Writing Echoes

Delijah's Writing Blog

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NaNoWriMo Sponsor Offer Review: Fastpencil Paperback Proofcopy

Everyone is entitled to mistakes, and in my opinion, FastPencil made one when they launched the NaNoWriMo 2015 Sponsorship. My initial idea had been reviewing it as “run you fools”, but I have decided that such a thing was not fair to them. While other times I have screencapped the process, I lost my patience with this, so, it did not happen this time.

fastpencil_offer15The offer (which at the time of speaking can be located at https://nanowrimo.fastpencil.com/nanowrimo2015) shown in the image promises a free proof copy and a 70% off in a distribution package for winners. Nothing that we haven’t seen before, but always nice to try a new service.

fastpencil_startYou sign up and you have two options, either using their web-based software or uploading your own pdf. For people who already have a preferred formatted style, like yours truly, the pdf option is the preferred one. Before uploading your file you have to:

  1. Create the project. Fair enough.
  2. Adding titles, descriptors, reviews and such
  3. Listing authors and contributors
  4. Choose a category for your book
  5. Add legal details

Of course, this is my own opinion here, but before spending time filling forms, I want to see whether you take my file or not, just in case what happened happens. And what happened? That FastPencil expects you to upload a pdf/x file, i.e., one created with Adobe Professional or the pdf export tool from Microsoft Word in Mac. Both are professional tools towards the higher end of the spectrum. Most NaNo Writers won’t be using either, as the tendency is among the amateur pool. And the professionals usually have their own distribution channels by the time they are so.

Hack: you can use the Adobe Professional trial, active for 30 days in order to go around this problem. It will work for one time, but okay. You can walk around the problem (for me, it meant reformatting the whole \LaTeX file in OpenOffice, export as pdf and convert to pdf/x in Adobe Pro). Not convinced by the result, I decided to try their manual formatting.

fastpencil_formattingImporting the rtf files screwed the formatting up, so I found myself having to work on the html front to adapt what I wanted to one of the default styles they have. This is not “friendly” nor easy for most people, FastPencil (I show you html though, because is how I worked. You could work with rich text too).

  • Item: out of the six offered styles, 4 are completely unprofessional, and look tremendously ugly. But that is personal opinion, you might disagree with me.
  • Item: You must have chapters. They won’t take a one-shot, and the chapters must be sequential. While they do have a “short story” style, for some reason this separates the title on one page and the story on the next.
  • Item: Dragging and rearranging “chapters” is a good idea, but the different types of “chapters” are not clear. What’s the difference between a “front matter” and a “back matter”? Why does something called “blank” allow you to insert code there, shows you results and just prints a blank page? If you let me insert code in the blanks, I will assume that you’ll allow me a no-number page that I can use as separator. I’ll obviously assume wrong.
  • Item: The preview takes me through the whole compilation project, and I have to download a file every time. This would not be so annoying if the process worked every time and not just 50% of the times. And I like seeing what I’m doing. Shame on me, that I need to check that everything is according to what I design.
  • Item: Erasing blocks will take me back to the project page so I have to start the process over again.

Finally! The project is “finished”. By now I’ve dropped two designs, my lovely \LaTeX-pdf, a short story, the kanji separators that I made for between-stories and my hope of getting a non-link-blue table of contents and spent about 7 hours (in different days) in the whole project since I started the FastPencil part.

Now it’s time to go through steps 2 – 5 that we did for the pdf, as this is a “new” project, render the pdf (and here apparently people other than me have been stuck for hours) and if you want a physical copy agree that it’s going to be $9.99, just because + an extra which will depend on how many pages you’ve got ($0.04 per page). This is for both “marketplace” and “private copy”. The “publishing package” is over $200, and you have to “commit to buy” now (you would be able to change your mind later, but yes…).

Then you make covers, you’ll have to upload your png of pdf according to the sizing, but the spine is automatic. Make sure you have a look before you choose your cover fonts, you don’t want them to clash too much (again, people have complained about long rendering times. I did not have that issue).

