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Agile Editing Publishing

How to Get Early Feedback from Readers

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

While we have discussed how to include the reader by creating user stories and personas, we have not included actual readers in our publishing process. In this chapter, we will discuss how listening to your audience can help to improve the quality of a book.

Learning from and Connecting with Your Audience

Learning from your audience can be done in various ways:

  • Examine feedback from a previous similar book you have released. This is an especially relevant option if you are writing fiction books in the same genre, or if you are writing a new edition of a book on technology.
  • Set up ads and examine the statistics. See Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way.
  • Send out copies to trusted reviewers and listen to their feedback. This is undoubtedly the gold standard of improving a book with the help of a reader. The most significant drawbacks are that the reviewer might have a lot of other books to read before yours and that the process of reviewing takes time.
  • Release parts of your book for free. With the Agile method, you will be finished with the first chapters of your book long before the final release. In order to get early feedback, you could choose to release those early parts as individual articles on your website with a reference to your book. This way, you not only get feedback from early readers but also you can use those articles as an early advertising campaign for pre-ordering your book.As an alternative to publishing individual articles on your website, there is also the Leanpub project (see Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way) where interested readers can pre-order your book and read your work in progress before you have released the book.

Piracy

If you decide to publish a chapter on your website, your advantage is that the post will already have a clear purpose (the user story!) and minimal editing is required (references and pictures). Add a featured image at the top, use the chapter title as the post title, add a small advertisement about pre-ordering the book, and you are done. If you are worried about people pirating your work, your strategy will depend on the final price of the book, the time you have invested in it, and the expected size of your audience.

First, there are niche books that required a lot of work and sell easily for more than $50. An example would be books about current technologies: they have a unique selling point given that there is not a lot of competition. In this case, you might want to limit the amount of work you publish on your website.

Second, if you are writing your book to advertise professional services, people copying your work should be a welcome situation as a means of reaching a wider audience. Think of it as people copying your advertisement and showing it to other people for free.

Third, if your book is your product—not your services—you need to weigh your options. On the one hand, if you release individual chapters on your website, people could combine them together and have a complete book to read and no longer see the need to buy the actual book. On the other hand, they might tell other people about your book, or they might not be inclined to spend the time compiling your articles and instead buy the compiled book. You could also put more advertising on your website, release only excerpts, or limit access to those articles to trusted reviewers.

Amazon Ads and Market Research

Ads are another way to connect with your readers. Start your first ads when your book is ready for pre-order—ideally, on day one! Amazon sets a maximum time limit of three months for pre-orders, so aim for releasing at least four books each year to get the most out of it. Alternatively, you can use Google Play or Leanpub (see Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way) which have no time limit. Have a first draft of your cover and upload that, together with your user stories (minus the names) as a description. Even though this might take extra work, any information you can get from your readers before the actual book launch will be helpful. For example, you might notice that one keyword does exceptionally well. You could use that information to improve your book’s description, pointing out that this (the keyword) is something you write about, and you could add an additional or extend an existing chapter about this topic. On Amazon, you have the following options:

  • Product Display Ads: You can display your book as an ad by Interest (on Kindle), by Category (on Amazon.com), or by Product (on Amazon.com). The first type of ad is relevant to you if you write for a specific genre and have an audience using mainly Kindle to read books. The second type of ad is also recommended if you write for a specific genre but aim for people browsing on the Amazon website. The third type allows you to place your ad on the page of a specific product on Amazon. This should only be used if you know that people who are interested in that product will very likely also read your book. For example, you could advertise your gardening book on a product page of a popular gardening tool.
  • Sponsored Ads: Sponsored Ads show up when a customer searches for a product. You can either set automatic targeting or manual targeting. With the former, the keywords will depend on your existing product information. If you have put relevant keywords into your description, this might be the fastest way to get an ad up and running. For more fine-grained control, manual targeting is highly recommended.

If you are (also) producing paperback editions of your book that include an index, you are at an advantage here. Creating an index for your (offline) readers is the same as creating a list of keywords for your online readers to search for. While it requires some extra formatting, you can basically copy your entire (!) index into the keyword field on Amazon. While most of the index keywords are irrelevant, you will quickly (depending on your traffic) see which keywords people click on and which they do not (Amazon provides a detailed analysis for each keyword). Over time, deactivate non-performing or low-performing keywords and increase spending on the high-performing keywords. Once you have found the core keywords that sell your book, you can then optimize your copy by setting up multiple ads with the same keyword, but different copy.

While this evolutionary approach will not revolutionize your sales (give yourself at least six to 12 months to learn the trade), it will most likely reduce your unnecessary spending and will likely increase the conversion rates of your ads. But again, ads can only do so much. Ultimately, it is your cover, your ratings and reviews, and the topic you are writing about that sells the book. A valuable side effect of running ads is certainly that you will learn more about the market and what people are searching for—invaluable information for deciding the topic of your next book. Also, you could put your top seven performing ad keywords into the book description. Free advertising!

Beyond optimizing your keywords and your ad copy, you can also optimize your product page. To accomplish this, you have to have ads running for a certain amount of time depending on your sale volume (for example, one month), then pause those ads, make changes to your product page, and create identical new ads. By comparing the conversion rate (number of sales divided by number of clicks), you can then compare both versions of your book’s product page.

