Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Rob Siders of 52 Novels

I’ve written about the collaborative nature of my work before, how fans like Mike Tabor have stepped in to provide stellar cover art or people like David Gatewood e-mail me out of the blue with offers to edit my work and clean up typos. Recently, I had someone get in touch because they had a font size issue that I’d heard about from a few others. It was a problem Amazon tried to fix and couldn’t sort out, so I sent this reader my source documents and told them to knock themselves out.

It turns out that this reader, Rob Siders, is one of the top e-book and print designers in the business. He puts books together for superstars like Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. As a fan of the Wool story, he wanted to make sure the presentation matched the content. And he knew once I’d sampled his crack that I’d return, twitching, scratching at the backs of my hands, asking for more.

The results are truly astounding, especially if you have a Kindle Fire. It makes the older versions of the Omnibus look bad and all my other books look horrendous. Hopefully we can eventually get the rest of my works up to snuff.

After Rob was done and I saw all that was involved with his business, I asked if I could interview him like I did with Mike Tabor, the cover artist. There’s so much more to producing a book than just the author and the reader, and I think it’s cool to expose and explore these other artists and their craft.

Hugh: Thanks for taking the time to do this, Rob. I know you’re frightfully busy at the moment. How exactly did you end up designing e-books full-time? What sort of work did you do before you committed to your company, 52 Novels?

Rob: Thanks for inviting me. I started this by accident. I’d done some Web site work for Konrath going back to 2005 or 2006. Back then he traded me labor for signed books. I’d made the first Newbie’s Guide To Publishing PDF-based book which he was trying to prepare for KDP (then called DTP, or Digital text Platform) and it was so big it wouldn’t even upload. He called me out of the blue after months of radio silence and said, “I’ll pay you such-and-such if you can figure this out.” I rather like Joe and money so I immediately said, “Yes.” I used that monster to figure out how to make Kindle books and ePubs. It was Joe who suggested I hang out a shingle. That was Spring of 2010. Within months it became clear I could quit my day job as a technical writer for a multinational software development company. Not once along the way did I dream I’d have a business with employees and a payroll; and then I hired my first employee in September of 2010. I finally quit my day job at the beginning of April 2012. Besides getting married and having kids, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

Hugh: Is this a family-run operation, and do you get to work at home? I imagine there’s a lot of potential in the new publishing landscape for editors, cover artists, and paginators who get to work in their pajamas like those of us who write all day long.

Rob: Both  my wife Amy, who runs the business operations and project management, and I work from home, so it’s quite like the life of a working writer. We sleep until the crack of dawn, get our son to preschool, and then gas up the ebook factory. In the last couple of years, we’ve met a whole host of people in the services side of the industry — from editors to cover artists to other ebook designers — who have a similar set of circumstances as ours: a writer friend asked them to help out and, bada-boop bada-beep, they’ve found they’re in business for themselves.

Hugh: Self-publishing has gotten trickier for me over the years, rather than easier. The proliferation of devices and file formats means there’s a lot more work to do and coding to understand. Have you seen this impact the demand for your services? And how do you keep up with all the standards as they change, like Amazon’s new format and the new ePub standard?

Rob: Yes, definitely. We’re getting a fair number of authors coming to us asking fix things that have gone awry with their existing ebooks… whether it’s because, like with WOOL OMNIBUS, the update to KF8 support for Kindle Touch changed something unpredictably or because they didn’t like the work someone else did for them. In those cases, we find it’s easier and cheaper to start the project from scratch.

But keeping up with the standards isn’t difficult because the evolution and implementation of the technology isn’t progressing rapidly. Amazon’s KF8 was a lurch forward because the legacy format hadn’t evolved since the 90s. It was developed for Palm Pilots. How long has it been since those were relevant? ePub 3 is basically done, but there aren’t many ereaders that support it yet. Even the ePub 2 spec, which has been around a while, isn’t fully supported on all devices and apps. As such, the difficulty is, as you suggest, making sure that the ebooks we make work well and play relatively consistent across the multiple platforms as they exist now and what’s expected in the future. As a result, we do a lot of testing. Each of our designers has a Kindle 3 and a Kindle Fire, a Nook Touch and a Nook Color. Some of us own iPads. We have Sony and Kobo ereaders available, if necessary, too. We have a backdoor test account at Smashwords to make sure our designs work there, as well.

Hugh: Your company does e-book design and print interior layout. What are some of the unique challenges for each of these processes? Do you recommend most authors commit to both e-books and a print-on-demand version?

Rob: Our approach to ebook and print design is, we think, somewhat unique in that we look for cues from the author’s brand and the book itself to inform the design we do. We like to say that formatting is easy. Design, which is necessarily a thoughtful process, is harder. And while the palette for ebook design is relatively small — smaller than a 4 x 5 snapshot — there are still things we can do to ensure that the finished product is distinctive and elegant. At the same time, we like to make sure what we do is in the background. The author of the book might take notice of our work, but a reader shouldn’t.

Plus, as you alluded to, adding paper to the mix enables us to put together a unified look between the print and the ebooks. While I’ve built a nice business on the back of the ebook revolution, I don’t fear the demise of paper any time soon. Paper buyers still represent a good share of book sales. Why alienate them?

Hugh: Speaking of e-books and print books, what do you think the future holds for publishing? We hear from the retailers, the producers, the publishers, the authors, but rarely from the designers.

Rob: Heh. Boy, I’m the wrong guy to ask that question. I was a big skeptic when the Kindle was released. “It’s $400 and you don’t even get any software?! No one’s gonna buy that! I’ll get a halfway decent laptop instead.” I’m sure if I gave my prediction on where the industry is headed, you could expect the opposite to happen.

