High Praise Indeed

The new paperback edition of the Story of the Computer received a very positive review in the Autumn 2017 issue of Resurrection, the journal of the Computer Conservation Society.  The review by Dik Leatherdale, who is the journal’s editor, praised both the structure of the book and the quality of writing.  What really pleased me, however, was that he also intimated that he learned much from the book.  This is high praise indeed, coming from an officer of the Computer Conservation Society and expert on historic computers.

You can read the review online here:-



Paperback Writer

Since publishing my book in eBook format in March 2015, I’ve been keen to produce a paperback version.  eBooks are a great way of getting your book published with the minimum amount of additional effort but the format is limited, particularly for non-fiction as there is no way of creating a proper index, and nothing compares to the satisfaction that comes from holding a physical copy of your book in your own hands.  It also makes sound commercial sense, as eBook sales have recently begun to fall in both the UK and US while paperback sales are rising for the first time in years.

For self-published authors, there are a number of options available based on the print-on-demand (POD) model, where no stock is held and a copy is only printed when an order for the book is received.  The latest of these is KDP Print, an extension of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform which allows authors of eBooks published through KDP to publish a paperback version which is then automatically linked to their eBook in the Amazon store.  KDP Print also provides various tools and guides for formatting the manuscript and creating the cover.  As my own eBook was published through KDP, this appeared to be the most straightforward route but closer inspection revealed that KDP Print still lacks some important features, such as the ability to order proof copies and to purchase author copies at wholesale prices.  Instead, I decided to use another Amazon POD service, CreateSpace, which does provide these features and also allows paperback and eBook versions to be linked in the Amazon store.

The next stage was to produce a suitably formatted manuscript in PDF format for uploading to the CreateSpace site.  I wanted to do this myself rather than use a book formatting service but I knew it would involve considerable time and effort, which is one of the reasons why it had taken me a couple of years to get around to doing it in the first place.  I’d used Microsoft Word when writing the manuscript so I could have simply tidied up the Word file and converted it to PDF but Word is very limited in its ability to perform the type of formatting required for books, such as setting up different page headers for different chapters or using Roman numerals for numbering pages in the front matter.  In order to create a high quality manuscript I would need access to professional desktop publishing software so, after exploring the options, I installed Adobe InDesign CC.  InDesign is expensive but I was able to minimise the cost by taking advantage of the free trial (which lasts for 7 days) and then taking out a monthly subscription which I then cancelled as soon as I’d completed the formatting.

Learning to use InDesign was a formidable challenge, as the user interface is not intuitive and was clearly designed for the Apple Mac environment rather than Windows.  I learned the basics from an excellent video tutorial on YouTube by Sean Foushee but learning how to create an index was much less straightforward, as this is a more specialised task and isn’t covered in most of the InDesign tutorial material available online.  Adobe’s support pages on indexing provided the necessary instructions but creating an index is a highly labour-intensive task which required weeks of effort to complete.  On the plus side, the process of creating the index highlighted several inconsistencies in the spelling of terms used throughout the book which I was able to correct.

Having completed the formatting of the manuscript, I then turned my attention to the cover.  It wasn’t possible to use my eBook cover directly, as the proportions and pixel resolution requirements were different, so I recreated the cover to the new requirements in InDesign.  I also added a spine and back cover, making sure to follow the detailed requirements for cover design given in the CreateSpace Submission Specification.  For the blurb on the back cover, I simply reused the book description I’d written for the eBook.

For printed books, an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is required in order to identify the edition, publisher and physical properties such as trim size, page count, and binding type.  With CreateSpace there is the choice of using your own ISBN, which can either be purchased through CreateSpace or from an ISBN agency, or allowing CreateSpace to assign a free ISBN to your book.  The main difference is that the CreateSpace-assigned ISBN will record the publisher as CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, so the book is effectively tied to the CreateSpace platform and a new ISBN would be required if changing to a different publisher.  As I’m not planning to use other POD platforms anytime soon, I opted for the CreateSpace-assigned ISBN.

