Adventures in Innovation, Or: How To Make An Ebook You Can Feel (A Story of Snot and Letting Go)


Returning to my last article on SPR, one year later, I’m struck by a comment left by a reader named Ron Fritsch.  The article was about my self publishing experiment, the Bookdrive, and Ron seemed to really like my idea. He liked the potential of a multimedia reading experience provided by a USB Book. But naturally he had some questions.

There is one question in particular that, one year ago, I glossed over quickly in favour of the lower hanging fruit. After a tough year, and of a lot of hard work making my idea into reality, all of that easy fruit has been picked. And here I am, rereading year old comments, staring at that last question, still hanging slightly out of reach.

He asked: who sells USB novels anyway?

The short answer is no one.

The shorter answer is me.

This is a problem. Despite all my daydreams, there are a million reasons why I will not be successful trying to sell my strange, new Bookdrive from my quiet little website in the corner of the interweb. Rather than going through the reasons I’ll sum it all up in one sentence:

There is a reason the milk isn’t sold at the farm.

I’m an author: I know how to write a novel. I’m a collaborator: I’ve learned how to work with a team of artists to add a layer of multimedia to my work. I’m a new-media geek: I  re-learned how to code html/css and edit videos in order to try to promote all of this work.

But I know I am not a salesman.


How do I know that I can’t sell?

I learned the hard way.  It was during my Indiegogo fundraising campaign, trying to raise money for the first batch of custom USBs. The day in question was not long after my last article. I was discussing the campaign with my father in-law when he asked if he could give me some advice.

I like to think of myself as being open minded to constructive criticism. I’m a teacher! Of course I can take what I give everyday to my own students. Hit me with your best shot!

He told me that he could see my snot. In my campaign video. Front and center.  This video, something that I had slaved over for weeks, was chock full of up-angle shots of me with a very full nose. He said he knew me, and so to him it wasn’t a big deal. But to strangers it might very well be a big deal.

I laughed it off. I hadn’t even noticed. Okay, well maybe I had noticed, and chosen to ignore it during editing because I thought people don’t care about stuff like that! They’re like me. Go with the flow. Big Picture. Don’t sweat the small snot.

Then other friends started pointing it out. That’s when I started getting nervous. I started asking close friend if they had noticed. They had. Everyone had become well acquainted with the green monsters   My best friend, went so far as to tell me that when he watched the video he couldn’t even hear me. All he could see were my nostrils.

I replaced the video but by then it was too late. A first impression cannot be unmade. I didn’t meet my fundraising goal, but I made enough to cover a smaller order of Bookdrives.

That was just under a year ago.

This year has been spent in one of two modes. For the past three or four months, I have been fully in the first mode, what I call the state of Constant Problem Solving. Every free moment is spent obsessing over the novel. Now that I am in-between jobs the CPS is even worse. Free time simply means stress, wasted opportunities to make your book, your website, your Facebook Page, your Youtube videos, more successful. You find it hard to sleep at night. No matter what you are doing, who you are with , you are always thinking: What are the next steps? How can I make this work? When will this ever be done?

This constant state of worry can wear you down.

Which leads to the second state I’ve found myself in this year: the burnout. For an equally large chunk of time last year I chose, just as I had with the snot, to ignore the glaringly obvious. After the book was done and edited, and the fundraising came to somewhat satisfying conclusion, I had had enough. I was tired.

I was tired from my more than full-time work at school and tired of using my little free time on the book. So I shut down. I told myself it was just a break over Christmas but come the new year I did nothing but go back to school. I was too busy with marking for the book. I started using the Artist Excuse.

The Artists Excuse: I told myself and others that all of the delays were because of the musicians and artists who agreed to work on the book. Everything was ready to go but they were taking their sweet time, and hey, artists never meet their deadlines right? And so on.

I let their contributions to the book hold up the whole enterprise while I went back to leading a normal life.

But the worry never disappears, it just goes down from a boil to a simmer.

And so, slowly, worry worked its way into a creeping guilt. People had pre-ordered my novel. I had promised a finished product by Christmas 2011. Summer 2012 was close at hand and the Artists Excuse was still stalling everything.

That’s when my wife stepped in and kicked my ass. That is to say she kicked it back into gear.

Trapped in the car with her during a long drive somewhere, she forced me to face it. I was hiding from my own responsibility. No more excuses. Make it happen.

At first I was defensive, just as I had been during a similar car drive earlier in the year when she questioned me about character motivations in my novel. In both situations I had excuses that I had been telling myself. I’m waiting for the soundtrack mastering to be finished or I don’t know why that character does that he just does. But under pressure all of my excuses turned to sand in my hands. I had to do better.

So with that, and with some time off in the summer, I went back from burnout mode into CPS.  Some highlights of the past four months of problems:

– The Artist Problem was easy enough. Over brunch with one of the musicians/screen printers he told me straight up: I just won’t be able to get anything done unless you give me a firm deadline. I did and soon enough I had all my music and artwork.

– A musician, the biggest name in my whole project, had to drop out. After my wife’s pep talk I decided this was a problem I had to deal with myself, no more waiting around for other musicians and deadlines. I had an idea, and I made it happen.

