Let’s Murder Some Trees!

I wanted to do it for quite some time, and now I finally sat down to finish preparations and make all my readers compliant in my sweet act of mass murder. And now both How to Sing Butterflies and its expanded edition How to Sing Butterflies DX are available on paper via Amazon.
But or floral enemies shall not have died in vain, for here are five lessons I took away from my first go at print publishing. Among those a solution to get spine text on books of less than 100 pages.

Design Itself is the Easy Part

Amazon's 3D preview is small and not really easy on the eyes, but it gets the job done

Amazon’s 3D preview is small and not that easy on the eyes, but it gets the job done

When doing a cover for an ebook, the design takes up the whole process. You create an image, and once you’re done you got yourself a cover. You will probably tweak it a few times here and there until you’re satisfied, but it’s as straightforward as that.
Not for paper books. And I’m not talking about the spine or back. You’ll have to also make it work with the print software.
The interior is easy. I imagine it might get a little harder once I add images to the books, but I did not do that for any paperback yet. But even then, the margins are quite well-defined and easy to work with.
That cover check software, though.
On the first try, I had issues with spine elements getting too close to the edge of the spine. This was mainly caused by having put the spine content a little too much to the left. No biggy, I fixed that.
When the error message didn’t disappear I realized the problem was two-fold. I had fixed the positioning of my spine content, but the software still acted up, marking the yellow lines you can see crossing the spine in the preview image as erroneous. That was annoying. I wanted to have those, and I had seen others having graphical elements going all around their cover, spine included.
What was causing the problem was the way I had realized that design. The lines are part of the text element that also forms the title, meaning this was identified as text by the KDP software. Turns out only text elements are restricted like that. I did not know this. I found out by getting bold and upload a version of the cover that had this whole element converted into polygons. The system raised no issues with a polygon going across the spine, so that was fixed.
All problems fixed, I then switched to working on the thinner of the two books, the standard edition. It happened to be exactly 100 pages long. I thought I was in luck by having just made the threshold to put text on my spine.
Yeah, not according to the preview check. It did tell me I had to have at least 100 pages. But what it apparently meant was I had to have more than 100 pages. That rule is stupid and I realize in hindsight, I could have remedied that by converting the spine text into polygons to circumvent Amazon’s restrictions. I ended up adding four empty pages to the end of the book.
By the way, it would have been nice to know beforehand that Amazon would put a barcode on the cover and where they put it. Because my initial upload ended up with two identical barcodes (one included by me, one by Amazon) with Amazon’s copy printed right over my website URL. So, yeah, know beforehand Amazon will put a barcode in the lower right of your back cover. It did play nice with my squiggly lines, though.
There seems to be a problem with the centering on the DX edition’s cover, but I can’t be sure of that without seeing a printed copy. It’s easily possible to change covers after publication, though.

Yes, You Can Have Text on Thin Spines

So here’s something we all can learn from my adventures in getting stuff on the spine: If your book is below 100 pages, just convert your spine text into graphical elements (polygons or curves) to trick the cover previewer into allowing it.
Consider that little hint my revenge against Amazon’s automated complaints about that.

Book Designers Have Weird Conventions

Okay, so English and American books have little headers above their content pages, showing the author on the left pages and the book title on the right. Got it easy enough.
Chapters are supposed to start on the right-hand page. That means there may be blank pages to the left. Makes sense.
But then those blank pages are completely blank. Why? What is the purpose of a header if half of it disappears? Why would you not display a number there when all other pages are numbered? To me, that seems like a pointless exercise to make interior design in books a tad more tedious. I have disliked it for years as a reader, and now I dislike it as a writer as well. But I’m self-publishing, so screw that made-up rule.

I'm such a rebel

I’m such a rebel

Beware of Widows

Print design knows of two sins: Those of the widows and those of the orphans. And I’m really glad I didn’t write this article in German. The German terms translate to whore’s children and shoemaker boys, respectively. The former hide in the attic, the latter bow down to shine your shoes, you see. Needless to say, we started using translations of the English terms in recent years.
In short, a widow is a single line ending a paragraph at the upper end of a page, while an orphan is the first line of a new paragraph ending a page. They look weird and can disrupt reading flow.
Orphans are easy enough to get rid of, you just add an empty line to have it go to the next page. Widows are not only harder to get rid of, they are also considered the worse offender design-wise. An empty line in the middle of the page should only appear when intended to break up the text.
Usually, I would change the text a little bit to be longer or shorter by a few words. But this is a collection of existing stories. I can change them to some degree, but not for something minor like that. It would be worse if I wasn’ the one who wrote them in the first place. So the trickery with breaks, line heights, and paragraph alignment to conceal breaks starts.
It can get complicated, but it needs to be done.

