Monday, December 5, 2011

A Bit About PressBooks: A New Software System For Publishers

I've been beta testing a new software system for publishers. PressBooks promises to simplify the production workflow for publishers. I have to say it's not fully ready yet, but at the rate the developers have been making improvements, I should be able to get a book out the door with it maybe three months from now or sooner.

PressBooks is a web-based application for formatting both EPUB ebook and print versions of a book. The software is based on WordPress, that favorite of blogging platforms. A PressBooks user creates a project and then goes to work entering their book chapter-by-chapter. I found it easy to copy a chapter from a Word document and paste into a PressBooks text editing window. The window can be switched between a visual view and an HTML view. All the text formatting is done in the text window. There are other screens for editing the book metadata, such as title, subtitle, authors, EPUB ISBN, print ISBN (but not Library of Congress Control Number), bookcover thumbnail image, and more. Then comes the magic part. It's as simple as pressing a button (once each) to generate an EPUB ebook file and a PDF file for the print book interior.

Several predefined ebook CSS stylesheets are available, and user-defined CSS stylesheets have been promised for the very near future. The EPUBs I've generated so far for my test project all pass the EPUB validation suite, according to the Sigil EPUB editing program. The generated EPUBS do have some quirks, though. I haven't mentioned the following on the PressBooks forum, yet. Some metadata, such as publisher,  make it onto a metadata page in the ebook, but not into the content.opf metadata. Also, the generated table of contents page in the ebook does not contain some items that appear in NCX table of contents. And nowhere does the ebook display an ordinary copyright notice, such as "Copyright 2011 by Joe Author."

The generated PDFs for print books have more issues and make me say PressBooks isn't ready for prime time for this format. First are the margins; the inner margin is too narrow for paperback books, and there's no way to fix it. Next is the copyright page. The all-necessary phrase "All Rights Reserved" is put on the same line as the subtitle. There's also no provision for commonplace items such as a disclaimer, credits for cover art or quoted materials, or publication history. There's also no choice for typeface. I think PressBooks uses Palatino, but Thursday Night uses Bookman for its fiction. There's a lot that's right about the PDF. PressBooks uses some variant of the TeX typesetting engine, and because of they, the typesetting is excellent. If you laid a PressBooks version and a Word version of the same book side by side, they wouldn't look the same and you would likely say that even though you're not sure why, the PressBooks version is easier to read.

Despite these issues, PressBooks is being enhanced so quickly that by the time you find this article, the issues I've mentioned may all be in the past. For my PressBooks test project, I picked a novel that I wrote, an Arthurian space opera called Percival's Descent, as the guinea pig. Since I don't have to worry about putting up with an impatient author, I can afford to give PressBooks the time to resolve whatever issues prevent the software from producing acceptable results.

PressBooks has already proven to me to be the right idea as far as production workflow, and I encourage other publishers to take a look at this service.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Introducing Torpedo Junction

I've been so busy getting our debut book to print, that I've forgotten entirely to write about it. Torpedo Junction is the first novel by Wheat Ridge, Colorado, author Sourdough Jackson, a regular in the metro Denver SF community.

It's November, 1941. After only three months as skipper, Commander Anson McDonald is torn away from command of his own destroyer -- a post he earned through years of hard work and better-than-average performance -- to serve in a staff position for a Rear Admiral. McDonald speaks Dutch fluently, and his new boss, a short and feisty Texan, needs that and other skills he knows McDonald has.

Enter the boss: Erwin "Tex" Rommel, the Ocean Fox. Rommel got into "aeroplanes" early and is considered America's expert on naval aviation. He has just been given rope to begin carrier operations in the Pacific because "knowledgeable sources" have it from Churchill himself that the Japanese intend to attack Pearl Harbor. Rommel intends to take his rope and lasso the new threat if it turns out to be real. Even if it isn't, he has plenty to do to help break in an assortment of new Dutch ships, including an aircraft carrier, headed for the East Indies.

The admiral takes his assignment seriously and begins training Task Force 23 in earnest, getting no end of grief for disrupting the comfortable routines of a peacetime naval base. With the task force assembled, they head to Oahu and destiny; the Battle of Oahu is joined as the ink fades from history books and is replaced with a new story.

First as signals officer, and then as chief of staff, McDonald struggles to live up to the demands of command during war, a struggle that allows him to convince himself that he may be "good enough." Within a few months now-Captain McDonald is credited, almost as much as his boss, with living up to their overall mission in the Pacific: "Make the bastards go away."

Then the issue is in doubt. Assigned temporarily as chief of staff to Rear Admiral Ray Spruance, McDonald convinces his new boss to take a strategic risk. The result is a terrible beating of the British navy by enemy forces. None other than Admiral Albert Windsor -- Lord York, brother of the King of England -- accuses McDonald of dereliction of duty, and McDonald must argue that he made the right decisions. But he wonders, did he really?


Several things about Torpedo Junction endeared itself to me and led me to choose it as our first offering.

