Mark Z. Danielewski Shares Enhanced eBook Creation Advice

Mark Z. Danielewski released a complex digital version of The Fifty Year Sword today, creating an interactive eBook for his ghost story.

We asked the author of House of Leaves what it was like proofreading his intricate digital book. He replied:

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And if anyone tired of reading those overs, they should avoid a career as a writer. I often joke — it’s not a joke — that writing comes down to having the strength to revisit repetition over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Reading is rereading. Writing is rereading and rewriting and rereading over and over and over again. And if by the end you don’t feel dizzy, nauseous, if there’s not an ugly taste in your mouth which you can’t wash out and you sure as hell can’t swallow, you’re not working hard enough.

Danielewski continued: “That said, there were also very specific ways we handled all the compounding information. [eBook producer Lillian Sullam], thankfully, created a detailed chart outlining where all the animations appeared and how they were paired with music. In that way we could see if themes were overused or underused. We could note the spacing. We didn’t want constant movement and sound. Just enough to draw the reader’s imagination into that liminal zone between text, image and song where a new kind of awareness can spark and maybe even catch fire. We also had several people double-checking quotation mark colors, spacings, all those elements that had been so patiently and repetitively gone over for the hardcover.”

He added: “As for the animations? — An intense process rivaled perhaps only by the work [Christopher O’Riley] and I were simultaneously doing. Lillian and I would text at all hours. She’d send me screenshots, new ideas. I’d take a video in which I was tracing out a particular vector with my pen showing how I thought the letters might move. Lillian would realize that and make it better.”

He concluded: “It felt very much that we started with the big picture (text and image animations) and as those things become more fleshed out and stable, we moved through the other aspects of the book, until the very end were people were checking quote colors. Mark and I would go through each digital pass, page by page to discuss what needed to be altered, fixed, nixed, saved. At one point I realized all of these things, sounds effects, original music, animations, etc. needed to live in a spreadsheet for tracking purposes and to make it easier to check against. It’s a long spreadsheet.”

To find out more about the digital book, we caught up with Random House eBook production strategy & ops director Liisa McCloy-Kelley and eBook producer Lillian Sullam over email. They explained:

Mark came to the table with a vision. He was very clear about what elements needed to be retained and what elements should be accentuated from the print book. The print layout of the book is inherently dynamic and after reading through the content, it became clear where the movement and shape of the digital version could take those elements, which is to say, where digitally we could do something unique and separate from the print while still respecting the print.

Initially, we tried to build something that would be a consistent experience across the multiple platforms. But it was impossible to make the best possible eBook experience for those who can manage it while having to make the one file work everywhere. Ultimately, the process to design the final product (and it’s various iterations) was a lot of back and forth. Mark would make a suggestion, and I would implement it. Some parts of it wouldn’t work, but some parts would and we’d expand from there. There was a great amount of creative flexibility involved in this production due to Mark’s openness about trying different techniques to work around the technological challenges.

There were several people besides myself on our corporate eBook R&D team who were involved at different stages to manipulate the art, to synchronize the music and to animate various elements. It isn’t the type of development we do for just any product, but was an exemplar title for the strategic development that our team is focused on. Our group is always looking for titles and authors where we can continue to push the boundaries of what can be done with eBooks and showcase using technology to create a better reader experience.