disagree. But most such enhancements require a great deal of technical knowledge and expertise to execute, for the vast majority of indie authors it will NOT be a Do-It-Yourself project to create an ebook containing anything other than formatted text and basic, standalone images. Now, back to those first two challenges…
Duplicating the look of real-life social media websites
I began by taking screen shots of the real-life social media websites I hoped to imitate. I carefully matched their color schemes and recreated their layouts via MS Word tables. Because I knew I'd be publishing this book for the Kindle, I set my page size in Word to 4×6″. This kept me cognizant of the size and layout limitations imposed by the Kindle device screen size at all times. I knew the CSS to be applied in the final formatting and conversion steps would allow for the tables and images to resize automatically to fit larger or smaller screen sizes, for those readers who would view the book in the Kindle Reader app on any device other than a Kindle, but I had to ensure the book would look right on the actual Kindle device first.
By carefully sizing the table columns and merging cells or columns as needed, I was able to recreate the same look as the real-life sites. I was also careful to ensure each table would fit on a single page, and in cases where the content would flow across multiple pages, to break it up into multiple tables. This was necessary to ensure no table rows would “break” across pages in the finished book. For example, I didn't want a faceplace photo to appear on one page, and its description and comments to appear on another.
I created my own versions of the real-life icons used on the sites in a graphics editor program, but I could also have purchased a ready-made set of icons from any of a number of stock art websites. I also searched the web on “free [social media website name] font” to find fonts that would match the real-life sites. I was careful to read the licensing terms of the fonts before downloading them to be sure it was acceptable for me to use them for a commercial (money-making) purpose.
With the colors and table layouts set, I would be able to enter my desired text for “status updates” on each page of my MS Word document. But first, I needed to “meet” my characters.
Sourcing photos to use in the book
Again, as I've previously explained about the book:
I'd need avatars, or user pictures, of the protagonist and everyone he'd be interacting with online. I'd need candid family and event photos of the sort people regularly post on Facebook. And because of the story arc, I'd need a series of pictures of a young woman at various stages of pregnancy, a series of pictures of a young man depicting the journey from hale and cheerful to beaten and haggard, and finally, baby pictures depicting a preemie's path from NICU to healthy newborn at home.
At first this seemed an insurmountable obstacle. I couldn't afford to hire models to pose for all the pictures I'd need, and didn't have the time, equipment or skills to act as photographer. Anyway, posed stills would never give me the realism I needed. Then, another stroke of inspiration: Creative Commons –licensed images are easily found online, and plenty of them have been licensed as permissible for commercial and remix use. I soon had a treasure trove of real-life photos of real-life people for which the rights holders had pre-emptively granted permission to anyone to use for commercial purposes (such as in a book to be sold for profit) and remix use (such as cropping and coloring to achieve my desired effects).
Even though the images I decided to use were licensed as permissible for commercial and remix use, I realized the people in them probably never anticipated this type of use. What if some of them objected, changed their images' licensing terms to prohibit commercial or remix use, and then attempted to bring legal action against me? How could I prove the licensing that was in place at the time I downloaded the images? This is where Webcite comes in.
Webcite is a non-profit service that allows users to store (and download) a permanent, archived copy of a webpage certified by Webcite to be a complete and accurate copy of the web page as it existed on the day the page was archived. I created an archived copy of every page from which I'd downloaded photos, each of which clearly displayed an icon to indicate the type of CC licensing applied to each image.
As an aside, I've heard from a few people that my use of these CC-licensed images in my book may be somehow illegal or unethical.
It is most definitely NOT illegal, in that the rights holders who posted the images to image sharing sites chose to apply CC licensing terms. The default type of licensing is “all rights reserved”, so every one of those rights holders had to take extra steps to purposely CC-license their images.
As to the ethical question… my feeling is that the rights holders knew what they were doing when they opted to apply CC licensing to their images and allow any member of the general public to make use of those images. If any of the rights holders object to my specific use, this only serves to underscore the point of Overshare: that actions you take and content you post online can have far-reaching and unanticipated consequences.
Are enhanced ebooks for you?
I'd encourage any indie author to explore the possibility of enhancing his or her ebooks, and really stretching the limits of what an ebook can be and do. However, I'd also caution those authors to go into the project with a full understanding and acceptance that it will probably be necessary to bring in outside, professional help at various stages in the process.
In the case of my book, the presentation was absolutely critical. This book simply would not work as a straight prose novel. Given the book's design, the reader essentially formulates his own narrative and draws his own conclusions based on what he has chosen to focus on or ignore in each of the “web pages”—just as each of us does when viewing our online acquaintances' social media.
April Hamilton is the author of Overshare, available now on Kindle.
She is also a blogger, Technorati BlogCritic, speaker and essayist on issues related to self-publishing and indie authorship. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Association of Independent Authors, and is the founder and Editor In Chief of Publetariat: the premier online news hub and community for indie authors and small imprints.