If you want to rely on third parties to advertise for you, make sure you can track the conversion rate and start small. For example, someone might offer to publish your book ad to Facebook groups of 25,000 people. But that might only help you to get maybe 10 clicks because many people in those groups never see the post on their timeline. Paying $10 for this service will actually cost you $1 per click—more expensive than a Facebook ad you place.

A bestseller is properly defined as “a book for which demand, within a short time of that book’s initial publication, vastly exceeds what is then considered to be big sales.” But many authors falsely call their book a “bestseller” if it was for an hour at the top of an Amazon category instead of relying on a trusted bestseller list by an established authority (e.g., New York Times). Hence, one should be cautious with people promising to make your book a bestseller.

That is the reason why, for the copy (in the ad and the product page) itself, it is best to refrain from the usual marketing buzzwords that come to your head. Sure, adding “bestseller” will create the illusion that everyone else likes your book so something about it must be special. But if it is not truly a bestseller, calling it one is dishonest and will make you and your book look cheap.

If you want to advertise in forums, write an article about your book, or create a video. The best approach is to not simply tell your audience what the book is about, but to evoke an emotional reaction; whether they love or hate your approach, at least you will get them talking about it. Then you can begin to collect early feedback.

Whatever approach you choose, keep in mind that the idea is to lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship with your audience. A quick sell can always be made at the cost of your reputation. Set as your goal to deliver on your promises with a well-researched, well-written book.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing Publishing

How to Optimize the Work Process

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

Mark Twain

Once you have written and ordered all your user stories, put your writer’s hat on back again. With this different perspective, take another look at the list of user stories and ask yourself if you know exactly what you will write to implement each user story. Do you still need to do research that will distract you from writing? Is it still unclear how your characters would act in a particular situation? Are you unsure about the sequence of the arguments to make your point? If you find something that will block you, it is better to hold off on writing and put your idea hat on again, and do the required research or work on the concepts.

If, during writing, despite all that preparation, you still end up missing some information—a transition, a reference, a table, a diagram, or a photo—and if you do not have the resource available right away, just insert a placeholder and add a reminder. Platforms like Overleaf or Google Docs allow adding reminders or comments that are highlighted so that you can easily find them. These platforms will even track any changes for later review by your editor. If your program does not support that, you can also just use a keyword like “TODO” that you can easily search for. This way, instead of interrupting your work and for example browsing for an hour to find the right picture, just put in “TODO add picture of xyz” and continue writing. Taking the time to fix it would break your focus; simply go through your reminders after you have finished the user story or chapter.

Beyond your own reminders, your editor might add additional notes to your text. To organize this collaborative work, a very basic set of rules for your workflow could look like this:

  • Add a reminder whenever you know more work or research is needed (but would require you to switch to another hat) on the chapter you are currently writing.
  • When finished with the chapter, have your editor read through it, and have him or her add reminders if necessary.
  • When getting back the corrected version, work through all the reminders. If you make any changes, mark them with with a different reminder (e.g., “TODO EDITOR”) to make it clear to your editor that you have made changes that need a final check. Again, platforms like Overleaf or Google Docs can highlight your changes automatically.
  • Work through issues identified by automated spelling and grammar checkers like Grammarly. Remember to review each suggestion, because some will improve your writing while others will not fit the context of your book.
  • Finally, during your daily or weekly chat with your editor, review all reminders and clear them up one by one.

Grammarly ⋅  Grammarly is an automated spelling, grammar, and plagarism checker. It also checks for weak vocabulary, repetitions, and overly long sentences. You can get an account here: https://www.grammarly.com.

In terms of time organization, there is no single solution that works for everyone:

  • Work on a single user story or chapter each day, no matter how long (or short) it takes.
  • Set a fixed timebox (e.g., from 9 to 5), stop once you have reached it, and pick up where you left off on another day.
  • Set a fixed timebox, and work on as many user stories as possible. Whenever you finish a user story, estimate whether you can finish the next story on the same day. If not, take an early break.

A successful writing day depends on whether you have prepared the user stories in advance so that you do not have to switch your hats all the time.

If you suffer from writer’s block or procrastination, another approach is to go not by time or user story, but by volume. If you set a word count goal, the danger of stopping to find the perfect words will be lower. And if you have a well-written outline, a complete description of your characters and their background, and a description of the world in which they are living, then there is little that can stop you from continuing writing. Even if you think you are writing uphill or it is going nowhere, just keep on writing: you can get back to it during editing. With non-fiction books, have your arguments and research texts prepared in advance and see the actual writing as an exercise to connect all the points you want to make.

Your goal should not be to create “perfect” paragraphs: what counts is the overall quality of your book. The reader will put your book away on the weakest page. If you have spent all your time perfecting one part and then run out of time or energy for the rest of the book, the entire project will suffer. The book need not (and indeed cannot) be “perfect.” What is important is that it gets finished and that the quality is consistent throughout the book.

