BY CARMEL BIRD
As I write this continuation to my April essay on my hopes of turning my book Dear Writer into an ebook, I have just received an email from the publisher Spineless Wonders telling me that the book can now be downloaded as an interactive PDF and will shortly be available as an ebook. Not only that, but it will be available in paperback in October 2013. Clearly a lot of things have happened since April when I wrote: ‘so I think I am going to make an ebook.’ I also wrote that I was ‘working on the revision’ of the text. And at the beginning of my April essay I said: ‘I am learning to make an ebook.’
In my case, what I learned was that I needed to hand over the making of the ebook to Spineless Wonders.
Dear Reader, it happened thus:
Since the first publication of Dear Writer in 1988, I have used several different computers. There was no existing file of the text. So I needed to scan it and convert it into Word. How very straightforward that all sounds. Well not only did I have no file, I had only one copy of the book (the 1996 revised version). If I was going to pull it apart for scanning, I would end up with no archival copy of the book. That seemed pretty bad. I thought it would be easy to buy one online – turned out it was impossible. I asked a few friends for a copy but they were not prepared to hand it over. However, finally, I spotted one on the bookshelves of Glenda Millard’s writing house Girrahween in Maldon. I put the case to her and she generously handed over her well-worn copy.
Scanning was a tedious process, but not nearly as tedious as converting the result into Word. I say ‘tedious’ but what I really mean is ongoing nightmare. When all this was done, I really began ‘working on the revision’.
This was the joyful part – I had a lot of fun. While more or less leaving the old text untouched, I wrote in new things that brought the story into line with current trends in technology and also in publishing. Current! Oh how the waters rush on. With every key-stroke bits of stuff go out of date. It all took on a flavor of what used to be called ‘post-modern’, with me as the Author making comments on the narrative of the letters.
Who writes letters to student writers any more? But I wanted to preserve the tone of the book, in which old-fashioned Virginia wrote her advice to Writer and put the letters in the mail. Generally the advice itself holds good – what new writers needed know in 1988 is pretty much what they need to know now.
There I was – revising away – enjoying myself – but I wasn’t exactly making an ebook, was I? When the new Word file was done, and I had thought up the title Dear Writer Revisited, I emailed Simon Groth again at if:book with not so much a question as a cry for help. He directed me to sites that would get the ebook happening, but I wasn’t skilled enough to use them. So I asked Bronwyn Mehan at Spineless Wonders, known maker of ebooks, if she would like to convert Dear Writer Revisited into an ebook for me. Her response was brilliantly enthusiastic. Not only would she like to do that, but she would be interested in publishing the paperback. Good grief! A paperback.
Between then and now I have had the remarkable experience of working with the indefatigable Bronwyn to get things to where they are today (September) – there’s the PDF, the ebook, and, waiting at the distributor, luscious copies of the book.
Generally the advice itself holds good – what new writers needed know in 1988 is pretty much what they need to know now.
I have never really loved the front covers of Dear Writer, so Bronwyn gave me the opportunity to design my own. This was a fun business. At Girrahween, Glenda Millard and I met, and with paper and paste we made a collage from scraps of old books. Some of these books were given from the overstocks of a second-hand bookshop in Clunes Booktown. Others Glenda and I bought in a charity shop in Maldon. We got a heap of books and a blue teapot for $5. Now one of the books we bought was The Concise Encyclopedia of Birds, and on page 221 I found the loveliest little image of a woodpecker performing its undulating flight. It fitted neatly – well, perfectly – into the collage (my first collection of stories was called The Woodpecker Toy Fact, so the picture was like a gift to me). When the collage was finished, I needed to add the title and the author. Easy huh? Not. Enter two friends, Bruce Carruthers who made the new files, and Susan Bassett who fitted them into the image of the collage and helped me to decide on the rich red of the title.
Meanwhile Bronwyn was editing the text and designing the interior. She suggested I take out one short story and substitute a really new one, with a commentary on how it came into being. It so happened I had recently been asked by Matthew Lamb at Review of Australian Fiction for a new story. Since the writing of this story was fresh in my mind, it was the perfect choice. I cleared it with Matthew, and so ‘From Paradise to Wonderland’ is in the book, with notes on its construction. Writing to order is something I love to do – somebody asks for a story, sometimes on a particular theme, and so I write one. Bronwyn was also working away at the ebook.
I didn’t ‘make’ my own ebook after all, did I?
Bronwyn was and is engaging in a dizzying online promotion of the various forms of Dear Writer Revisited. The process I have described may sound smooth and simple and in a way it was, but just about every step felt, in fact, like a new venture. It is hard to choose a font for a title and get it to work; it is a special skill that seeks out the colour and places the words onto the cover image, that makes sure the undulating woodpecker will work in the collage. ‘Designing the interior’ – now there’s a task that kept Bronwyn at her desk and on her toes many a night and day. I am so very pleased I decided to revise this book, but of course in the beginning, when I wrote the first half of this essay, I didn't know the Dantesque pitfalls I would meet on the way. I am confident that it is a book readers will enjoy, and writers will find even more useful than the original. I revel in the ebook, the PDF, and the lovely paperback.
I dithered for a long time about having or not having a dedication, until inspiration came – I have dedicated it to McPheeGribble, the Melbourne publishers who first published Dear Writer long, long ago.
Carmel Bird's classic text on how to write (Dear Writer) is used in writing schools in many countries. It complements her Writing the Story of Your Life, and both books underscore Carmel's many works of fiction. Her website is carmelbird.com.