Notes About Assembling the Book

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Mar 17, 2021

Filed under: Notices 68 comments

Like I said before, I’m compiling my Mass Effect series into a book. I’ve finally finished the ugly brute-force work of getting the chapters into a single document and re-creating the original bold, italics, section markers, chapter headings, and so on. Yes, you’d think that such a thing would be automatic. Look, there are like three dozen ways of building an .epub from existing material and they all have some glaring fault. Maybe I’ll write about this later, but for now let’s just move on.

The final word count is 186,000 words. For rough comparison:

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring – 187,790 words.
  2. The Two Towers – 156,198 words.
  3. The Return of the King – 137,115 words.

There are 265 footnotes. On the e-reader I’m using for testing, they work more or less like they do on the blog: you click on a footnote and the text pops up in a little box. That’s nice, but I’ll bet these footnotes are going to be a pain in the ass on in print. I turned many of them into parenthetical statements, but most of them needed to be footnotes because they were too large and complex to work as an aside in the middle of an unrelated paragraph.

I still have to add a preface and make numerous adjustments to remove useless previews / recaps to each post. It’s usually only a sentence or two like, “Next week I’m going to talk about Kai Leng’s stupid cowboy hat” and “Last week we talked about Kai Leng’s stupid cowboy hat”. On the blog these are a natural part of the format, but for someone reading straight through in book form they feel very strange. Also, explicitly referencing “weeks” is a bit goofy. The audience will probably assume I think they’re really slow readers.

I’m not sure what to do about the images. They’re an integral part of the work, but 186,000 word books don’t usually have this many pictures in them!

I discovered that the printed version can’t be printed in color with my current on-demand press. Even if it could, I’ll bet the cost would be prohibitive. Also, BioWare’s abuse of the color filter means that a lot of these screenshots will turn into a smear of blurry grey ink in black & white. Also, lots of shots are seriously underlit, which will result in a big puddle of black ink rather than a useful screenshot. I don’t know what I’m going to do about this. This book is already going to be a real doorstopper, and making it even longer for a bunch of messy unreadable images seems like a bad choice. I don’t know.

I do think I need to cut the “Everything is fine” joke from Andromeda. Images are cheap on the web, but having half a page wasted on a repeated image is probably not going to amuse someone holding the physical copy.

Yes, I could go though and manually fix the contrast in all of these muddy images, but…

  1. The game designer ruined these images. I’m not going to spend days of my life hiding their sins.
  2. It would undercut a lot of my criticism to fix the thing I’m trying to criticize, wouldn’t it?

Of course, none of this will be a problem for the electronic version. I’m actually really looking forward to seeing the e-book version of this thing.

 


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68 thoughts on “Notes About Assembling the Book

  1. The Rocketeer says:

    Just as Shepard secures the ancient plot item.

    Spurs jingle. Sparse guitar notes echo on a dusty wind.

    Shepard turns. The camera pans up from Kai Leng’s boots aaaaallll the way up to the peak of his 9.999… gallon hat.

    “That there Illusive Feller thanks you kindly for all yer hard work, muchacha.”

    1. BlueHorus says:

      “Cool yer heels, Shepard. Think of the doggone possibilities!”

      1. RFS-81 says:

        It’s over, pardner!

        1. ContribuTor says:

          Over? Why the pig’s barely begun on his trough, pardner!

          1. BlueHorus says:

            “You better keep your eyes peeled, Shepard – word is the Ol’ Illusive Feller’s mighty upset with you. I heard he’s rustlin’ up a posse to shoot some random civilians on the other side of the galaxy just to show you who’s boss!”

      2. Kyle Haight says:

        I would probably play that game.

        1. Liessa says:

          Turning Kai Leng into a space bounty-hunter type rather than a JRPG reject would automatically make him a thousand times cooler.

          1. Xbolt says:

            A thousand times zero is still zero though.

            1. Terradyne says:

              I dunno, he just needs to be integrated properly and it’ll (probably) be more than zero.

          2. Shamus says:

            Shepard: It’s over, pal!

            Kai Lang: Naw, now it’s a hoe-down!

            Sometime later…

            Shepard has dropped his gun and is hanging on to the edge of Thessia Church Gulch.