Project Planning

Beyond planning individual user stories, you also have to plan the whole project. In project management, there are usually three main factors to think about: time, cost, and quality (or content). The basic idea is that you usually can meet only two of those goals. If you want to publish faster and achieve better quality, hire more people. If you want to keep costs down, take more time or reduce quality. If your publication date is fixed, you can either hire more people or reduce quality.

For a book project, you probably cannot afford or make use of additional writers. It might be worthwhile to hire a freelancer for basic research or for writing a first draft, but ultimately, it is up to you, the author. This leaves you with either increasing time or with decreasing quality (or reducing content). With the user story approach where you build up your book step by step, you can stop at any time and release what you have so far, so it is best to timebox your book project. Even if you have chapters left to write, you can always move them to a second book and add a preview to your first book. Also, you are always free to re-release your first book’s contents later, working in any feedback you received. To decide when to divide a book, you might want to take a look at your competition and the book size your readers expect:

  • 25,000 words: Short e-book. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an example of this at about 25,000 words.
  • 40,000 – 50,000 words: Most non-fiction books/short novels. Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way has around 50,000 words. Printed books for sale in book shops should have at least this length so that their spine is large enough for display.
  • 70,000 words: Long non-fiction book/novel.
  • 100,000+ words: Very long non-fiction book/long novel.

For more examples of lengths of famous novels, check out http://commonplacebook.com/art/books/word-count-for-famous-novels/. For counting words, you can simply use Word’s function (Review/Word Count), or copy your text into Google Docs (Tools/Word Count).

Working with an Editor

My recommendation is to involve an editor to review your work regularly. Myself, I chat with my editor two times each week, during which time we discuss issues with past books, sales, newly written chapters, and her insights on chapters I wrote the previous week. This way, my memory is fresh and issues can be addressed right away. If I were to wait until the manuscript was done, I might no longer be able to implement some of the suggestions made by my editor.

Ideally, your editor also acts as a writer’s coach and helps you to reflect on your progress. Having someone to report to every week is using social pressure to your advantage. With all the processes outlined above, it is good to have someone look out for you so that you do not get sloppy and make excuses. Alternatively, create a blog where you force yourself to record your progress each week— similar to a diary, but for the public eye. Another possibility is to join a local writers’ group whose members report on their writing progress and motivate each other.

It is too easy to fall into the trap of writing as if you are writing a report and talking to the computer instead of a person. Your editor’s job is to ask you what you actually mean in questionable paragraphs. This puts you into the state of mind of having to explain it to an actual human being.

In terms of tools, there are many that can help you in the process of editing:

  • For collaborative editing, it is vital that you see changes the other person made or is making during your chat meeting. I am using Overleaf (see the book for a detailed discussion) for this.
  • For shorter books or documents, I use Google Docs, which you can also use collaboratively with your editor.
  • For tracking your user stories (and your general tasks), you can use tools like Trello, Asana, or Jira (or simply add the tasks to a separate section of your document).
  • For documenting ideas “on the spot” when you are traveling, you can also use these apps on your smartphone. Alternatively, track your ideas in your calendar (app) or make audio recordings.
  • For automatically checking your texts, you might want to give Grammarly a try.

Summary

To sum up the recommended steps to optimize your workflow:

  • Prepare your work beforehand; do not switch too frequently between conceptualization/research and writing.
  • Find the right tools to work with an editor collaboratively.
  • Use automated tools for basic checking of your text.
  • Answer your editor when he or she asks what exactly you want to express with a particular paragraph. This will help you to write as if you are talking to a person.
  • On a daily basis, figure out what type of goal works best for you: writing for a fixed amount of time, reaching a certain word count, or finishing a user story.
  • Finalize individual user stories or chapters, even if it means that details will still have to be added later.
  • Commit to deliver completed chapters/sections in regular time intervals. An editor can help.
  • Deliver the same level of quality throughout the book. Limiting yourself to regular deliveries will help you with this.
  • Commit to a publishing date. Sticking to regular deliveries will make it easier to be prepared to publish your work at any time.
  • If necessary, cut your work in half, publish what you have, and get early feedback.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing Publishing

The Rules of Your Book

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

In non-fiction works, the rules of your book are simply the rules of reality. In order to have a consistent quality throughout your book, I recommend deciding early on how deeply you will be researching specific topics. For the reader, it might be odd to have one chapter full of references, while the others only scratch the surface. If you indeed need different rules for different chapters, make it clear. Ideally, write down these rules in a separate document and have your editor check whether you are following them. In Agile terms, this is called Definition of Done—conditions that have to be met in order for your editor to accept your work. This document could also include things like grammar rules, spelling, rules about usage (e.g., capital letters, lower case, contractions), formatting, citation styles, image resolutions (what prints well?), caption style, tone (formal, informal), or perspective (first person, third person, etc.). This document is typically referred to as a style guide.

In fiction works, after creating your world and characters, it is time to put them into a specific situation and think about how they would act. This ensures that they will come to life and that they really are the actors of your story—and do not seem like they are hanging from the strings of a puppeteer.

If your book follows the (fictional) world’s rules throughout (with very few exceptions), you keep your readers on edge, not knowing how the characters will come out on top. Breaking those rules is possible, but should be done only sparingly to put more emphasis on a scene, for example, “Sometimes, Superman can overcome even kryptonite.”