Amazon Can be Weird

Once I got my books done, and they went up, I wanted to order a proof copy. KDP does not send you a proof copy like Createspace and some others do, they have you trust the 3d rendered preview. Like I said before, there appears to be some alignment issue with the DX edition, but I want to check some hardcopies for that first. Not to mention, I want to see what my spine looks like in real life.
In addition to this, as a selfpublisher living in Germany, I am legally required to send two copies to the national library and one to my state’s library for archival purposes.
So I ordered four copies each. Simple. If Amazon wouldn’t have decided to act up by sending me a statement that my account was suspended for unpaid bills. I was like “Wait, what?”
Contacting customer support I was informed the issue was with an apparently unpaid bill from January 2010. Yes, 2010! About €10 plus shipping. I don’t know if I was victim to a glitch or whether that was true. For the record, articles I have ordered in between 2010 and 2017 include a microphone, a tablet computer, my Kindle and a lot of ebooks. Among other things. And now, more than half a decade later, that happened. So yeah, this is weird.
I’m currently sorting that out. Dammit, I want to finally hold my books in my hands!

How to Sing Butterflies (104 pages, US$4.99) and How to Sing Butterflies DX (168 pages, US$6.99) are now available via KDP Paperback in the US, Europe, and Japan.

Death by taxes

For some time I entertained the idea of selling ebooks directly over this website. What follows is the story why I don’t. And, incidentally, how the EU’s attempts to stop tax evasion by large online retailers harms small businesses in the denationalized world of the internet, helping monopolies to rise and persist.

Come 2015, European law will change how VAT is calculated for customers buying virtual goods. Currently, when buying virtual goods, you pay VAT on whatever rate is applied by the country the vendor resides in. This being tax laws, it’s a little more complicated than that, but for the sake of my point we can keep it simple. Because VAT is very different across europe, that goes from 3% in Luxembourg to 27% in Hungary. So of course Amazon’s and Apple’s stores are located in Luxembourg, benefitting from lower VAT and their ability to keep prices low, to many a tax payers irritation in those countries with higher rates. Nobody wants a race to the bottom, so this is a tough situation to fight. However, European parliament decided to do something about the situation and so now VAT on virtual goods will be calculated by the nation the customer buys from or resides. So, say I buy an eBook off Amazon, January 1st onward I’d have to pay 19% VAT instead of 3%. 7% if Germany finally gets its shit together and puts eBooks at the same tax rate as paper books, but still more.

This law is mostly directed at big corporations like Amazon and Apple. In my humble opinion, it will only serve to cement their power, worsen what many already perceive as a monopoly. You know the gist of that discussion from half the rest of the internet and basically all the daily paper, I’m sure, so I’ll spare you yet another discussion on it.
Now, where lies the problem?

For some time I have thought about selling my ebooks directly on my site. It’s a valid addition to any author’s site, increasing control and independence against stores while increasing customer service. However, the internet knows no borders. Once I set up my storefront, anybody can buy my books. I’ve had sales outside of Germany before, every once in a while getting a book sold in Italy, Spain, France, or the UK, not to mention Brazil, India, and Japan. This is probably going to increase now that I started publishing more works in English.

I am going to assume that Amazon, Apple, Google et al. know how to handle this stuff and are able to afford it. They’ll pay a couple millions more per year and all’s well for them. No big deal.
I, on the other hand, am simply unable to handle the logistics of that. I’d have to ask every customer where s/he’s from and adjust VAT accordingly for every single sale. Oh, I’m sure there’s automation for that or at least there will be, but even then there’s still the process of filing all these taxes with whatever number of European countries I will have done sales.

Not to mention, I usually don’t even know the exact country my customers live in, because I sell virtual goods, they can go to the next house in the street or to Singapoore, it makes no difference. IP is unreliable, so I’d have to ask every customer and trust they tell the truth despite knowing many give a fake street address for the sake of privacy. Countries such as Luxembourg are so small, most people are bound to be in the IP range of a neighboring country, giving wrong results. Oh, and Europe has a couple of areas exempt from VAT, composed of a couple of exclaves and islands belonging to member states. Let’s just say lawyers in that field probably don’t have to worry about their jobs for quite some time.

So congratulations, Europe, you just decreased the likelihood of any European startup appearing to challenge Amazon’s monopoly by trying to fight them. As TV Tropes puts it: Nice job breaking it, hero!

Oh, if anyone wants to ask for a solution to the tax evasion problem, I see two options. Either no VAT on virtual goods (as is done with the similar sales tax in the US) or unified European VAT rates. Both would be met with fierce opposition, but there is no middle ground I can see that doesn’t hurt small businesses.

Introducing Introduction

In brief: New short story, eight hour fiction challenge, most boring cover I ever did, out now on Smashwords and Amazon.