            Kai Lang: ‘serbus thanks ya’ll fer yer hospitality. (Backflips onto his horse and rides away.)

            I was going to do more of these, but the guy barely has any dialog. He’s all poses and ninja flips.

    2. bobbert says:

      Well, that sounds really cool.

    3. Mr. Wolf says:

      I was laughing for a while, but then I realised, Emo Space Ninja Cowboy? It’s been done.

  2. dogbeard says:

    I don’t really know what kind of costs go into publishing in Dead Tree Format, but it sounds like it might not be worth the effort in this particular case.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Dead tree’s still a very popular format, and it’s not just because most e-readers have garbage interfaces.[1] Paper often smells like vanilla because of chemical sorcery I can’t remember the details of. Besides that, physical books are eye-catching, and can spur discussion for visitors. :)

      [1] Please, companies. Just focus on the reading experience first, and make the shopping for new books, news, or other features in a separate menu. I already paid you money, just let me read the books. Even better, just leave these things off of the device and make me upload books from my laptop. These things don’t have mice or keyboards, so it’s a degraded experience already, even if it wasn’t interfering with the activity I bought this thing for.

  3. Grimwear says:

    As someone who’s interested in dead tree format I can’t really give any useful feedback since I don’t know enough about the book itself. Does having the pictures add something like 20$ to the cost? Are we talking about mass market paperback size or the larger 1st edition print size? Because that will most definitely affect the spine of the book. In that case what will the binding be like? Either way I’m still super excited for this.

    1. Benjamin Paul Hilton says:

      Honestly I’ll probably end up getting a copy of both the dead tree and ebook format. I’ve wanted a physical version for years, but an ebook version with all the image gags sounds worthwhile too.

  4. ivan says:

    Regarding the footnotes, they worked fine for Terry Pratchett, they’ll work just fine for you.

    Regarding the images, I dunno. It’s possible, though doubtful, that you are overselling how bad they’d look in black and white. Any chance you could post some side by side examples? I’d imagine you’ve probably already gotten some second opinions regarding this, but third and fourth opinions probably couldn’t hurt, right?

    1. General+Karthos says:

      Terry Pratchett’s footnotes were sometimes the best parts of the book. I know that one of the footnotes in interesting times regarding the position of “Grand Vizier” is one of my favorite jokes of all of the Discworld books I’ve read. (Roughly half.)

      1. Eigil says:

        Once you were in the hands of a Grand Vizier, you were dead. Grand Viziers were always scheming megalomaniacs. It was probably in the job description: “Are you a devious, plotting, unreliable madman? Ah, good, then you can be my most trusted minister.”

        1. Lino says:

          Such an awesome book (and – come to think of it, quite a good observation)! But then with Pratchett, what isn’t?

  5. Sean says:

    Maybe break the print version into a volume for each game?

  6. Tom says:

    Look, there are like three dozen ways of building an .epub from existing material and they all have some glaring fault. Maybe I’ll write about this later, but for now let’s just move on.

    Completely unironically, I’d love to hear about this. But maybe that’s because my day job involves wrestling systems that hate each other to the negotiating table and I have stockholm syndrome

    1. Philadelphus says:

      Yeah, I’d be interested in this too!

    2. Echo Tango says:

      I’m also interested in this. I’d have thought Shamus’ website is all formatted in the same way, so whatever script he’d need to write could be relatively simple. Or is it epub itself that’s the problem? I thought it was an open format, and fairly simple, but I could be mixing it up with something else. :)

      1. RFS-81 says:

        Epub is actually just a zip archive with html files for the content and xml files for metadata. Long ago, I’ve written a Python script to extract epubs from websites. There’s a website that publishes German public domain books, and I wanted an ebook version of some of them.

        Maybe it’s helpful for Shamus, but I don’t know if it’s smart enough to figure out where the series ends, because every post has a “Next” link. I don’t dare look at the code.

        Anyway, extracting the content from the website is only the first step. I’ve never used any epub editors, but I could imagine that they have strong opinions on how the zip archive should be laid out.

    3. GA says:

      He can write a book about writing a book, and go from there. It’s books all the way down!