You check the preview, you approve it and you get to ordering (and yet again, people have been complaining about issues here). You introduce the code and the $9.99 + pages. In my case, 60 pages added up to $13.61, plus $1.50 handling, a grand total of $15.11. I type in the NaNoWriMo discount code and… $13.61 go away. The handling stays. “Free copy”? Nope. Not if I have to pay $1.50. But okay. I’ve gotten this far, I can spare $1.50. I click order.

Shipping charges: $85.53 from USA to Spain. Screw you, FastPencil.

fastpencil_85bucks

For the record, though, I did contact them and asked if there was a chance for a more reasonable shipping method, but as I started looking into the forums and Twitter, I saw that it was the tendency. Other charges I’ve come across: $40 to Canada, $144 to Sweden, $76 to the UK and my favourite:

Obviously, FastPencil did not think this through. They did not take into account international shipping at all. they did not realise that their target was not a pool of professionals. I am a bit savvy with computers, and it took forever to get everything to work. FastPencil claims that they offer “publishing made simple”. If that is simple, give me complex code, anytime.

No, I did not order the book. No, I’m not planning to. Hell, I only have three more words to say about FastPencil: “Run you fools”. And now you know the whole story why: Everyone is entitled to mistakes, and giving FastPencil a chance was mine.


 

fastpencil_deleteEdit: I thought that the review would end here, but no! There’s still more to it. As I was not going to use their service, and concerned with privacy, I decided to delete my content and my trial experiments from the site and their servers. I was able to erase the “project” but I was stuck with the “publication”. This means I was able to eliminate the editable part, but not the generated pdf.

Thus I took to support and found the page to the right (now updated after this Twitter exchange), printed and thumbnailed for convenience. After looking up and down for the “delete” button I contacted support and reached out via Twitter. Apparently, no, you can’t erase your own content on your own, which for me is a bit unsettling. Once I provided the url and title, the “project” does no longer show. However, this process makes me feel uneasy about the whole content management idea.

Of course, the easy version of this would have been to just edit the project blank, but I did not know at the time that I was going to be unable to delete the generated pdfs. Erasing content when the file was an uploaded pdf was easier, as the only thing I had to do was removing the upload.

Unlike the email regarding shipping, which I sent on January 27th, this was dealt with swiftly. I think it was more efficient as I sent a support request from the page, logged in, rather than an email. Maybe public mention on Twitter helped, I don’t know.

Long story short: Erasing your content is not completely in your hands. The updated page does not even mention the possibility of erasing a project yourself.

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NaNoWriMo Sponsor Offer Review: Lulu.com Hardcover

The other day I talked about Blurb’s BookWright Program as one of NaNoWriMo reward system. Today I bring you the review of Lulu.com’s offer for every participant:

Stand out with a professionally printed FREE HARDCOVER book.

Lulu.com is so thrilled to support all of the Wrimos again this year! We’re the only self-publishing company in the world that allows you to create hardcover, softcover, and eBooks, and distribute them globally.

This year we are excited to be bringing back our FREE HARDCOVER offering. Once you have finished uploading your manuscript and formatting your book cover […] (you can enter the code) for your free First Edition Hardcover! Start your book today!

Participants will also be entered to win free eBook conversions. We will be drawing one lucky name each week for 12 weeks beginning December 1, 2014.

The post did not specify date, which was however locked in another one:

The fine print: This offer must be redeemed by February 28th, 2015, is good for a one-time use, and does not include the cost of shipping.

Then in the Lulu.com forums, the date was changed to December 31st, 2014. Repeated tries to contact them were not successful, so I rushed through the process in order to get it done on time, it was a surely interesting New Year’s Eve! Let me tell you, I am not happy how the company has not answered anyone – not me, not anyone else, as people continue asking questions about it today. I have not heard of anyone getting the free eBook conversion.

Keep in mind that since the whole thing was so rushed in the end that I did not take screencaps to the process, and the ones shared here are from a recreation.

