Anyone who has ever written a book and wanted to make it freely accessible by anyone by publishing it online, will have been faced with the same conundrums: how to do it? And why do it?
Why do it?
The website of my mother’s family’s history, 100 Years of Schreuder History, based on my book The Hope chest – Die Bruidskis, went live last week. Why did I create a site on such an idiosyncratic subject, and why did it take me over four months to create, giving me a daily headache?
Will Self, in his acclaimed 2012 novel Umbrella, writes: “If, he thinks, if…old photographs were so slowly exposed that they captured entire minutes of the past, imprisoning the purely contingent smears of passers-by, and the grimaces of sitters bitten by whalebone and pinched by celluloid on glassy cells coated with silver nitrate, then what can be said of these films? Surely this: that they take the hours we so lackadaisically lose and gather them back up into a permanent and enduring Now.” (p. 129)
What I found was that while retrieving and studying these photos and documents of family, relatives, ancestors, places and lives, the past came back to me in “a permanent and enduring Now”. From being long-dead, long-silent, forgotten, those people are now as real to me as if they were right here at my side. I look at them and I know – oh, that old man, he married two sisters, one after the other. Or, my grandma, she was wonderfully good with baking. It’s a wonderful thing to regain the past and your sense of place and belonging. Going through this process increased my fondness for my origins and relatives immensely and the satisfaction of knowing exactly who I am – rather than who I think I am – is tremendous. This is what I wanted to share with others on a similar quest, at a similar time in their lives.
At one point, I was sitting with a very low-res image of an ancestor, glazed on the one side with white lines from the reflection off the plastic coating on the original passport image. You could not see half her face. Looking at the image pixel by pixel, enlarged 400%, I saw there were actually no pixels at all in places. Like worn-away ink, there was nothing left on the page. So, using the few dots and shadows left, I re-painted her face as she might have looked. OK, she was not a great beauty, without make-up, but certainly very resolute and fierce-looking – as she would’ve had to be in those days. As her cheek, jaw, and nose took shape, it was if she had come back to life.
It has been a frustrating, but ultimately satisfying thing to do. And that’s why I did it. The day after the website www.schreuderhistory.wordpress.com went live, one of the persons in the lineage passed away, proving again that documenting and publishing these stories really do bring the past into the present.
How to do it?
Some self-publishing sites now offer conversion of printed books to e-books as a matter of course. However, retrofitting and reformatting a printed book’s contents to fit the e-book format is a royal pain, with text, spaces and images all out of whack, and the insertion of media files into the text sometimes has an unstable result, at least for me. Also, the e-book, like a mini-website, being written in HTML (HyperText Markup Language), sits on the service provider’s site, and users have to revert to it all the time. I had to figure out for myself what the different formats, platforms and languages meant. (Readers who are experts at this can stop reading now.)
Book to e-book
Sharing the e-book via iTunes, means having to share the file somehow. I have not found the ideal solution for giving people easy access. Some blogging platforms allow the embedding of an e-book into a blog site (in the case of WordPress, digital books are available online through The Internet Archive’s Text Archive and Open Library) but that’s not what I want in any case. Most don’t allow you to embed e-books- and by an e-book I do not mean a pdf file, even an interactive pdf file. I mean an e-pub/EPUB file. An e-book, eBook, e-Book, ebook, digital book, or e-edition is a book-publication in digital form, consisting of text, images, multi-media or all, readable on computers or other electronic devices. Many e-books exist without any printed equivalent (there’s the start of the e-book-to-print problem!), and are intended to be read on dedicated e-book readers and mobile devices.
To give you some idea of the pit of problems you’re going to get into if you want to create, expert and embed your e-book, these are the formats to choose from when publishing ebooks:
To produce one of these, you’ll need a working knowledge of XHTML, CSS; an XML for the book framework, like the table of contents, cover art, and so on. Suffice to say, you don’t learn this in “Writers’ School 101” and expertise in Microsoft Office does not help. I did try though, and I still have a few “tests” sitting around in the Apple i-Store that are best forgotten. Learning that creating a webpage is not about creatively cutting and pasting bits of text and pretty pictures was quite disheartening. Learning teeny, tiny bits of coding and what happens to your look-and-feel if you do this, that, or the other thing, by myself, through trial and error, was utterly awful and not recommended. And to think programmers do that for a living! All I can say is: Respect.
Blog to book
It’s interesting that there are many plugins (little programmes) for doing the opposite of what I was aiming for, namely converting your blog into a printed book or e-book, for instance Anthologize, which allows you to put your blog content into a printed book, and BookPress Client, which lets you put your WordPress blog contents as eBooks, and there are many plugins that allow you to embed sell your e-book online. That’s not what I wanted. I already had the contents as a printed book, with flip-through preview, as well as an e-book, available on the Blurb.com website. The problem was that Blurb does not publish any book without a price.
The assumption is that all publications are for sale, regardless of how small that margin is. My requirement to have the information available for free since it is not for profit and, in fact, my hobby, is uncommon. They said they had never even considered the option!
Book to blog
Stuck at a loss, I decided to do it the hard way. I converted my book into a blog, or rather an HTML version of itself. WordPress, this site’s platform, uses HTML and CSS. This means that what you, as a reader, sees, is not what it looks like. Every picture, word, hyphen, colour, literally everything, is code. If you want to add “book-like” things to your pages, you have to embed foreign bits and pieces of code in the WordPress codex, which is a nightmare. Like a body trying to rid itself of an ingrown toenail, it rejects the nail in a suppurating mess.
Thus, my requirement for typical bookish things – footnotes, indexes, contents pages, in-page anchors, cross-referencing, quotes, annotations, addenda, and a huge mass of text – led to a load of problems. The book also had close on 130 images to insert. It generated a lot of very ugly, messy code. Sometimes all I could do was delete and start over. Having to achieve the look-and-feel of a book – and one book in particular of course – within the constraints of using a commercial template, was no joke either. I spent days staring cross-eyed at the screen trying to figure out why certain coding did not work.
The end product will certainly not please any publisher worth their salt – alignment and run-on problems, the occasional typo, pages that are too long, etc. But, having done the work, learned the lessons, and brought a bit of the past into Now, anyone who’s interested can read it, use the information, get the photos, tie my lineages up with theirs.