  7. Jason says:

    For the Everything is Fine joke, you could should create an Appendix. Then everywhere that joke currently is, replace the image with “See Appendix A” where Appendix A is just the Everything is Fine image. That way the image is only printed once.

    1. Soldierhawk says:

      That would actually be really, really funny.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        I second (fourth) this. Similar humour to a rickroll.

    2. Jim says:

      Please, please do this.

      1. hewhosaysfish says:

        I was going to suggest just having a text foot-note everytime saying “Everything is fine” but instead I’m going to throw my vote behind the appendix. Or maybe not an appendix, but an insert of colour pages in the middle (as per Lanthanide’s suggestion below).

        Give the book to a new reader and see how long it takes them to recognise the page reference. “Yup, it’s gonna be that running joke again…”

  8. What print-on-demand press do you use? As someone with book aspirations myself, I’m quite curious about such services and whether they’re “worth it.” As it is, I don’t even know enough to tell the good ones from the bad ones…

    1. John says:

      I have no first-hand experience with print-on-demand, but my wife generally uses Lulu. We did have a slight problem with them this year around Christmas in that the they were super-slow shipping our order to us, but given the season and the pandemic I’m not sure how much I should hold that against them.

      1. David F. Ellrod says:

        Good to know! I’ll give them a look-see.

  9. Drathnoxis says:

    Instead of having images, just describe the images in text. It’ll be just as good.

  10. Lino says:

    I could tell you a story of love, pain and loss,
    But you got whole article on the front page, boss!

  11. Lanthanide says:

    I discovered that the printed version can’t be printed in color with my current on-demand press. Even if it could, I’ll bet the cost would be prohibitive.

    Seems like you’re in a mindset of printing all pages in colour and putting the images within the text as needed.

    Real non-fiction books that have coloured images will invariably have a small insert of pages in the center of the book where they do all the coloured printing, on different paper, and then label them as ‘figure 1’ and such and the text refers to that.

    You may have far too many images for this to be feasible, but on the other hand you might be able to cut the number down a lot, and perhaps you could refer to the same image several times. It’s a bit cumbersome for the reader, but it’s a middle-ground between “expensive with every page printed in colour” and “no images at all”.

    1. Rho says:

      I was going to post the same thing. Most print services should be able to add a very high-quality colour insert with any images into the middle of the book. You would lose some of the jokes but history texts do this often for the same reasons.

      I’m interested in a print edition but not ebook.

      1. Algeh says:

        This “color printed photo/image section insert” on glossy paper is definitely what other nonfiction books I’ve read on popular culture subjects have done to cut costs when they needed color photos but full color on all pages didn’t make sense for the text/photo ratio. I’ve seen it in both more academic-focused works that I read for research back in college and in things like episode guides for TV show seasons back when that was a thing you could buy in dead tree format. Not sure if it’s a thing with a Print on Demand service, but I suppose you could always go with two books, one of which is just the color insert section and printed entirely in color and the other B&W, non-glossy, and imageless but with references to the color insert book. That’d actually make it easier to flip around in the color pictures while reading the text, at the cost of having two physical objects that need to be kept together rather than one connected thing. (That’d likely be a deal-breaker for selling in physical stores, but selling print on demand means the vendor probably is fine with the idea of selling people books two at a time since they wouldn’t have to keep inventory of both books synced while waiting for orders.)

  12. Regarding footnotes.

    If they are shortish then tucking them at the bottom of the page seems suitable.
    If they are longer and/or there are many then use the opposing page as a footnote page, that way the reader can just look on the rightside page to see the numbered footnotes.
    If you have issues lining up oposing blank pages for footnotes then you have images you could use as fillers on a previous page for example.

    As to images, use Paint.net or similar and turned them into “line art” of some kind, may even be some plugins for the program if you can’t make it with the build in tools (pixel art?).

    Thus only a few images are illustrative (and you can spend some time making those legible) the rest of the images can be decorative and used to just line up the odd/even pages to your liking (instead of using blank pages).

    You could also use images for decoration on chapter title pages etc. (title + image on one page alone).