Formatting process

Content: Lulu takes mainly PDF files, so that was easy for me as I have my \LaTeX PDF templates tailored to my liking and the offer’s requirements. Truth be told, Lulu has an enormous amount of options that are great to get for free.

LaTeX formatting ♥

LaTeX formatting ♥


 
Creating the project: After choosing that you want to make a print book, the first step is creating the title, filling up the fields and choosing the options. The professional hardcover includes a dust jacket, which tends to look really cool. Once the project is created, the system allows you to upload the PDF (it needs embedded fonts, if you are using a regular word processor, but I never had trouble with that). The PDF is processed and converted to a PDF-print ready file. During this process requirements such as margins, image resolution, and fonts are checked.
Start creating the project

Start creating the project

Title, author and distribution

Title, author and distribution

Book options

Book options

Uploading the PDF file

Uploading the PDF file


 
The cover Wizard: After the PDF is ready, you can move on to the Cover maker. The online cover maker allows you to choose a design – my usual is free-style. You know the cover and backcover sides, of course, and the smaller images have a label which tells you which size they need to be. The inner cover font is chosen for you, and has a limited character number. The dust jacket spine cannot be personalised further than font and colour, but the default fonts are neutral, so it is quite nice. The process is in general quite easy. I haven’t tried the advanced cover making though.

Cover Wizard Loading (Flash-based)

Cover Wizard Loading (Flash-based)

Inner spine options

Inner spine options

Cover Wizard, photograph-only layout

Cover Wizard, photograph-only layout

Handy Size Notes

Handy Size Notes

Uploading images

Uploading images

Add pictures by dragging them into the cover

Add pictures by dragging them into the cover


 

Ordering process

As soon as you finish the process, it appears ready for ordering. You can make it available to the Lulu marketplace, too. The code is applied on checkout, without any further fuss (Note: for the code to work, you need to be on Lulu.com, and not the local Lulu if it exits).

Finished project details

Finished project details

Book page

Book page

Shopping Cart

Shopping Cart


 

The hardcover

Good and sharp quality printing for the interior, and high quality paper. However, the dust jacket did not turn out too well this time (the Axis 95/11 one came out much better). However, I am not sure whether the problems with the folding are due to the book being too thin, matte printing, or just a different kind of paper or processing for it. I think the thickness issue was important.

The inner covers feel awesome though (^_^).

Front cover

Front cover

Inner content

Inner content

Inner cover and dustjacket lapels

Inner cover and dustjacket lapels


 

The TL;DR

Nice product, not too reliable company. I mean, as a sponsor who make an offer, they have every right to change the conditions of such offer. However, the way the whole date thing has been handled (read: not) would make it harsh for me to trust Lulu.com as a publishing company.

NaNoWriMo Sponsor Offer Review: Blurb’s BookWright Program, softcover and ebook

As part of the NaNo winning ‘prices’, some companies offer to print you one of your books for free (although you have to pay for shipping). This is totally clickbait, I know, but what the hell, I like it. This year I plan to review the process on the three companies that do it – CreateSpace, Lulu and Blurb.

The catch for Blurb’s offer is that you need to use their program, BookWright in order to get the following, as stated in the NaNoWriMo Winners’ page:

• One softcover copy of your novel in our 6×9 inch Trade format, up to 480 pages with Economy black and white printing (offer expires January 31, 2015). How do you do it? Just use Blurb BookWright™, our free layout software, to design your book. Try out our new novel templates to get a head start.
• Free conversion of your book from BookWright to a reflowable eBook for Apple® iPad® (EPUB3 format) or Amazon Kindle® (KF8 format).
• Entry into a draw where you could win free editorial services from a member of Blurb’s Dream Team network of publishing professionals.

Formatting process

I had been editing a couple of the short yakuza-centric stories with the idea of making a compilation of them, and this was my chance. The code was good until January 31st and I had two stories out of the four I wanted ready, and one halfway. Ready, for me, means proofread (at least by me, I do my best), formatted and converted into \LaTeX format.