I'm not much of a fan of military fiction, but this book caught my attention in several ways. It gives a point of view not shared by most military fiction; it shows what goes on at the level of admirals. We come to understand, at least a little, how war is waged by not just a ship, but an entire fleet. I think Jackson chose wisely when making an early change while writing the story. Rommel is the protagonist, but not the point of view character. We see Rommel through the eyes of McDonald. Military aviation is old hat to Rommel, but not McDonald. In this way he is like most of us and we grow along with him. But, McDonald is a seaman as much as Rommel is not. In this way he is different from most of us and we want to understand that difference.

We do get to know Rommel in one way other than through McDonald's POV. The real Rommel was known to write to his wife regularly when away, and this Rommel is no different. Interspersed throughout the story are some of those character-revealing letters.

Jackson excels in another way. This is a work of alternative history, but it is also a work of diligent historical authenticity. Although it's unusual, this book comes with an annotated bibliography in which the author explains the importance of various books, some scholarly, to the story.

Surprise historical figures show up, all in fitting ways. Ensign John Fitgerald Kennedy shows up as an intelligence officer. The real JFK indeed spent his early naval career in intelligence. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, shows up as a war correspondent assigned to Rommel. The real Burroughs was an army war correspondent in WWII, but we learn that Rommel is a fan of Burroughs (and SF generally), and I can easily imagine that Rommel had something to do with the assignment.

In this story's logic, just about every departure from our history can be traced back to Rommel. And Rommel the Texan instead of Rommel the German Field Marshal who literally wrote the book on armored warfare can be traced to a fateful decision by Rommel's father regarding a purchase of stock in a Dutch oil company, a decision that wasn't wrong so much as premature, but caused a financial scandal that made the Rommels leave Germany.

The story logic is so strong that nearly everything that happens, including how the war in the Pacific unfolds, seems after the fact to have been inevitable. Jackson accomplishes this inevitability without letting the story be predictable. There are plenty of coincidences and lots of historical figures just a little out of place, but not once did I want to say "no, I don't buy it; that's too convenient." I was even willing to buy that McDonald had been an Annapolis classmate of Robert A. Heinlein, who in our timeline was indeed an Annapolis grad and navy man. Oh, lest I forget to mention it, those who know their history will find plenty of little inside jokes.

Thoughtful alternative history is more than merely revisionist history. It explores a what-if question. Jackson gives us a more sophisticated what-if question than the surface one: what if Erwin Rommel grew up to be an American rather than a German. I contend the real story question is this: How would World War II have been different if the United States had not been afraid to expose its aircraft carriers to the Japanese Combined Fleet.

I think this will be a great read for fans of alternative history, but also for serious WWII buffs.

So, Thursday Night Press is proud to announce the immediate availability of its debut novel, Torpedo Junction by Sourdough Jackson. Look for it at AmazonBarnes and Noble, or your favorite online seller. Independent bookstores can buy from us directly. It is available in trade paper, for the Kindle, and, any day now, the Nook.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Nitty Gritty

This week I have been stumbling through what makes Thursday Night Press a small, traditional publisher instead of a self-publishing effort: contracts.

Our third biggest startup expense, after forming the corporation and buying a block of ISBNs is going to be review of our Author, Work for Hire and Royalty/Profit-Sharing Agreements by general counsel.

We will have the luxury of publishing friendly authors (us) and using friendly contractors during our first year. This, I hope, will give us the time learn what's good and bad about our agreements and give us the opportunity to amend the agreements so that they are ready for prime time.

In a later posting, I'll get into our compensation model, which is a little different from traditional. In this model, which we are refining, authors get a share of gross profits, rather than a percentage of list price. We hope to see higher royalties for authors that way on successful works. But, as I said, I'll get into details at a different time.

Ta ta for now.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thursday Night Press begins

This last Sunday night (2/6) the four of us had a shareholder meeting where we wrote investment checks and then elected ourselves as the board of directors. The new board appointed me as Chief Executive Officer.

Thursday Night Press, Ltd., now exists and has started business. Thursday Night is a small press publisher in Denver, Colorado, focused on developing local new authors.

Our name describes our origins. For a few years, I've hosted the informal Thursday Night Writers Group in Denver. At the group, we review, critique, and edit each other's work. I, for example, am about 10,000 words from completing my first novel, a science fiction "space opera" that I call Fisher King: Percival's Descent.

Some members of the group have written or are writing works that I consider gems. I liked them enough that I got a few partners together to create a company to publish them. We will spend the next year, I estimate, learning the ropes to put out and market our first 6 to 8 books in both print and ebook editions. This is a side business for all of us, and we are not quiting our day jobs, not yet.

I decided to start a blog for two reasons: First, it makes good business sense. It's an inexpensive way to connect with the public, especially since it will take a while to have a website good enough to show the public. Second, I need to write. Since choosing to become a publisher, I haven't had as much time to sit down with my novel. I don't know about others, but I find that if I go too long not writing, it becomes difficult to get back into it. Writing is not what I do to earn a living, so I need to find time to write and reasons to write.

In this blog, I will write about new books and new authors as we get them under contract. Occasionally--but not too much, because plenty of people are doing it--I will write about our adventures in learning to be not just a publisher, but an excellent publisher. You can be sure that when we are ready to accept submissions from authors outside the Thursday Night Writers Group in Denver, you will hear about it here first.

Let me close my inaugural posting by inviting your feedback. I look forward to answering your comments and I look forward to finding inspirations for further posts.