The question I’m most frequently asked by readers is, “Are you ever going to publish Dragoncharm as an ebook?” Until now, my answer has always been that I’m looking into it, but other things have to take priority. As of today, however, I’m happy to tell you I’m working on it, and it’s going to happen soon.
What does “soon” mean? Probably next year. In 2015, Dragoncharm will be twenty years old – a fitting anniversary on which to let the grizzled old thing spread its wings once more. I’m amazed at how quickly those twenty years have passed, and even more amazed that people are still asking me about the book. That’s why I’m doing this. Not to make money (that’s unlikely to happen). Not for my own gratification (I’m happy just seeing the novel on my own bookshelf). But because there are people out there asking for it. If just one of those people – if just one of you – rediscovers the book and enjoys it, or discovers it anew, the exercise will have been worthwhile.
On the face of it, republishing an existing manuscript in ebook form is an easy task. All the tools are readily available, and there are plenty of channels through which you can gain distribution. Who needs a publisher, right?
In truth, it isn’t quite as simple as that. For a start, I don’t have a clean electronic copy of Dragoncharm. I wrote it in the early 1990s, longhand, then produced the final manuscript on a typewriter. This was then extensively edited in a series of to-and-fros with the original publisher, HarperCollins. So all I have for reference are my own yellowing paperback editions. Well, they’re as good a starting point as any.
Then there’s all the rest of the business. Cover design. ISBN numbers. Perhaps most difficult, finding ways in which your book’s signal will be heard amid the colossal noise of a badly overcrowded self-publishing marketplace filled, for the most part, with crap.
These latter challenges lie in the future. For now, I’m focused on releasing the words from their prison of twenty years. And really, the words are all that matter, right?
Scanning and OCR
Step one in the process involved taking a spare copy of Dragoncharm and cutting it carefully down the spine to release the individual leaves. I ran these through a scanner with a duplex document feed (fortunately I have access to one in my day job), saving the output as raw scans.
I then went into test mode, opening the first page in Adobe Acrobat Pro and using the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) tool to convert the bitmapped image to editable text. I saved the result as a Word file and opened it to check the quality. I did this a few times, fiddling with the settings until I was confident I’d got the best possible result.
Next I collated all the individual scanned pages into a single PDF document and ran the OCR on the whole thing. This took about twenty minutes, after which I saved it as accessible text. Voila! Dragoncharm converted.
Well, sort of. OCR isn’t a magic bullet, especially when the target is an old paperback printed on pulpy stock. Errors abound, particularly with punctuation (commas mistaken for colons), line breaks (a hard return inserted after every line break) and some letters or words scrambled like breakfast eggs.
Some of these proved easy to correct. After a little more trial and error, I came up with a sequence of autocorrect operations that fixed many of the recurring formatting blunders. Here’s the sequence:
- Globally replace all double paragraph marks with “xxxxxx”
- Globally replace all single paragraph marks with a letterspace
- Remove all double spaces
- Remove all spaces before punctuation marks
- Globally replace all instances of “xxxxxx” with a single paragraph mark
- For convenience, format the result with First Line Hang and Space Between, and View Invisibles
Performing the above has given me an electronic manuscript that looks, on the face of it, pretty clean. In fact, it’s still full of errors, but these are generally easy to spot and correct. “Easy” doesn’t mean “quick”, however, since the only way to complete the task is to go through the entire novel line by line, eyeballing the text, comparing it to the printed copy and making the necessary corrections.
That’s the stage I’m at today. And I’ve decided to draft in a little help. My daughter’s desire for a summer job, and my need for an assistant, have resulted in a business arrangement that’s mutually beneficial. In short, I’m paying her to do the donkey work.
Right now, my head is mostly full of questions. The ones at the top of the pile have nothing to do with the mechanics of ebook self-publishing, and everything to do with the way I feel about this book twenty years on. It’s a curious and emotionally charged business, revisiting the manuscript after all this time. Dragoncharm was my first novel, conceived and written when I was in my late twenties. A lot has changed since then. The novel is full of things I’d dearly love to change, yet it’s also full of a naive exuberance I still love, and which I’ve never fully recaptured since. Full of, yes, a kind of charm.
I’ll write more on this subject in future blog posts. I’ll also share the highs (I trust) and lows (I fear) of what will undoubtedly be a turbulent voyage of discovery. For those of you interested in reading the Dragoncharm ebook, I hope these diary entries will whet your appetite. I also hope that by sharing my experiences, I might help those of you planning to embark on your own self-publishing odyssey.