Here comes my first surprise. BookWright does not take pdf, at all. It wants rtf formats. It wants me to format my document in a text processor and feed the formatted document to the program. The automatic index does not stay when I do the conversion, and neither can I do changing headers – those which are different for each chapter – I need to go with a static one, and aligning that is a nightmare so I give it up.

After fighting with the layout for ages – and discovering that the best way to “undo” is to close the program without saving your changes, I get a new surprise – there is no way to generate an index unless it is… the old way. Aka doing it by hand. Needless to say, I was less than impressed – I mean, even Microsoft Word can do your tables of content automatically, even if it blows sometimes. That should be something basic, imo. And by hand, I mean going to the page, writing it down, and making the dotted line and trying hard as hell to align it.

BookWright complained a lot about fonts, as apparently you need to license fonts for eBook creating? Not going to criticise that, although I was peeved at first at how much it complained about good ol’ Times New Roman. I decided to go with Arial in the end because it is always a safe option.

I finally managed to format everything, although it took a ridiculous amount of time. I had to make sure that all the chapters started on an odd page, make the index, and resize titles, things that my \LaTeX coding does for me, usually. I should have left a blank page before setting the title page, though, but I only realised that when I got the printed copy. We’ll get to that.

The next step was setting up the cover. I had the 6 x 9” cover in high resolution template, so that was no problem, and I managed to do both the back and front covers without trouble. The spine, however, gave me some trouble as I did not manage to find any indications on what size to measure. After a few educated guesses, I make the cover for the softcover book and the eBook (here I messed up a bit with proportions, my own fault).

BookWright has three main working focuses: covers, pages (main text) and background (where you set the layout, headers, page numbers, etc). Aside from the issues mentioned above, the program in general did not come through as too user-friendly for me, it was very slow and stopped responding at times. It would not adapt to my screen either. I did double-check that some of the things I wanted to do in the forums, and saw that they could not be done, but not all of them – it might be possible that you can do some of them and I just did not find the way.

Loading

Loading

Choosing / Creating the project

Choosing / Creating the project

Formatting the text (1)

Formatting the text (1)

Formatting the text (2)

Formatting the text (2)

Adding page numbers

Adding page numbers

Background and layout

Background and layout

Designing the softcover

Designing the softcover

 

Ordering process

The uploading and ordering is easy enough, as is the ordering and paying process, which is done through the web. You obviously need an account with Blurb, though. You upload from BookWright and the wizard takes you through the correct steps. The code was easy to use, and the shipping was reasonable. What amazed me was the price they had for you to download the extra pdf.

Choosing formats to updload

Choosing formats to updload

Upload process

Upload process

Order finalised

Ordering and paying

End of the ordering process

End of the ordering process

 

The eBook

Looks neat. The white thing on the cover is my fault, I did not realise that I needed to resize the cover a bit. Regarding the inside, the index is not linked, which is annoying. The header is added automatically, which is nice. The reflowing one/two pages works pretty cool too (shown on my Kindle for iPad).

eBook Cover

eBook Cover

eBook Index

eBook Index

eBook - one page

eBook – one page

eBook - Two pages

eBook – Two pages

 

The softcover

The outside covers are very, very cool, they are not too shiny even if you are – as I am – a matte fan. The inside printing is well-defined and clear, however I find the paper a bit too thin, a lot can be read from the backpage. The gluing feels extremely good. However, not convinced by how the book came out a bit wavy.

One image is worth a thousand words so:

Softcover front cover

Softcover front cover

Softcover inner pages

Softcover inner pages

Softcover titlepage

Softcover titlepage

Softcover: wavy side

Softcover: wavy side

 

The TL;DR

I would not recommend them as a launching program, too much hassle. I am not sure if their pro package is better as I have not tried it though. The InDesign plug might be a solution, but as I mentioned, I use \LaTeX and I am pretty happy with it, so BookWright is not my best option.