Having completed the manuscript and cover files, I uploaded them to the CreateSpace site at the end of May.  The platform has a digital proofing tool which creates an online proof copy for checking but it’s always a good idea to order a physical proof copy to make absolutely sure there are no formatting errors.  For some reason CreateSpace proof copies are expensive and delivery is slow unless you pay extra for air mail but I was very glad I ordered one, as it showed I’d accidentally omitted the bleed (the area to be trimmed off) when outputting my InDesign cover file to PDF.  I was then able to correct this before finally releasing the book for publishing.  You can see the finished product here:-

Publish and Be Damned – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I described my efforts to get The Story of the Computer published and the decision to try self-publishing following a lack of interest from the few remaining UK-based publishers of non-fiction titles who accept unsolicited proposals.  Part 2 brings the story up to date by describing how I used Amazon’s KDP platform to self-publish my book as an eBook in the Kindle format.

Having first looked at self-publishing back in 2013 (see ‘The Self-Publishing Dilemma’), I’d formed the distinct impression that it was an expensive and time-consuming business, requiring the author to pay for costly professional design and formatting services in order to produce a suitable manuscript in the appropriate eBook format.  As a canny Scot, the idea of having to shell out serious amounts of cash upfront, with little prospect of a return on my investment, filled me with horror.  Fortunately, it’s now much easier to self-publish an eBook, particularly if your target platform is the Kindle, by making use of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) facility.

KDP allows the author to upload a manuscript created in one of several popular document formats, including Microsoft Word and PDF, and automatically converts it into the native Kindle format.  A cover image, which is uploaded separately, is appended to the manuscript to create the finished eBook which then appears for sale on the Amazon site a short time later.  For best results, Amazon recommends converting the file to HTML first, as the more sophisticated formats contain complex formatting information which may not convert well.

The downside of KDP is that you have no control over the conversion process, which can be very hit or miss in terms of the end result, other than using the preview facility along with some trial-and-error adjustment to the source document in the hope of improving the formatting before publishing.  However, there are a couple of alternative methods if you do want more control over the conversion process, as I did.  If you have InDesign (the high-end desktop publishing application from Adobe Systems) there is a Kindle plug-in available which allows InDesign to convert documents directly to Kindle format.  It is also possible to use Scrivener (the productivity tool for writers from Literature & Latte Ltd) in combination with Amazon’s KindleGen utility to create documents in Kindle format.  As Scrivener is much less expensive to buy than InDesign and is also available as a free trial version, I decided to give it a try.

After downloading and installing the Windows version of Scrivener, I followed the steps described by Ed Ditto in his article on The Book Designer web site entitled ‘How to Publish Your eBook from Word to Kindle in under Ten Minutes’.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get Scrivener to do my bidding.  Formatting of headings and subheadings could not be controlled and images could not be centred or sized correctly.  As Ed points out in his article, the Windows version of Scrivener is less advanced than the Mac version he was using, so certain key features, such as preserving the original alignment, were missing.  Also, Ed’s novel did not include images and incorporating images into eBooks will always be a challenging task.

After two frustrating days, I finally abandoned Scrivener and went back to using Microsoft Word.  By following the instructions given in the Amazon guide ‘Building your book for Kindle‘, I was able to get the text of my book formatted satisfactorily but images remained problematic as a result of Word automatically resizing the images to fit the page.  The only solution I could think of was to replace the resized images (which are stored in the folder Word creates when the document is saved as an HTML file) with the original images then edit the HTML file itself using Notepad to change the size specified for each image to the correct dimensions.  There may be a more elegant solution out there somewhere but this one worked for me and I was able to create a satisfactory HTML file and folder of correctly sized images for uploading to KDP.  To see the end result for yourself, click on the book cover image below.

Book Cover

Publish and Be Damned

Having finally completed the first draft of my book back in November, my attention in recent months has been focused on getting the book published.  As outlined in my previous post on this subject (Publishers Rejoice!), the first step was to compile a ‘hit list’ of non-fiction publishers who accept unsolicited proposals in categories relevant to the book.  This was not a long list, as I’d already ruled out academic publishers and other UK-based publishers of history of technology titles would appear to be as rare as a female programmer.  I then set about drafting and submitting proposals to each of them in the specified format (which was indeed different for each publisher) and eagerly awaited their responses.