  13. Dreadjaws says:

    About the pictures, have you considered replacing at least a few of them with simple drawings (like, just lineart or something in the style of a webcomic)? Granted, you’d have to get an artist, but surely some people around here would be willing to help. Hell, I’d do it myself, for free even, but I’m a) super slow and b) veeeery amateurish.

    Obviously that’s not going to fix the issue with the pictures that are necessary to keep intact. Maybe you could offer two versions of each picture. “This blurry mess is what the game originallly looks like, and this one with better contrast is the version I fixed for your viewing pleasure.”

    Or you can go the “Final Fantasy IX Official Strategy Guide” route, where every page gives you a link to look for more information online. That was a rotund success, wasn’t it? Right? Yeah, I’m sure it was.

    1. Syal says:

      I was thinking stick figures; get one picture of the character, then match them up with your stick figure drawing that represents their main feature and use the stick figures to recreate all the later scenes.

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        Even easier would be running them all through a sobel filter, or some other edge detection process. Wouldn’t look like the originals, but would at least be readable in BW. Wouldn’t have to do it manually either. Lots of image processing software have batch features. And if that fails, you can always use Blender!

  14. Piflik says:

    Images, especially low contrast ones, will also be an issue on e-ink readers. If you think that having only great values is prohibitive, if a pixel can either be on or off you get into real trouble.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      I thought all e-readers could turn pixels half-way for shades of grey. Even my 6-year old Kobo has that ability, and it’s got fairly sketchy hardware and firmware. :E

      1. RFS-81 says:

        As another anecdata-point, I’ve got a Kindle that’s so old it still has a keyboard, and it can do grayscale images.

  15. Brendan says:

    Um, are you at all concerned about copyright issues? IANAL, but I believe the images are all derivative works of Bioware, and you (or at least the book printer) would presumably making money off it, which would make it very difficult to qualify for a Fair Use exemption.

    1. Shamus says:

      Copy-paste answer from previous thread:

      As YouTube takedowns have proven over the decades, it matters less what the laws say and more what the lawyers are willing to do.

      I should be 100% in the clear, since this series is both criticism and educational, and both are very firmly and broadly covered under fair use. But EA might pick a fight with me anyway. You never know. I’m going to publish and then we’ll see what happens.

      Edit: And also: As someone else pointed out, Bob Chipman did a book on Mario. If Nintendo did sue him, then I feel the odds are even lower that EA would sue me.

      1. eldomtom2 says:

        Well, Bob Chipman wasn’t using SMB3 screenshots IIRC… You may still be in the clear, but from a copyright perspective the less screenshots you use the better.

    2. Aitrus says:

      Does making money off of a work have anything to do with fair use? I don’t think so. Fair use is fair use. If I’m remembering Lindsay Ellis’s recent videos correctly.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        You can read the legal citations off of Wikipedia. The relevant line is “including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes”.

        1. Aitrus says:

          So it is relevant. Thanks for the correction.

          1. RFS-81 says:

            IIRC, commercial use is one of many factors that is considered. Basically, if you make money, your work must be more “transformative”. Using screenshots to illustrate points in a LotR book-length piece of criticism seems plenty “transformative” to me, but I’m not the one who has to be convinced, obviously.

  16. PrepareToCast says:

    It’s allegedly easy to create e-books from Gatsby (https://www.gatsbyjs.com/plugins/gatsby-plugin-ebook/). That would handle the footnotes. Unfortunately, converting WordPress posts to Gatsby turns out to be incredibly difficult. (I gave up on it in the end and manually converted WordPress -> Gatsby, which isn’t really an option for you.)

  17. Simplex says:

    “I’m actually really looking forward to seeing the e-book version of this thing.”

    Sorry if these are asked and answered:
    Is there going to be a Kindle version? (.mobi)
    How much will it cost?

  18. Honestly, you can probably leave the images out of the print version. I never pay attention to them when I’m reading your blog and I didn’t miss anything of significance.

    Maybe cut it down to one image per section? I threw one of your images into photoshop and just by adjusting the vibrance (to make it black and white) and levels I was able to get a black-and-white image that might print reasonably well. That’d be only 50 images (or however many sections you have).

