My master plan was to have a nice long rest after the Picture Gallery feature for the online SF Encyclopedia. The editors wanted to add some tasty eye candy to the vast expanses of text; so the Gallery launched in mid-May 2013 with over 1800 images of first-edition book jackets (plus a sprinkling of surprises – I really must scan those Doctor Who fridge magnets that came as an SFX freebie years ago) and passed 5000 by 1 July. If you believe the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words, this added the equivalent of five million words to the 4.1 million of actual entries. Speaking as the sucker who had to write and debug all the upload, display and slide-show scripts, I feel proudly knackered.
Before I could sink into well-deserved apathy, my business partner at that obscure small press Ansible Editions remarked that it was time I bloody well got a move on with volumes two and three of Algis Budrys's collected criticism (see April's column). It's not so much the digital typesetting as compiling detailed book indexes that brings on the headaches. At last the collections appeared as tasteful print-on-demand paperbacks from Lulu.com, and it was definitely an occasion for that nice long rest.
Then people started clamouring for ebook editions. For years there'd been demands for an ebook of my least worst novel The Leaky Establishment. I kept putting this off owing to technofear and a sense that this wouldn't make me even slightly rich ... since the demands, though regular, all came from the same person. But the e-Budrys requests were well into single figures! The customer is sometimes right.
Let Lulu.com do the work, I thought. Alas, their e-equivalent of POD is limited to Epub format, OK for every e-reader except the dreadfully popular Kindle. Author friends swear by the ebook publisher Smashwords, catering for every reader known to terrestrial science; but Smashwords imposes a dread and inflexible format requirement for uploaded text. Although I have a reasonably strong stomach for gruesome horrors and nameless abominations, I draw the line at contaminating my computer with Microsoft Word.
"Why not just roll your own ebooks?" someone said, adding that it's just a matter of downloading free software and clicking a few buttons. He didn't mention the days of frustration and further headaches (the pain of migraine is mainly in the brain).... In the end I more or less succeeded in rolling my own.
The Langford Method depends on being able to work with plain HTML, as in web pages, the SF Encyclopedia and indeed the Budrys collections – these went through an HTML stage on their journey from the original magazines, via scanning and OCR, to printable PDF format.
Once you have a good clean HTML text and a CSS stylesheet with a few suitable format controls, you can feed it into the free ebook software Calibre. This lets you add "metadata" like the book title and author, a cover image and the publisher's name (for me, Ansible Editions). Choose a format such as Epub, Mobi or Kindle AZW3, click a button, and Calibre churns out a shiny new ebook. Marvellous. I must send its author some money.
Then you find the stylesheet needs some little tweaks for nice presentation of things like footnotes – of which Mr Budrys was all too fond. Examples include: "*Don't worry, there'll be a footnote coming along any minute now, but not here," "*I have chosen not to put footnotes in this column," and, after quoting someone's would-be evocative writing: "*Yuck, my reader, yuck!" All these have to look just right, and weeks of obsessive work lie ahead....
David Langford has pencilled in that nice long rest for, maybe, 2015.