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Monday, March 8, 2021

The State of the Loon • 8 March 2021


With STUPEFYING STORIES 23 finally out the door and selling, it’s time for us to take a deep breath and then begin to clean up the mess in the office. It’s not quite as bad as it was in the old days, when we actually had to paste-up pages on Bristol board and courier them over to the printer’s shop to be photographed and turned into lithographic plates. (And then switch on the fans and air out the office, because the 3M Spray Mount fumes were so thick they could make you dizzy.)

Still, a new book release always leaves us with a surprising amount of clutter in the office, mostly in the form of paper that needs to be sorted into three piles: that which needs to be saved and filed, that which needs to go into the recycling bin, and that which needs to go into the shredder.

Likewise, a new book release also leaves us with a certain amount of mental clutter, so this is a good time to reflect on lessons learned: what worked well, what didn’t work so well but can be improved for the next project, and what really needs to go into the cognitive shredder so that we never try to do it that way again. For those of you familiar with Agile development methodology: yup, it really does apply here.

Next thing you know I’ll be setting up a Kanban board to track all the moving pieces of every book project in progress.

Oh, wait…

Actually, that would work. Dammit. Why didn’t I see that before? A Kanban board would in fact be a really good way to address the most noisome thing on my “never do that again” list. Before I begin to explain why Agile is the more applicable development model here even though a book would seem to be a natural candidate for using Waterfall methodology, let me just shut that off right now and get on to the good, the somewhat less good, and the fugly. 

What worked well:

• Going big. SS#23 is the biggest, most ambitious, and most expensive project we’ve done to date. It contains 40% more fiction content than SS#22. Putting the two books side-by-side, SS#23 just plain looks like a thing to be taken more seriously. 

• Upgrading our cover art. Much as I’ve enjoyed commissioning original cover art, what was quirky, original, and eye-catching a few years ago leaves much to be desired now. The new approach to cover art we took for issues #22 and #23 has been getting far more positive responses.

• Interior illustrations. Including interior illos for every story in the issue was kind of a last-minute decision, but it works. I really didn’t think it would add to the pleasure of reading a story until I saw it. It’s like the difference between slapping some food on your plate and paying just a little more attention to how it’s presented and served.

• Paying the authors earlier in the cycle. We’ve always been a pays-on-publication market, simply because we can’t afford to pay on acceptance. Paying the authors when they signed off on their copy-edits, though, took a major source of stress out of the usual release week panic. We’ll have to keep doing this.

• Sending the authors copies of the almost final PDF galleys. By getting these into the hands of the authors earlier in the cycle, we got extra proofreading done and caught some embarrassing mistakes while there was still time to fix them easily. We’ll have to keep doing this. 

• Getting the stories copy-edited much earlier in the cycle. This was an accidental virtue, resulting from our attempt to get the book out last November. But starting the build with stories that were already copy-edited and approved by their respective authors worked much better than trying to build the book while also working through copy-editing.

What worked but needs improvement: 

• Early copy-editing. This also became a problem. We’ve had so many false starts and failures to launch in these past two years, we actually got stories copy-edited, signed-off on by their authors, and then lost track of the stories and forgot that they’d been approved and were ready to go. Here is where a Kanban board would actually come in very handy. On a positive note, having all these stories in the queue gives us a good head start on Stupefying Stories 24.

• Interior illustrations. I’ve been working from a web perspective for too long. Some of the illos I picked look great in the ebook but are dark and muddy in the print edition. Others run afoul of the matter of page orientation. For example, consider this illo that I picked for Helen French’s “Outrider.”

Looks pretty good online, right? But squish it down to the four-inch wide image that we can use in the print edition and a lot of the energy is lost. Wouldn’t it have looked better if it had been cropped down to the core of the concept and run as a vertical image instead?

We’ll have to put a lot more thought and care into our use of interior illos, going forward. 

• Cover art. We need to start thinking about the cover story and image long before we’ve fully populated the issue. There is risk in doing this. The cover can start to drive the entire rest of the editorial process, if you let it. One of the things that irked me about Jim Baen was that he would buy art because he thought it would make a great cover, and then look for a story to go behind it. That’s one step short of buying a piece of art and commissioning a writer to write a story to go with it, which is one of those things I swore I would never do. 