If you do not provide limitations for your fictional characters, a common mistake is to create “Mary Sue” characters who always do the right thing. This approach means that your characters are driven by the plot, rather than driving the plot. It leaves out internal development. You should handle characters as people who have gone through a series of defining experiences. In order for them to be believable, they had to discover their own strengths and limitations. Even if you want to portray an ideal, you need to explain how they became who they are—this is true even for superheroes. You cannot simply wish yourself to be a hero. Someone who thinks that he or she can do anything without effort is not a superhero but a Mary Sue.

Mary Sue ⋅  Mary Sue is the term for a seemingly perfect fictional character. It originated from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction stories where writers included new characters with a major role in the story, but without making an effort to describe how they reached their position.

Likewise, if you allow your characters to have superpowers when it is convenient, it reduces the relevance of the actual climax of the story. The reader would assume that your characters are unlimited and could overcome any challenge by breaking the rules.

This also applies to non-fiction works if you are discussing people and their achievements: do not forget to include their failures, and how they dealt with challenges privately, in order to paint a complete picture of internal and external development.

Your readers will notice when you are trying to play God within the book’s world. It will break the “fourth wall,” destroying the illusion that these are real characters acting, and not a writer making them act. If you want your characters to reach a certain place or situation, you can create events that shake things up, but those events have to be believable based on the rules you have set up for your world. If you want the reader to think that the person he or she is reading about is a conscious being reflecting on his or her actions, you must create and follow your world’s rules.

The fourth wall ⋅  The theater stage is usually surrounded by three walls, with the fourth wall facing the audience. In this context, breaking the fourth wall is a reference to the characters becoming aware that they are being watched and directly addressing the audience.

Before you define the rules of your book, though, you should have a clear picture of the reader for whom you are writing the book. Some writers advise using 8th-grade level language, especially when it comes to complex topics. This is the same level that, for example, Harry Potter was written in, and which around 80% of Americans can read. With tools like https://readable.io, you can get an idea of the quality of each chapter. With such a feedback tool, you can also train yourself to write at a lower language level than you naturally do. For example, I write (English) at an 11th-grade level, and my books are aimed at adults and professionals, but I am thinking about writing special editions for children.

Likewise, reading is a linear activity, and you do not want the reader to put away the book because he or she stumbled over a weak part of the story. A true page-turner requires the same quality throughout the book. One of the big advantages of using the Agile approach to writing is that (at least to a certain degree) you spend roughly the same amount of time on each part of the book. This maintains a certain level of quality throughout your book. If you catch yourself getting lost in details, it is often better to just finalize open ends (and remove half-finished texts) and prepare your book for a first print. After a break, do a complete read-through. This method helps you more than spending too much time on any one part of the book.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing Publishing

How to Organize Your Ideas (Fiction Books)

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.

Mark Twain

For fiction books, you cannot simply map your user stories directly into individual chapters of your book. Instead, you have to approach the project in several phases:

First, you have to describe the world in which your novel will take place. For writing fiction, you have a simple tool available to you: genres. Genres are basically story and character templates that have proven to be interesting for a particular group of readers. Most novels fit into a single genre, meaning you have basically only a single audience persona (and user story), but some are a mix of genres which can (if done properly) help the book appeal to broader audiences. For example, some people like Westerns, and some people like science fiction. A Western-type scenario in space might appeal to both. Combining two genres, you can create a market niche with a very broad appeal, where writing for different personas improves rather than lowers the quality of the book. In terms of user stories, you can organize your ideas by taking the view of the reader. For example, “As a reader, I want to know how this futuristic dystopian society came to be and works now, in order to get a point of reference for the character’s upbringing and actions.” This backstory of your characters and world will not appear in its entirety in your book. But every detail will help you, the writer, to figure out how they will behave. Alternatively, you can present parts of their back story from the perspective of a narrator, to refine the reader’s idea of the world more and more as the novel progresses.

Second, you will be creating the characters of your world. Some characters you can immediately draw from your choice of genre. For example, in the “noir” genre, you often have a “femme fatale,” a woman protagonist who is rejecting societal expectations like marriage or motherhood. Another example is (a very early part of) the “Western” genre, often with a protagonist who fought on the Confederate side of the American Civil War and is basically portrayed as a “dead man walking.”

Using the template provided by a genre instead of coming up with your own can help you to get started. While it is true that choosing a genre will mean more competition for you, the only alternative would be to do a lot of market research and create and market your own genre. While there are authors who have defined a new genre, these instances are rare—think of William Shakespeare (drama), Homer (poetry), or J. R. R. Tolkien (fantasy).

In contrast to the previously discussed non-fiction books, in fiction books, you are not necessarily describing parts of the real world, you are instead building a new world and fresh characters. Here, your readers cannot tell you what they want to read about, except in a general way. They might want a “Western in space,” but it is up to you to describe how the characters in your world act and react.

As a writer, you set up the fictional world and its rules. If you have done a thorough job, at this point, you can let it play out and unfold on its own, with you just continuing from where you have started setting everything up. Your characterization of the individuals and the world they are living in become the main drivers of the story. A positive effect of applying rules to your fictional world is that it forces you to become more creative. For example, if your Western setting does not allow for magic or modern medicine, you have to come up with other ways your character survives a gunshot wound.