Of the 7 publishers contacted, I received 5 responses, a pretty decent hit rate considering the poor reputation of publishers in this respect.  However, none were willing to accept the book for publication.  The two most promising in terms of the relevance of my book to their core markets were probably the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).  Both are well-respected professional societies with large international memberships and enviable track records as publishers of quality books in their respective fields.  Unfortunately, my timing was bad, as both had recently chosen to refocus their publishing efforts on titles which address the specific technical requirements of their members and my book no longer fitted their requirements.

Of the other 3 publishers who responded, only one (Palgrave Macmillan) took the time to carefully evaluate the book before deciding that it wasn’t for them, being neither an academic nor a trade (general audience) offering.  They also expressed concern over the length of the book which, at 235,000 words, was almost 3 times the length of a typical non-fiction title, making it much more expensive to publish.  One solution would have been to divide it into two volumes but this would have compromised the comprehensiveness which is one of the main selling points of the book.

So, having tried and failed to secure a publishing deal, I then moved on to Option 2, self-publishing.  Fortunately, this has become much easier in recent years with the advent of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform.  I’ll describe my experiences with KDP in my next post.

Publishers Rejoice!

I’ve done it.  After 11 years and god knows how many hours of work, I’ve finally completed the first draft of my book on the history of the computer.  Weighing in at just over 235,000 words, it covers the entire 400-year history of computing technology, from humanity’s earliest efforts to mechanise calculation in the 17th century to the latest devices which merge portable computing and mobile telecommunications technologies to enable new methods of social interaction.

Researching and writing the book has taken up most of my spare time over the past 11 years but, rather than the expected feeling of huge relief, finishing the book has been something of an anticlimax so far.  I’m already missing the discipline of dragging myself away from the TV or the Internet every night in order to write a few more paragraphs.  I could start another book but there isn’t really any point in doing so unless I can do something useful with this one.  Therefore, I now need to make an effort to get the book published.

In my earlier post on the subject (The Self-Publishing Dilemma), I identified three options; (i) securing a publishing deal with a book publisher, (ii) self-publishing the book, or (iii) putting the entire book up on the Web as a free download.  I am under no illusions as to how difficult it will be to secure a deal with a mainstream publisher, especially for someone who has no track record as an author.  Most mainstream publishers won’t accept unsolicited book proposals in any case.  It might be possible to interest one of the academic publishers in my book (e.g. Oxford University Press, MIT Press, etc.), as these publishers do accept unsolicited proposals but they also expect their authors to have the relevant academic credentials and I am not an academic.  The size of the book could also discourage all but the most enthusiastic of publishers, as it would appear to be more than double the word count of a typical non-fiction title.

The sensible option is probably to self-publish but, before I venture down this costly and time-consuming path, it might be worthwhile making at least one attempt to secure a publishing deal.  Therefore, I’ve compiled a ‘hit list’ of non-fiction publishers who accept unsolicited proposals and whose catalogues include history, popular science and/or business titles.  The next stage will be to produce and submit proposals for each of them in the specified format (which seems to be different for each publisher) then cross my fingers and see what happens.  I’ll let you know how I get on.

Inching Towards Completion

In my last post on progress with the book (Only One More to Go) which I posted back in February, I mentioned that I was about to begin the final chapter and had set myself an ambitious target date for completion of 31 July this year.  Well, that date has now passed but I’m not quite there yet.

With the home straight in sight, initial progress was indeed swift but work and summer holidays have gotten in the way in recent weeks, with the result that I’m still several weeks from completion.  I’ve written just over 14,000 words out of an estimated total of around 17,000.  I also have to finish the introduction to the book, which will require an additional 1,500 words or so, plus a much-needed edit of Chapter 10 which I’ve been working on intermittently over the past few months.

The final chapter, ‘Getting Personal – The World According to Wintel’, has been reasonably straightforward to write in comparison with the tortuous Chapter 12, helped along by the plentiful source material available for this part of the story.  Unlike the other chapters, I’ve also lived through the entire period covered and have followed the events closely as they unfolded so I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to write from the outset.