  19. methermeneus says:

    Hmm, a conundrum. While there are ways of formatting footnotes into something useful for a print book, it depends entirely on how you’re going about it. Personally, I have a script to turn HTML into TeX into PDF, which is great for footnotes but actually pretty terrible where a lot of formatting stuff is concerned, and I’ve never even bothered making it work with images; it only works for me, because I use it for only one thing: making dead tree fanfics for myself and friends, and novel formatting is pretty barebones in terms of options.

    For your image problems, the best way to deal might be to have URLs to the images in the text. No worrying about translating color issues from screen to paper, no need to get decent b&w prints from color pictures, no need to make the book cost five times as much to print in color, no need to cut text that refers to pictures, and people are already used to seeing URLs referenced in nonfiction books about tech anyway.

  20. ContribuTor says:

    Personally, I’d almost pay more for a book that was just the comment sections from the various pages of the original ME Retrospective. Without the articles. Just the comments. Contextless meta-commentary on an unnamed video game theory.

    OK, not exactly “unnamed” since many of us refer to the series by name on a regular basis. But people would just have to guess what Shamus actually said that we’re reacting to.

    Art!

  21. bobbert says:

    If the images look terrible in mono-chrome, maybe upgrading to bi-chrome makes sence?

    Black & blue ink only should still be a lot cheaper than full color.

  22. Geebs says:

    I was recently struggling through the first part of Fellowship of the Ring again, when it hit me:

    Tom Bombadil is basically the Kai Leng of LotR

    1. tmtvl says:

      But with singing instead of ninja flips. That said, if Kai Leng sang a lot during ME3 he may have been better (disclaimer: I haven’t played ME3, so I don’t know how bad Kai Leng is).

      1. SidheKnight says:

        disclaimer: I haven’t played ME3, so I don’t know how bad Kai Leng is

        Honestly, he’s not as awful as we make it sound here.

        As a character, he’s just mediocre and forgettable, despite the fact that his appearance reminds me of a 14 year old’s idea of “cool” (Katana, Kaiba style-coat over body armor, cyber-shades). While not bad in and of itself, his character design clashes with the tone of the franchise (space marine trekky sci-fi).

        It’s the context that makes his existence infuriating. He doesn’t have much screen time (Thank God!) but the few moments when he appears:

        1) He kills a fan-favorite character
        2) He appears out of nowhere and steals the MacGuffin, while the game doesn’t allow you to respond in any meaningful way, essentially forcing you to lose to him through cutscene incompetence and scripted unwinnable fights.
        3) His dialogue is limited to “badass” (for a 12 year old) one-liners.
        4) The game expects you to care about this guy a great deal, trying to set up some sort of rivalry between him Shepard, even though he’s a very late addition to the game with almost no backstory, and overcrowding a story that’s already juggling too many plot threads.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      For the comparison to be completely accurate, Bombadil would have had to keep turning up, getting in the way and escaping without effort – all while being dressed like someone from a different novel.
      He’d just swagger up, swipe the ring, and then the Fellowship would have to spend a third of the book hunting him down.

      As someone who has played ME3, I can confirm that Kai Leng singing WOULD have made him better*. A whole two dimensions to the character? A 100% increase!

      *The troll song, maybe? I’d laugh the first couple of times…

        1. Lino says:

          Ahhh, I see you are a man of culture, as well!

      1. Geebs says:

        Keep turning up…..check
        Getting in the way…..check
        Escaping without effort….check
        Dressed like somebody from a different novel…..check
        Ludicrously overpowered and comprehensively plot armoured…..check
        The entire piece would be better with all of his parts excised…..check aaannnnnnd check.

        Also, Tom Bombadil was totally doing sweet ninja flips the entire time. It’s in one of the Appendices.

  23. Tometzky says:

    Maybe just print QR codes with links to the images. Readers can check them on a phone then, if they’ll be interested, without having to read the whole text on a phone.

    Also – even on e-ink reader they can be useful, as most are monochromatic.

  24. Silverwing says:

    I don’t know why are you all concerned about copyright and such complicated stuff. Guys, everything is fine!

    Also I now fully expect the physical copy to have a crudely edited screenshot in which Kai Leng wears a cowboy hat. A stupid one, too.

    …Pretty please?

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