– What exactly is a multimedia novel? This question is what ate up most of my time after the Artist Excuse. I was doing something new, which is exciting, but that meant I had to draw my own map as I went. Needless to say there were a lot of dead ends.

But I figured it out. The PDF format turned out to be a much more powerful tool than I had ever imagined (and completely DRM free!).  I could link words to media really easily.

I loved this idea, these hidden links in the text. It reminded me of old Strong Bad Flash cartoons I’d watch in high-school where, as you watched the hilarity you could search the video with your cursor. And every now or then your cursor would land on something, a phone or a hat, that was clickable. That little click opened up a SECRET VIDEO. Needless to say these were not essential, but they rewarded active engagement with the story.

So that is how I treated all of the videos, pictures, songs, and audio embedded into ccQS’s PDF. They’re all like little treasures you can stumble upon. Some easy to find, some not as easy.

– When the Bookdrive was almost ready to be sent out to supporters and the new school semester was weeks away I ran into an unexpected problem. I had decided I wanted to have all the media as separate shareable files on the USB (rather than be hidden inside of some giant PDF file).  I also had decided I wanted pieces of the book to be easily shared, not just the songs and video, but also individual chapters. So I split the book into individual PDF chapter files.

But something didn’t feel right. People aren’t used to picking up the parts of a book. They are used to picking up the whole thing.

I was stuck between two formats I really liked. So I did both.

For the whole-book experience, I made one PDF that contains all of the chapters. Its click-throughs lead to media files that are on the USB. No internet needed, just your machine’s media player.

The chapter by chapter PDFs are radically different. They’re meant for sharing. And so their click-throughs take you to media posted on the internet. This media plays on sites like Youtube and Soundcloud which have sharing built into their DNA. If someone hears a song they like from the book they press the Facebook button. If someone likes a chapter they can easily email it to a friend.

This is what I would think about at night.

– And then, just days before the start of school, I took the scan of a dot-matrix printout that the school’s secretary had printed out for me and I pasted it over top the cover photograph that an old friend had made for me. It hit me. It was done. Finally. I could see it. My book had a cover. It was not just some dream I had for the past decade. It was this:

– Then I lost my job.

But that’s a whole other story. But even the darkness of the days following was not strong enough to kill the CPS. This was just another problem to be solved.

While I have yet to find a steady job, I have plenty of time to obsess over problems. Such as learning that, unlike I had proclaimed in my earlier column, shipping was not exactly “almost nothing” for my Bookdrives. It was something.

I have plenty of time to obsessively build a website I am proud of.

I’ve had time to… dance?

But even with all of this time I still have that problem, the same one that started this article. I’ve mailed out copies to everyone the pre-ordered during the fundraising. I’ve given away copies to all of the artists involved in the project. Now how in the world do I sell the rest of these?



This week I plan on giving up on my book.

No, I’m not going to let the few hundred Bookdrives sitting in my basement, slowly rot away. Instead I am going to be letting go and moving on. I’m giving myself a true deadline. After this week the book is done and I am free to move on to new projects. I think of short stories. My wife thinks of house repairs.

This deadline is not because of burnout. With all of the time I have on my hands I could work through Christmas easily. Nor is it about money, though that does play a role, as always.

It’s about realizing, especially after writing this column, that I’ve done my best. I’ve worked as hard as I can. I’ve prepared the soil. I’ve planted all of my seeds. It is now simply time to simply step back and take some time off. See if, in the long run, anything starts to grow. A few final things this week, setting up a launch show (those damn musicians!), contacting some local press, and then it is truly out of my hands.

Of course I’ll come back and water every now and then. But if nothing grows, so it goes.

Which brings us back to the question in Ron’s comment. It turns out his comment had the answer too. He talked, the way I sometimes dream, of setting up a “marketplace” for writers who want to make a multimedia novel but do not have any connections with musicians and artists. Obviously that is an amazing idea, but I do not have the time or money to build a new social media tool. So I followed the same motto that I had followed every day when I was a teacher: do the best you can do with what you have.

The word “marketplace” got me thinking. My Bookdrive stands apart from other Ebooks because you can feel it. And also because it is full of Art. Where is a marketplace for handmade Art online?

By the end of writing this column I’ve set up a marketplace for my art.

As for his larger idea, the dream, I’ll lay out my vision here. If my book grows into something big on day maybe I’ll be in a position to make it happen. If not, the idea deserves to be free for someone who is capable of acting on it.

Rather than making yet another social media site, I would love to start an Artdrive Label. It would act somewhere in-between an independent record label, who have benefited greatly from the rise of the internet, and a traditional publishing house, who have not done as well.  The label would put out a few releases a year of collaborations between authors, musicians, visual artists, dancers, and filmmakers. Sure this could result again with novels that have a soundtrack, like mine. But why not a USB Artdrive of a film where afterwards you could read short stories about your favourite character? Or a new independent music Artdrive album complete with videos of a local dance troupe?

Perhaps that’s most exciting thing about finally taking a step back. I’ll have room to really dream again.

Except next time I’ll leave out the boogers.