I’m doing the whole formatting again with a friend soon, so I’ll let you know if the second time feels better.
ETA: Nope. Still a mess.

box.net [Opinion and minitutorial]

I got a little bit of time so I thought I would write about a tool I am using for the blog but I have never really explained. That would be box.net [link]. Box.net is a file sharing web-based tool that allows you to share a bunch of files (including .doc, .pdf, .txt and .png, to name the ones I have used) on a flash application, which gives you control over how much you share about it. What called my attention about it was the fact that it allows you to share documents without allowing the person on the other side of the screen to just copypaste your words. I.e. if someone wants to copy what you are sharing, they can not just highlight it and hit control+C, they would have to type it out, and that’s time-consuming

It has, of course, some pros and cons:

Pros

  • It allows different degrees of sharing:
    • Preview (no download)
    • Download (no preview)
    • Preview and download
  • Allows versions, i.e., you can upload different versions of the same file and the link to the file remains the same
  • Your account is (or can be) organized in folders, for neat storage
  • Allows comments on files
  • The free account has a storage capacity of 5GB, and once you trash a file it disappears from your storage
  • Most of the features are present in the free account
  • Has the option of sharing whole folders

Cons

  • The task/sharing tools can be a bit un-intuitive [link]
  • The application runs on a flash player; which is not the most computer/browser friendly thing ever
  • Some html platforms will just explode when you try to embed the shared file).
  • When you share a full-screen file, the user might have trouble finding the download option.
  • Requires a bit of html knowledge if you want to do something a bit outside the default options
  • It always carries the uncertainty of the web-based resources. When will it die out? (hopefully not in a long time ._.)
  • Does not allow multiple-browser log-in
  • When log-in asks for your email or username, it’s actually asking you for your email. I have never been able to log in with just my username.

A screenshot of how it looks for the author, and some explanatory notes (click for bigger):

This is how it looks for the reader with standard options (which does not really need much explanation; again, click for bigger). Download can be turned off:

Full screen reader options (you got the drill by now, click for bigger). The full-screen option, which is the one I use, is an html-trick of the default embbed option:

I have to say that I really like box.net to share files, especially excerpts of my writings. If someone wants to copy them down, they’ll at least have to type it out and sweat it xD (of course if you allow downloading, the c/p option using Control+C comes back XD)

Mind mapping: bubbl.us, XMind

I was never much of a graphic outlines fan but I got to admit they come handy. Especially when I find myself needing a lot of information in one eyeful. An example is the Osaka Guardians character sheet [link], there are just too many people around to keep track of all of them without help. I primarily use two mind mapping tools, though none of them convinces me completely. Click on the images to see them full-size.

bubbl.us [link]

Pros

  • Really simple usage: you can get around with enter (new child bubble) and tab (new sister bubble)
  • It colours up the child bubbles logically and automatically
  • Allows you to share with other uses on line
  • It is really easy to join bubbles using arrows
  • The bubble design itself is elegant and pleasant
  • You can use ‘read only’ links to share with non-users (i.e., what you see here [link]), although that feature seems to be down at the moment (maybe it has gone paying-customers only?). This allows you to keep the link updated, no matter how many changes you make on the sheet
  • You can manually change bubble and letter colours (and font size)
  • It has pin and unpin features to move one bubble or a cluster of bubbles
  • Allows export in graph (png and jpg) and html formats
  • Allows collapsing clusters of bubbles

Cons

  • You need to register
  • You can only save three ‘sheets’ or mind maps on the free web page (you could save more in the old version)
  • Does not allow curved arrows, which becomes confusing at points
  • The arrow color can not be changed
  • It’s an on line platform which requires flash
  • In Ubuntu, it messes up special characters

 
The main issue with bubbl.us is that it’s an on line tool. The advantage of it is that it is always available as long as you got an Internet connection, and works in every operative system, you just need a browser. The disadvantage of that is that you never know when it is going to disappear or have a glitz and never come back and you can’t recover it; DoS attacks, server issues can take your work away.