But then, consider this:

Admit it. Knowing absolutely nothing else about it, doesn’t that cover pull you in and make you want to take a closer look at the book?

• Author’s copies. This is an area where we must find a better way to do things. Amazon no longer lets us order print copies before the book is live for sale on Amazon, so so much for having copies in the author’s hands on release day. Coupled with this, the Kindle ebook creation tools no longer generate a .mobi or .epub file, so we can’t send viable ebook files directly to authors; we must send them through Amazon. But to further complicate matters, Amazon won’t let me, from an account in the U.S., send ebooks directly to Kindle users in the U.K., nor will it let me order them on This problem needs to be solved.

What didn’t work at all:

• Having half the book-building processes running on a Windows 7 machine and the rest running on a Windows 10 machine. This caused serious problems with Kindle Create in particular, as the versions got out of sync. By the time we’re ready to build the next book, we need to have everything on Windows 10. (No, not on the Mac. That’s just begging for trouble.)

• Creating the TOC and front matter in Word just confused Kindle Create. Don’t do it. Import the source and then let Kindle Create do its thing with generating the TOC and front matter.

• Put illos after section headings. Don’t nest page breaks inside section breaks. Trying to get fancy-shmancy with page layouts in Word just confused Kindle Create. Don’t do it.

• Trying to generate the cover art for the print edition as a print-ready PDF file using the process specified by Amazon is a time-consuming exercise in frustration and futility. Instead, download the template, create and save the cover as a PNG file, and then (here’s the tricky part): use Amazon’s cover creator wizard. One of the templates lets you upload your own PNG as the “background” image, which it then overlays with all sorts of ugly auto-generated text, but that text can all be deleted. Voila! A workaround to get the cover art uploaded and validated without going through all that tedious PDF business.

• And this is the fugly one: I must stop talking about projects that are in development before we are actually within reach of executing on those plans. My doing so just frustrates and annoys authors, especially when some external event forces us to change plans and I don’t notify all the authors affected, often because I don’t remember which authors are affected. This is one place where having a Kanban board would really help.

Upward and onward to SS#24.

—Bruce Bethke



~brb said...

> because the 3M Spray Mount fumes were so thick they could make you dizzy

Which brings to mind a hilarious anecdote about the time our resident chain-smoker absent mindedly flicked a lit cigarette butt into the wastebasket that another person had been using as an ad hoc spray booth — but that's a tale for another time.

Mark Keigley said...

Sounds like you are really upping your game. I'm excited, of course...

ray p daley said...

"Amazon won’t let me, from an account in the U.S., send ebooks directly to Kindle users in the U.K., nor will it let me order them on This problem needs to be solved."

That's an Amazon issue, and has been for at least the last 5 years (since I've been selling stories to people). Many publishers just outright refuse UK contributors to have a copy, even when Createspace existed & it was simple to ship a hard copy of the book/magazine/skin of a tortured alien directly to the writer themself.

Ofiicially, US Amazon accounts can't use Amazon UK & vice-versa. (That's a lie, it can and HAS been done, by an Amazon associate for me, but involves having your "home" account temporariy closed whilst they create you an "overseas" account to interact with the country you want to access.)

It's an issue which Amazon need to fix. One Amazon account should log you into ANY countries Amazon infrastructure, no matter where it is. I know I asked the associate to raise that with not only their line manager, actual manager and Amazon corporate. If that got done or not, I can't say.

With Createspace now gone, it's a lot tougher to send things from UK to US or US to UK.

~brb said...

@ray p daley - Or Canada or Australia as well. Australia and Hong Kong used to be our biggest non-US markets. Now you can get SS#23 on Kindle in Australia, but the paperback is available only as a very expensive import title. I doubt you can get it in Hong Kong at all.

I used to wonder how Amazon was going to deal with local censorship issues when they'd effectively created a global marketplace for books. It seems they've found a way.