My new book came out on Amazon yesterday, and as I breath a long sigh of relief, I'm reflecting on how I reached that milestone and how technology made it both easier and more difficult to achieve. If you are a writer looking to self-publish an eBook on science or any other complex subject, you might want to consider what I've learned over the last few months.

When you're writing about science, this modern era is, of course, a great time to do your work: Information flows easily, immediately, across the digital universe and the only limit to your learning is your time, patience and, I suppose, your intelligence. But given those limits, you can learn anything you want to, now. On the input end, I've got no complaints with the modern tech era. 

On the output side, also, with regard to what it takes to put "pen to paper" and eventually produce a final product, the technical advancements are astounding. Because of Amazon, Smashwords and the like, the old barrier to publishing, the actual publishers who used to reject you (they are technically just rejecting your work, but it feels like they are rejecting YOU), has been largely removed. Half of all books are digital, so an independent author is right to ask, since publishers aren't printing the books, what do these guys actually do for us, besides slow us down? (They actually do a ton, but that's another topic). The process of writing has never been easier. We have desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones which can be synced through the cloud to allow us to work on our documents at any time, from anywhere. I've been joking that my book could rightfully be titled, "Thoughts Gathered While Waiting For Coffee." 

Since my writing is still on the "Don't quit your day job" level, I write when I can. A good chunk of my book, What Is Fat For? was first laid out on my iPhone. Through the magic of the cloud, my iPhone informs my iPad what's been going through my head in the coffee line, so that I can sit down in the evenings and build on those small notes. Many times, I combine those thoughts with previous writing I've done on two other blogs, or with material from Science 2.0 I've put out more recently. If you add that to contributions I took off past Power-point presentations and other writing I've done in Microsoft Word and you get a cut-and-pasted mash-up of everything I've been thinking on a subject. This is all wonderfully satisfying, fun, and it's easy to do. The technology has allowed me to work and rework, sort and cut and expand on the various "products" I've turned out for several years. As I learn more, everything needs revision. The technology enables a constant improvement and endless versioning. Every paragraph in my book has been worked over a dozen or more times.

Here's where it gets tricky. All that "any time, any place" access to the documents comes with a steep price. The last few steps of getting a book done in the year 2015 involve translating all of these different source documents into HTML. This means, having the words and spaces on the page be the only thing that's saved. Several weeks ago, I had all of my work assembled into one master copy in Microsoft Word that looked roughly like a book.
I thought I was good to go. What I did not know is that each of those words carried with them the coding history of everywhere they had been. For example, I had a paragraph I really liked from a newspaper editorial on bad weight loss practices, which was saved in word. I had incorporated that into a blog post in 2012 on Google's Blogger. I later had gone into edit mode on Blogger, grabbed that paragraph, laid it into "Pages" on the iPad, combined it with other thoughts and posted it into an article on science 2.0. Then, liking the new formulation better, when I wanted to use this paragraph for my book, I copied it out of the Science 2.0 post, pasted it into word, changed the font and format to match . . . you'd never know it wasn't written ten seconds after the paragraph before it.

Except that the computer does know it! It can see the formatting instructions from every program that the words have been through, although they are hidden from the writer and reader. Little bits of code, like barnacles on a ship, had attached themselves to my paragraph as it made its way through the digital seas to the final document. My re-worked favorite paragraph looked like it was part of this new document. It appeared seamless; it was anything but. All of these accretions from using multiple devices, programs and editing tools were still present, in 2015, hiding behind the clean sheets of document I was reading on my screen.

Image: pixabay unrestricted

You know how sometimes you send something to someone and it doesn't open, looks weird, can't be changed, has random drop outs, or fonts are all screwy?? Any of that stuff? Ever had your word processing program, "forget" changes that you make and change them right back to something awful that sticks out from the rest? This barnacle problem is most probably why. 

What I found in my document, is that I could force it, by changing fonts and characters and spacing, and re-saving, etc, to look a certain way, but when I tried to translate all these work-arounds into HTML, it blew up into a million weirdnesses that I can't even describe. Over and over I saved in different ways, completely confused until I found a really wonderful little book called From Word to Kindle, which mentioned taking the "nuclear option" --just remove all styles and formats completely and save as a plain text. 

This was a drastic suggestion. I would have to start with just the words and spaces in what appeared to be a 165 page run-on sentence, and reformat the entire thing from scratch. But I had tried everything else, I was desperate to get this thing done, fixed, so I could finally hit "SUBMIT" on Amazon (Ahh . . . the writer's dream come true).

I had been dreading the nuclear option, but you know what? When I finally did it, it felt good. I knew those words felt sickly being encrusted with all that unnecessary code. They needed to be released and unshackled, so they live a new life.

After this step, the document, which now weighed 1/2 of what it did before (in terms of bytes) was just a couple drop-kick conversion steps from completed. The rest of the work of publishing took two hours, tops.

So, I would like to share, for any writers out there, what my plan for creating documents in the modern era will be from now on: I will continue to use my iPhone (or what ever comes to replace it) to jot down my thoughts. But I will disable cloud sharing with the other devices. When I want to get my documents into Pages, I will re-type what's good from the notes into a new document (this improves the writing anyway). If that then goes into a blog-post, that's fine, but I will never go take it back off that post. If I changed it in the posting process, I will re-type those changes when I work on the master document. If I want to combine essays, I will only combine from the same program. Before creating large documents that go into feature articles or books, I will strip all formatting with the nuclear option before even beginning the project, so that it doesn't loom large as a future task. I will work diligently to keep the copy free of excess code through the entire process.

The smartphone, the tablet, the cloud, digital publishing . . . what an amazing array of tools we have now. These tools are very powerful, they enable us to do great things as thinkers and writers, but beware of the ease with which they enable you to work. "Easy" and "sloppy" are never far apart. Take the extra effort to keep your output clean and you will avoid unnecessary grief in the future.

Anyone who has tricks to share on this subject, please comment for other readers!