Please note that the general artistic argument is to not listen to what the market “wants” but to write what comes to your mind. I think this is a valid point, given that your mind, your experiences, and your ideas are by default unique in the market. So, whatever you write will automatically fill a niche. Even with this approach, selecting a fitting genre might be useful. You can put your story into a fantasy or science fiction setting without losing its core. If you know that, currently, science fiction stories are most sought after, you might want to give it a shot. The fundamental decision you have to make, though, is whether you are writing as an art form, with the goal of expressing and exploring your emotions and ideas, and learning the trade itself, or if you look at writing as a business, where you have to attract “likes” and “subscribes” to build external validation.

To summarize the difference between how to organize your writing for non-fiction and fiction books:

  • Non-fiction: User stories are things your readers (personas) want to know. Group them into topics, then order them in a way so that they build upon the previous stories.
  • Fiction: Select a genre based on the interest of your target audience. Create separate user stories for the elements of the world, for each character,and for each scene or event.

Finally, your book needs an overarching theme, moral, or philosophic view. Please note that even if you do not start out by defining it explicitly, you will still have one. We are all driven by a philosophy, consciously or unconsciously. So, whether you intend it or not, your book will have a viewpoint. It could be a whole system of philosophy, or it could be simplistic as in “crime is bad.” We always have some viewpoint. Either we follow the predominant views of the society we live in, or we consciously decide upon a specific theme, morality, or philosophy.

Similar to (physical) rules of your world, you also need ethical rules of your world. If those rules are contradictory or inconsistent, this can lessen the tension in your story and your world will be somewhat chaotic. If the reader can expect anything to happen, then nothing is at stake. An alternative is to maintain contradictory philosophies, but with characters representing them.

The issues are similar to those with non-fiction books: if you decide upfront on a theme or moral, you run into the danger of moralizing and breaking the rules of your “world” (the world within your book) just to prove your point. If you develop the moral while writing the story, you give up control over your world, and you have to adjust the world in a clever way to ultimately demonstrate the point you want to make.

My advice is to start with your views, but the tool to express those views should be the world you have created in your book (or the real world). If you cannot create a world where the scenes or events you have thought about can happen, it might be time to reconsider your ideas.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing Publishing

How to Organize Your Ideas

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Previously, we have discussed the approach of creating personas and what various personas might want to read. If you are writing a non-fiction book, the next steps are straightforward. What the reader wants to read and what you will provide with user stories is very much aligned. A reader has a specific problem, need, or interest, and you are trying to solve it by providing instructions or information. For example, Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way deals with topics relatively limited in scope: Part I discusses a project management method, Part II a technology and its application.

For simple non-fiction books, I recommend following these steps:

  • Create personas representing your readers.
  • Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
  • Group your user stories by topic.
  • Write the book based on the user stories.

But following this step-by-step approach, you get something like a how-to description, dictionary, or encyclopedia. By contrast, in my Philosophy for Heroes series, my goal was to provide a comprehensive discussion of philosophical and scientific concepts for the reader to figure out for himself or herself how to be a (better) hero in real life. As I also used the series as a way to form my own opinion of the topic while continuing to study it, my original approach to plan everything from the start failed.

If you are not already an expert on a topic, if it is not a simple how-to description of a proven method, you will have to go back to the start of your writing again and again to fix something you learn later. Split your project into a series; be open to telling the reader that you have changed your opinion on something discussed in an earlier part of the series to demonstrate that it is also a learning experience for you, the author.

If you want to write a book that takes the reader by the hand and guides him or her through the topic you are discussing, you need something more. You need a big picture, theme, vision, or an overarching story that you want to tell with your book.

For this, you have two options:

  • Arrange and re-arrange the user stories and tell a story explaining why they are in this sequence. I recommend writing the user stories on stickers and putting them on a wall, making the whole scope of your book easily visible and easily changeable.
  • Start with an overarching vision and then go back to arranging (and possibly modifying) the user stories in a way that supports that vision.

The challenge with the second approach is that you might curtail your creativity. If you start out with the conclusion, all your efforts are focused on proving it, instead of also looking left and right and investigating alternative views on the topic. So, when choosing the second approach, you should be careful to set only a general direction, not a fixed result.

For example, instead of writing a book about how “Word is the best software to write books,” set a more general theme for your book, such as “The advantages of using Word as an author.” This leaves the outcome of your research open but keeps you on track. You could gather a number of arguments, examine alternatives, and end up with clear advice for whom and what kind of book projects Word is the best software. This is also the more scientific approach, helping to prevent falling into the trap of confirmation bias.

Whichever option you choose, you will end up creating some kind of outline of your book, either as a starting point for your user stories or as a tool to connect them together into a consistent theme. This outline will be like a streamlined version of your book. Use it when you practice describing your book in a 30-second “elevator pitch.” If you cannot deliver the message of your book in that time, you could consider either splitting your book into two or more books or rewriting the outline. You could even use the outline as an article you release online (we will discuss releasing parts of your book early in another article and the book).