XMind [link]

 

Pros

  • It is a free desktop application (not-free premium application)
  • Runs on Mac, Windows and Ubuntu/Debian
  • Allows colour and shape changes on the bubbles / boxes
  • It has different pre-made schemes, for different kinds of mind maps. In the images you see two of them, but there are several: tables, logic diagrams, organization maps…
  • Allows grouping bubbles in different ways, like brackets, wrapping boxes
  • Allows arrows and inter connections with different shapes, colours and lines, and to “name” the connection
  • You can export as different formats, among them png
  • You can choose all the writing’s format
  • Allows you collapse bubbles and clusters at will
  • It is possible to add a personalized background, though that will probably just hinder the visuals
  • You can add icons and emoticons (stars, smilies, flags, priority buttons…)
  • It re-spaces your outlines depending on how many sub-bubbles you have

Cons

  • It automatically sizes down the bubbles, which fools the brain into confusing importance of the bubbles
  • You need to set the colours and shapes manually
  • Moving bubbles is not easy, the program assumes connections on its own
  • It does not let you choose the interface language, and the translations might not be completely accurate (I personally don’t like not having the option to have an app in English, but that is personal preference)
  • No automatic colouring of the bubbles
  • You can’t pin or unpin bubbles
  • Seems to have some trouble when the sheets are really big

 
XMind has three main issues for me. One is that it’s not easy to move bubbles and organize the data. The second is the automatic downsizing of the bubbles, I find it very distracting. Finally, it does not accept automatic colouring and whenever I need some colour I spend a lifetime on it. Although the colours and sizes can be manually set, you have to do it manually, selecting the bubbles and deciding on the format and colours.
 

I use both tools, but I am still not 100% convinced by either of them. I keep wanting to move the bubbl.us diagrams to XMind so I always have them handy in case the website collapses, but the size issue becomes unavoidable when you’re talking big mind maps like the Osaka Guardian character sheet, although the fact that it does not seem to allow the embedding any more might push me to do it. I will keep an eye on more applications, though, although for now XMind is the one with the best results of the ones I have tried (I did not like FreeMind [link] nor Edraw [link] when I tried them, so still out on the hunt). You can compare how the Osaka Guardians Character Sheet looks in bubbl.us [link] and the same worked on XMind [link] as of today (read as “*groan* I need to work on the Hiroshima structure as soon as I am done with Retriever“).

I am sure I will remember a ton of pros and cons about both tools when I’m done with the entry, but for now, I think I am not missing any of the most important ones.

MS Word, Word2Tex and LaTeX formatting

There’s little doubt among the experts geeks that \LaTeX makes the prettiest pdfs out there. It however might not be the most speedy tool, especially during NaNoWriMo.

During NaNo 2009 I used both OpenOffice for Ubuntu and MSWord for Windows, and I’m guilty of loving my formatting keyboard shortcuts (italics, bolds and so on). I used word2latex to convert the doc to a tex, but my quirks needed a few previous arrangements (using search & replace):

  . → .\\
  .\\{blankspace} → .{blankspace}
  .\\” → .”\\

  ? → ?\\
  ?\\” →?”\\
  ?\\{blankspace}→ ?{blankspace}

  ! → !\\
  !\\” →!”\\
  !\\{blankspace}→ !{blankspace}

  → …\\
  …\\” → …”\\

  “\\{blankspace} → “{blankspace}

And once in the .tex file (using search & replace again):

  \dots → {\ldots}

This satisfied my formatting likings, and even if the document needed a revision for any conversion errors or slips, I was pretty happy with the result:



The following link yields to a template created from all the formatting options I chose for the CreateSpace book, ready to be copied and pasted on a \LaTeX editor (tested for MiKTeX, LED and Kile):

Cover

The cover image was made using the “antique photograph” filter on Gimp from an actual photograph. The backcover building design was created with GoogleSketcher.
Title Font: Trebuchet Trebuchet MS Bold Italic:
    Spine: size 60, color #ffffff
    backcover: size 40, color #adadad
    frontcover: size 100, color: lava 10×10