Ladies and gentlemen, my first publication in English, not counting re-publishing public domain work. Cue the fireworks.
At 2,400 words (2,100 counting only the story itself), this is a very short piece, though still twice as long as my introductory shorts in the German Meilensteine der Evolution series. It is certainly the shortest I would ever publish as a standalone, except maybe a free one once I figured out how to set things to permafree reliably on Amazon.

Further apologies follow once I get to the cover, so on to the story. itself.
The year 2061, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is here the floating city of Pacifica has been growing since the late 2020′s. We follow Chang Wu, a Chinese immigrant who just arrived for a job interview, around town and towards his first assignment. However, he does not yet know what that assignment is, really.
Introduction is a flash fiction in the style I first got to know short stories from the likes of E.A. Poe and Ernest Hemingway: Very short pieces of fiction building towards a twist or surprise ending. Stories that are all about the ending. Mind you, this is neither Poe’s gothic fiction nor Hemingway’s realistic stories, this is science fiction, technically hard science fiction with everything happening and seen possible by current or probably possible technology.
What this is, is a tour arounf town through the eyes of a new arrival who is basically a man of our world, entering a very foreign one. It mainly serves to illustrate how different our future could be from our present. A showcase of ideas, condensed into one city.
I’ve been wanting to write a story set in the city of Pacifica for a long time, there are a lot of story ideas set in different time periods waiting to be put to paper. Holographic politicians in the 2040′s! Plant aliens in the 2100′s! There’s just so much one can do with a city that is by its nature constantly shifting and changing, inviting innovation and experimentation. Meaning, this is a mere, well, introduction to the setting. I will certainly return with a full story, maybe sooner than expected.

Blame for this story can be put on the August Eight Hour Fiction Half-Month Challenge. The challenge was to write, edit, and publish a story within eigtht hours. I decided to try it when I found out about it earlier this month via Cora Buhlert’s blog.
There not being a topic or theme this time first threw me off, but then I got the idea I could use this as a starting point of building this city I had in mind for so long, depicting a moment in its history I never knew how to show (I knew how to show the consequences of it, but not the event itself). So I did it, wrote the story in about 4 hours, created a cover and added front and back matter in one more hour.

Speaking of the cover, it was surprisingly hard to find something to fit on it and I ended up with perhaps the blandest cover I ever did. There is basically no illustrations I could use of a swimming city. I am not good enough an artist to make one, especially the timeframe given. I toyed with the idea of putting in something that would hint at the ending, but decided that to be too much of a spoiler. I suppose it’s possible to do subtly enough using a fitting silhouette at its borders or below the title. Maybe I will come back to that by changing it later.
So I settled for water with text over it.
At least I found a nice font that looks a little like my idea of Pacifica’s skyline with its swimming 21sup century skycrapers and the like (with the – to those who read it – obvious exception of New Venice). It does not have a bold option, though, making a hard to read. *sigh*.

Uploading to Amazon is something I’ve done a few times by now and as always, it worked like a charm. I always do that late in the evening so approval has been finished when I wake up in the morning. Uploaded, approved, go!
This was the first time I put a book on sale with another retailer than Amazon, uploading it to Smashwords as well. I was anxious how that would work out. You see, in Amazon I always upload a finished Mobi file, meaning formatting cannot fail, because Mobi is virtually the same as AZW, the proprietary kindle file format. Smashwords doesn’t let you do that, except for ePub and then you’re stuck with only ePub.
Smashwords uses a program called the Meatgrinder to convert a Doc file into a couple of file formats to provide the ability to sell a book for almost all currently available platforms, ranging from surviving palmtops (PDB), to current independent e-readers (ePub) and the Kindle series (Mobi). The Meatgrinder is infamous for rejecting input until it is perfect. Introduction being 100% text seemed safe enough to try and put into the grinder. I was really surprised how it worked perfectly at first try, the book going online at the store the moment conversion was done. After all I heard of Smashwords being a complicated vendor to submit to on a technology level, this was the last thing I expected. The only thing that takes time is the review for Premium Distribution, which will take a few days according to Smashwords’ FAQ. Given that gets done successfully, the book will then become available at other major ebook stores such as Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks. I will add links at the book page if and when that works.

Here it is at Smashwords, available in Mobi, ePub, PDF, RTF, LRF, PDB, TXT, and for online reading at US$ .99.
And the Amazons. All of the Amazons (ordered by guesstimated likelihood of being interested in downloading a book in English): US/International (.com), UK, Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Brazil

Now, if only the moniker “seapunk” hadn’t already been taken by something else. And Ocean Punk has been taken already, as well. Damn. It does have shades of Cli-Fi and Ribofunk, though, so I’ll just go with that.