An additional or alternative approach is to start your book with the front cover. Having to limit the way you describe your book by a title, an image, and a short subtitle automatically helps you to focus on a single idea. It is also the cover, not your outline, that will ultimately sell your book. You can reuse your outline on the back cover or in an online description of your book, but the first contact point with your readers is the cover.

In summary, we have the following two approaches to start writing your book:

Option 1:

  • 1.Create personas representing your readers.
    “Peter is a paleontology student.”
  • 2.Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
    “Peter wants to know about dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age to study for an upcoming exam.”
  • 3.Group your user stories by topic.
    “Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age.” “Dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Age.”
  • 4.Arrange your groups of user stories into a sequence that fits into the narration of your book. One story or group of stories should build upon the previous one. When in doubt, put more important user stories before less important user stories.
    “First Jurassic Age, then Cretaceous Age…”
  • 5.Write a basic outline or come up with a theme or vision of the book that fits the written user stories.
    “In this book, we will discuss the different Ages of life on Earth in chronological order.”
  • 6.Write the book based on the user stories.
    “Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, between 243 and 233 million years ago…”

Option 2:

  • 1.Write a basic outline, come up with a theme or vision of the book, or create a book cover.
    “In this book, we will discuss the different Ages of life on Earth in chronological order.”
  • 2.Create personas representing your readers.
    “Peter is a paleontology student.”
  • 3.Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
    “Peter wants to know about dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age to study for an upcoming exam.”
  • 4.Group your user stories by topic.
    “Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age.” “Dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Age.”
  • 5.Arrange your groups of user stories into a sequence that fits the outline, theme, or book cover. When in doubt, put more important user stories before less important user stories.
    “First Jurassic Age, then Cretaceous Age…”
  • 6.Write the book based on the user stories.
    “Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, between 243 and 233 million years ago…”

For Part II, I decided on the second option. Market research has shown me that there is a demand for books about writing, but only a limited supply in terms of books discussing how to write books in LaTeX. While there are many introductory books about LaTeX, there are only few that focus on helping book authors. I want only what gets someone from A to B (in this case, writing a book) and nothing else.

But instead of asking people if LaTeX is what they actually want, I went for the niche simply because my objective of the book was to reflect upon and document my own writing process. The advantage of this approach was that I was able to write a well-rounded and focused book; the disadvantage of this approach was that I might not have taken the actual needs of readers into account. I simply present the proven solution I have found. Maybe the bigger market would have been the people writing books in Word?

For the elevator pitch for Part II, I used the following form:

  • For: First-time authors, novel writers who want to write a first non-fiction book, writers who are looking for better tools, LaTeX experts, editors who want to expand their services, LaTeX beginners who are looking for an introductory book, self-publishers who are seeking insights, and professionals who want to add a book to their portfolio,
  • The: “LaTeX” part
  • Is an: introduction to building books with LaTeX
  • That: takes readers through a variety of topics on publishing, from A to Z with the focus of using LaTeX as the central word processor.
  • Unlike: pure LaTeX books that focus on the technology or pure publishing books that ignore the difficulties of managing more complex books with Word,
  • We: provide a template and a tutorial that even beginners can use and professionals can refine for their purposes and embed this technical knowledge into a discussion of publishing, polishing, and editing.

For the user stories for Part II, I developed the following list (the “what” part is in bold for each user story):

  • 1.Mary wants to know about the possible advantages of using LaTeX instead of Word to make an informed decision on whether to use LaTeX for her future books.
  • 2.Mary wants to know how and where to insert the texts (foreword, preface, publisher information, TOC, glossary, etc.) into the template for an e-book / printable PDF.
  • 3.John wants to learn the basics of LaTeX so that he can make small adjustments to the template and enjoy a head start when learning more complex commands.
  • 4.John wants to know how to better manage bibliographical references to save time and reduce mistakes.
  • 5.John wants to know how to better manage indexes to save time during index creation and after page changes.
  • 6.John wants to know the reasoning behind the organization of the template in order to make informed adaptions.
  • 7.George wants to know how to convert his LaTeX document into an HTML file to publish it as a website article.
  • 8.George wants to know the special requirements of final polishing (which image quality to choose, what to do about blank spaces and page breaks, etc.) of the PDF to make a professional-looking printed book.
  • 9.George wants to know how to tweak the HTML output (page breaks, table of contents, etc.) to improve conversion quality for mobi (KDP) in order to have an e-book of high quality.
  • 10.Clara wants to know how to publish her books and e-books on Amazon KDP, so that she will have a central place to manage and sell them.
  • 11.Peter wants to know about how to create a book cover, LaTeX graphics, etc. and how Lode Publishing can help to create an appealing book.12.George wants to know how to reuse glossary items and other text blocks to save time when writing a series.