In all seriousness, though, we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in non-fiction queries come through. It used to be that we’d see maybe one or two queries out of 10 for non-fiction projects. Now it’s about four or five of 10.It’s the people who sell through ClickBank and other affiliate marketing sites that we see more of now. We had a run of pick-up artists come through a while back. Now it’s business and self-help books.

Hugh: How much time do you put into the creation of an e-book vs. the pagination of a physical book? And how much time is spent proofing each one?

Rob: This really depends. There are some books in which the author has crafted a simple little thing and they have very specific ideas about how the whole package has to be. In those cases, we just follow instructions. We have zero qualms deferring our judgment so that one of our authors can carry out their vision. With ebooks, our design staff can knock those out in a few hours, of which 20 to 30 minutes will be testing across devices and Smashwords. And then there are projects where the author has given us complete autonomy to do what we like. In those cases, I can spend a couple of hours just looking at book designs or scouring type samples for ideas and inspiration.

Print takes a bit longer, mostly because the canvas is larger… it’s almost luxurious! Depending on the book, I can spend a couple of days on someone’s paper sometimes. I like to work something up and then leave it alone for several hours. I usually find things I missed on the first pass, and then I go back and tighten the design and perform some QA before sending it off to the author for review.

Hugh: I used to work in a bookstore where I would get distracted while unboxing books and lose half an hour to perusing a new release. Do you ever find yourself skimming books as you perform a layout, then reading a little further, then getting lost in a plot?

Rob: I used to work in record stores, so I know what you mean about getting lost while unpacking new releases on Mondays. Now, I do find times when I’m skimming a book while I work. James Patrick Hunt’s, Robert German’s and Robert MacLean’s books tend to draw me in while I’m marking up the manuscripts. Our design staff all says the same thing about the books they work on, too. That’s one of the things we think sets us apart from a lot of other shops: we’re all book lovers first. It’s not uncommon for us to ask what each other is reading before we ask about what we’re working on at the moment.

But specific to your question, there’s only been one book in the last couple of years — Eric Shaw Quinn’s SAY UNCLE — that I read every word of while I worked on it. Well, almost every word. It was a beautiful, hilarious story that I still get a little emotional about. There have been many others that I’ve read after I finished the work. I was a huge Eisler fan long before I started making his ebooks, so I usually read his shorties before I start work on them. I began reading THE DETACHMENT the day we delivered the print files to Amazon.

Hugh: What’s the most difficult project you’ve ever tackled, and why?

Rob: The right word for this is “challenging.” Heh. The one that fits this bill the best is THE DETACHMENT. It wasn’t a challenging book to lay out. I’d already done Barry’s ebooks and he loved the look I put together for them and he wanted it to flow through as part of his brand, so we already had a design spec ready to go. What made this a challenge was the magnitude of the project itself: the first John Rain book after a few years off; Barry’s first novel since turning down New York to go indie; our first project with Amazon. It all worked out in the end. Amazon loved it. Barry loved it. We were thrilled. What’s a few hours of lost sleep?

Hugh: Even though I’ve created my own e-books over the years, I still don’t appreciate all the little features the new devices have, like the ability to skip between chapters and pull up a Table of Contents. What are some of the features you include with your files that most of us indie authors are leaving out of our works?

Rob: It’s really hard to say, as most of the ebooks I buy these days are ones written by authors with whom we’ve worked. And that’s really a testimonial for the overall quality of writing coming from indies now. The “self-published” stigma has, I think, largely vanished because of how small-d democratic the process is. Any more, what with the amount of information getting shared on KindleBoards and other places where writers hang out online, there isn’t a lot in terms of features that are getting missed. I think the chief differences that we provide are expertise, work flow and proficiency, all things that take time to develop. An author who’s making his her own ebooks can generate files that are basically indistinguishable from what we might produce… except that we’ve figured out how to prevent that one chapter heading from italicizing and aligning to the right after passing through Calibre. What took an author hours to figure out how to solve — hours that could’ve been spent writing or selling — we avoided altogether.

Hugh: Thanks a lot for your time, Rob. You’ve done amazing work on the Wool Omnibus, and I look forward to working with you in the future. If anyone wants to contact Rob to see about making your book as pretty as it can be, go to http://www.52novels.com/. Once you’ve seen what he’s capable of, you’ll be addicted. I promise.

Rob: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks again for asking me. Can’t wait for your next book!

5 replies to “Rob Siders of 52 Novels”

Great interview, Hugh. A lot of work goes into the creation of an ebook. It’s great to know that Rob Siders is hard at work making them look the best they can be.

Now, about that reworked WOOL Omnibus. How can readers get it (hopefully without repurchasing it)?

I’m not a 100 percent certain, but I think Hugh can ask Amazon to alert readers of an update. When this happens, they’ll send out an email to give people with the prior version the option to download the new one.

I think updating books is one side of e-publishing that I have not noticed being used very much. I wouldn’t want it to become like app updates on my iPhone, but making things a bit more interactive would be nice.

For example, I’d love it if I could include a chapter of a new book I am publishing on an old book I have already released. Having a message when sites like this update could be cool as well. I am sure Amazon will get there eventually.

I prefer eBooks over print now. I love being able to choose font size and manipulate the background. I am working on my first book now and am nervous about getting to that side of the design. I can’t afford a whole slew of editing and formatting, and when those two battle, editing will win every time. For me, at least. I hate to put out a book that doesn’t have all the modern bells and whistles, though. Nothing bothers me more than pulling up a book I am reading on a new device to find that the page number I was on didn’t sync and having to go through each page to get back where I was. Being able to jump to a chapter can be a saving grace. Hopefully I will have the wherewithal to figure out how to do that on my own.

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