For the user stories of this book, I developed the following list:

  • 1.Peter needs a pep talk to prepare him for possible disappointments when starting a book project.
  • 2.Peter wants to know about the potential sales of his book in order to better plan his expenses (and manage his own expectations).
  • 3.Clara wants to know the general approach to investing money so that she doesn’t waste any.
  • 4.Clara wants to know how she can incorporate her book into her professional career and benefit from it more than just through book sales.
  • 5.Peter wants to know where to start with a fresh book project so that he will not get lost in endless edits that prevent him from completing and releasing the book.
  • 6.Peter wants to know how to better decide what to include in the book and what to leave out to create a better book more efficiently.
  • 7.Tina wants to know how to use personas so that she can write for her target audience.
  • 8.Mary wants to know how to have the same quality of language and content throughout the book to keep the reader engaged.
  • 9.Clara wants to learn a method for organizing her ideas and how not to get lost in details so that she can write a comprehensive but to-the-point book.
  • 10.Tina wants to know and stay in contact with her audience as a means of increasing future sales.
  • 11.Mary wants to know how to conduct market research for books and how to include that into the writing process so that she can sell more books.
  • 12.Peter wants to understand what working with a professional editor or coach looks like and how it could help him in order to make an informed decision about whether to hire someone and whom to hire.
  • 13.Mary wants to know how to work more efficiently with her editor to speed up the writing and editing processes.
  • 14.John wants to know how to better organize his communication with an author in order to reduce overhead and better deliver what the author expects.
  • 15.Mary wants to know how to create better ads on Amazon to increase sales.
  • 16.Peter wants to know how to properly cite so that he will respect the work of others.
  • 17.Mary wants to get earlier feedback for her book so that she can incorporate market demand and readers’ wishes into her book.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing News Philosophy

Did Bilbo Sail to the West?

How to improve the overall quality of a book


Was it
Bilbo who sailed to the West? Reading Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge, the first in a four-part series on what it means to be a hero, this seems to be the case. On page 5:

Now, while the case could be made that Bilbo underwent a heroic transformation, that he fought evil, that he traveled to the West and might have used a boat at some point, the story sounds much more like Frodo’s story in Lord of the Rings. The author himself is well versed in fantasy literature, and the amount of media related to the subject is anything but sparse. How could such an error happen?

 

Well, first, let me admit that I am that author. I am not sure if this is the right or smart way to discuss my own book, but some self-reflection is a great way to grow. So, let us analyze where I, the author, went astray.

 

My usual judgement on products (in this case, a book) is that they are a mirror of the company behind them. If you have a little bit of background information, reviewing a product can be like an archaeological dig. Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge is a multi-layered book. First, it is part of a series. When writing the first book, the other three books had to be kept in mind. In addition, especially being the first book, it had to stand on its own despite its dealing with the basics (philosophy and language). You cannot sell a book called “Philosophy for Heroes” and then tell the reader to wait for part 4 to finally read about what heroism means. Second, it contains a variety of components: study questions, ideas summarizing a section, biographies adding a human element to sometimes abstract explanations, and real life examples. Skimming through the book, especially those components seem to be “added features” that—while adding value to the book—could just as well be removed. This points to an evolution of the book. Looking back, this is actually true, it underwent a number of transformations:

 

  1. A single, very large book
  2. A five-part series
  3. Then, a four-part series
  4. Then, a four-part series with the first book required to stand on its own
  5. Finally, a four-part series, the first book standing on its own, and additional components (study questions, ideas, biographies, examples, etc.)


As this evolution played out, the later changes underwent the least amount of review, while certain parts, that were already finished when devising the initial large book, had so many reviews, the time spent on dragging them along was a waste of time. How does one write a book without having such a large variance of quality between its parts?

 

For this, we look at software development. A piece of software faces the same problem, it evolves, some parts are “fresh,” others have been looked at and tested for years. The solution people came up with is called “Agile” (with one variant being “Scrum”). My current project deals with this subject, feel free to check it out here.

 

The best approach to write something—anything—is to make sure that its pieces stand for themselves. The advantage of this approach is to have those pieces complete and ready, and you can publish each to get feedback and build an audience. Looking back, I should have published each section separately. Sure, someone could piece all the sections together and then have a copy of the book for free. But that takes a lot of effort. Even if it is just half an hour of work, you could have easily bought the book for yourself. Also, the final edit of a book surely connects the independent parts to a greater whole.

 

In any case, if I did follow that “Agile” approach, it would have been Frodo, not Bilbo, throwing the ring into the fire and traveling to the West.

 

Lesson learned.

 

Categories
Editing IT LaTeX Productivity

How to Create a Kindle Ebook with LaTeX

The ebook is now available! Head over to Amazon to get a copy. 

Book publishing is easier than ever, and my favorite language to use to create books is LaTeX. The Amazon ebook upload platform (https://kdp.amazon.com) allows users to upload a variety of formats, but not for LaTeX or its product, a PDF. Why is that? The reason is that Kindle ebook viewers are not simple PDF viewers. Kindle takes the text and reformats it in a way so that it is easily readable and provides the customer a repeatable experience across a variety of books. PDFs, on the other hand, are fixed: no matter what viewer you use, page 37 of a particular book always looks the same.

How then can we use LaTeX to get a Kindle ebook published?

Instead of PDFs, the workflow will rely on HTMLs that are converted to MOBI files. The MOBI files can be imported by Kindle. The big advantage of this workflow is that you can use the HTML files to convert into other formats, such as posting on your blog (which typically requires the removal of all the LaTeX code and a reformatting).

But no worries, we will go through the workflow step by step. I first wanted to give you the big picture.

So, how do we create the HTML file? I am a fan of “one-click” solutions. Whatever we do, LaTeX should generate the final HTML file and we should not have to make any manual changes. This requires some work, but in the end, it is worth it!

For my setup, I am using Overleaf. It offers an online editor, a PDF preview, an automatic Git backup, and a LaTeX compiler on one single website. If you are using a different LaTeX website or your own local installation, a different configuration might be necessary.

Converting LaTeX to HTML

To convert LaTeX to HTML, we need a special compiler, TEX4HT. Unfortunately, TEX4HT only works with pdfLaTeX, not with XeLaTeX or LuaLaTeX. So, as an initial preparation of your existing LaTeX code, you might have to make it compatible to pdfLaTeX. If it is already compatible or if you are already working with pdfLaTeX, you can move on to the next paragraph. If not, you will need to: switch to pdfLaTeX in the project settings; add the ifxetex package; and surround XeLaTeX-specific code with a “\ifxetex … \fi” construction. Having this compatibility allows you to generate PDFs with XeLaTeX, and also produce HTMLs with pdfLaTeX when you switch the compiler settings.

TEX4HT itself needs no installation, as it is already part of the Overleaf setup. All you need to do is include it in your workflow. In Overleaf, this is done by adding a file named “latexmkrc” in the main directory of your project and adding a configuration file (you can find an example here).

First, let’s create the latexmkrc file in the main directory of your project:

$pdflatex = “htlatex %S \”my.cfg,MyFonts,NoFonts\” \”\” \”\” -shell-escape > output.txt; pdflatex -synctex=1 %O %S”;

All this does is override the way Overleaf names the compiler $pdflatex, calling it htlatex in addition to pdflatex, and writing the output of the compilation of htlatex to a new file called output.txt. It also references my.cfg, where much of the HTML configuration resides.

When the compilation has finished, the HTML file will not show up within Overleaf. Instead, you have to actually download the output files (use the drop-down menu at the bottom left in the project window). In the downloaded zip archive, you should check the output.txt for errors. If there are no errors, the HTML file should be in the same directory, ready for use! You can unzip the file, open it in a browser, and there is your ebook! On to step two!

Converting HTML to MOBI

The main tool we will be using (besides LaTeX) is the Kindle Previewer. To preview how your HTML will look on various Kindle devices, download the Kindle Previewer here. Besides previewing, it also converts the HTML to MOBI, which can be uploaded to the KDP website or to a Kindle. Generally, for a professional ebook release, it is recommended to get a set of Kindle devices for testing. With the Kindle uploader tool, you can easily send your MOBI files to a specific device.

Now, open the HTML file with the Kindle previewer. It might give you helpful compiler warnings for you to fix, as well as a conversion to MOBI. Once all is in order, you can browse through your ebook with different Kindle device simulators and, finally, upload the MOBI file to KDP.

But wait! It does not look right!

Now we have to go a little deeper. First, you may wish to review the design documentation by Amazon.

During the conversion, we lost page breaks, maybe some lines, spacing formatting, indentation, etc. The bad news is that there is no 1:1 conversion possible. The good news is that we can include our own .css file to correct a few issues and redefine some of the environments in LaTeX itself to make things right. I will talk about this in a later article. Here, I will talk only about a few instances I have encountered. For others, that is up to you, especially if you used custom formatting in your LaTeX document.

For example, the title sizes might need some fixing:

h2 {
    font-size: 1.5em;
    margin-top: 0.83em;
    margin-bottom: 0.83em;
    font-weight: bold;
}

h3 {
    font-size: 1.17em;
    margin-top: 1em;
    margin-bottom: 1em;
    font-weight: bold;
}

h4 {
    margin-top: 1.33em;
    margin-bottom: 1.33em;
    font-weight: bold;
}

h5 {
    font-size: 0.83em;
    margin-top: 1.67em;
    margin-bottom: 1.67em;
    font-weight: bold;
}

And—kind of a hack—if you dislike paragraph indents, this is the way to go for Kindle:

p {
    margin-top: 1em;
    margin-bottom: 1em;
    text-indent: 0.01em;
}

In LaTeX itself, you might also want to redefine some commands. The following will move your footnotes to the end of the ebook (if you don’t, they will be put into external html files which are not included in the ebook), add a new command “myrule” for horizontal lines, a new command “emdash” for em-dashes, fix semi-colons, and rewrite newpage to tell Kindle to insert a page break.

\ifxetex

\else
    \usepackage{endnotes}
    \let\footcite\citep
    \ifx\HCode\undefined 
        \def\myrule{\hrule}
        \newcommand{\emdash}[1][]{\hspace{0pt}---\hspace{0pt}}%

\else
        \def\myrule{\HCode{<hr style="clear: both" />}}
            \def\semicolon{\detokenize{;}}
            \def\emdash{\HCode{&\#8212;}}% 
            \renewcommand\newpage[1][]{\HCode{<mbp:pagebreak />}}
    \fi
    \let\footnote=\endnote
\fi

That is all for now, I will add a second part with more details (like the table of contents, additional design options, and the index) later. But with some luck, I hope you get your ebook working with these instructions! Feel free to ask questions in the comment section.