The final chapter covers the emergence of the ‘Wintel’ platform in the 1980s and 1990s, and how a software company, Microsoft, came to dominate the industry.  It also brings the story up to date by including the development of the World Wide Web, the ensuing Browser Wars and how the incredible advances in portable computing over the past decade have led to an explosion in the use of Information Technology throughout the developed world.

With the total word count already well over 200,000 words, it has not been possible to cover the development of portable computing devices in any detail.  To do this topic justice would require an entire book.  Therefore, if I can get The Story of the Computer published, this would be the perfect topic for my next book.  Now all I need to do is find a willing publisher…


Only One More to Go

I’ve finally completed Chapter 12 of my book (Bringing It All Together – The Graphics Workstation), which leaves only one more chapter left to write.   As the title suggests, Chapter 12 covers the development of the graphics workstation from the earliest efforts to create a high performance personal computer system for scientific and technical applications at MIT in the 1960s to the establishment of a commercial market for graphics workstations by companies such as Apollo Computer and Sun Microsystems in the early 1980s, and the subsequent adoption of workstation technology by Apple for the Macintosh.  It also includes Networking, an important building block which led to the creation of the global system of interconnected computers that we now call the Internet.

Apple MacintoshWeighing in at nearly 25,000 words, Chapter 12 is the longest chapter in the book and writing it took me 5 months longer than I’d originally estimated.  The main reason for this was the dearth of source material on this subject.  Unlike other areas of computer history, the development of the graphics workstation is not well documented so I had to conduct more research for this chapter than with previous chapters.  I also wanted to describe the contribution of Xerox PARC in some detail, as this was where so much of the graphical user interface technology we now take for granted originated.

The final chapter of the book will cover the development of Microsoft Windows and the emergence of the so-called ‘Wintel’ platform as the dominant platform for personal computing from the mid 1990s onwards.  Given the copious amounts of source material available on this topic, the research required should take less time than for Chapter 12 so I’ve set myself an ambitious target date for completion of 31 July this year.  I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Are References Necessary in Non-Fiction Books?

A few people have asked me if I intend to include references in my book.  References are common in non-fiction books and usually take the form of a superscript number at the end of a sentence which links to a numbered list at the foot of the page, end of the chapter or back of the book containing the references to the source material.

Personally, I find references of this kind very annoying when reading a book.  They are difficult to ignore but severely interrupt the flow of the text when followed.  I appreciate that they are necessary for academic publications, but are they really necessary for books aimed at a more general readership?  Few non-academic readers will want to check out a reference and those who do can easily look it up on the Web.  References shouldn’t be required in order to support the author’s credibility, as the publisher will have made sure that the author knows his or her subject thoroughly before agreeing to publish the book in the first place.

If you look at the sample chapters of my own book, you will see that I’ve taken a slightly different approach.  At the end of each chapter there is a section entitled Further Reading which lists a selection of the source material for that chapter plus any related publications which may be of interest.  Any readers who want to delve deeper into the subject can do so by obtaining copies of this material, much of which can be found on the Web.

Of course, a publisher may take a different view and insist that I include full references for every scrap of source material used in the book.  I hope this won’t be the case but I guess it would be a small price to pay for the privilege of having my book published!

The Self-Publishing Dilemma

Progress on my book has been slow but steady over the past few months with the result that Chapter 12 is now nearing completion.  That leaves only one more chapter remaining plus some tidying up to be done as a result of writing several chapters out of sequence, so I’ve been thinking recently about what to do with the book once it is finished.  The feedback I’ve received on the sample chapters suggests that there is a market for such a book, but what would be the best way of reaching this market?

There appear to be three options available.  These are (in descending order of difficulty):-

  1. Securing a publishing deal with a book publisher.
  2. Self-publishing the book.
  3. Putting the entire book up on the Web as a free download.

With the first two options, there is also a decision to be made on whether to go for a traditional printed book or an eBook, or possibly both.  A book on a technology-related subject may be more attractive as an eBook given that people who are interested in reading about technology are also likely to be keen users of technology.  However, I’d like to include plenty of illustrations in my book and there are currently issues with the use of illustrations in eBooks due to the way in which eBook readers dynamically reformat the pages in order to accommodate different display screen resolutions.

Given my chances of landing a publishing deal with no track record whatsoever, I’m tempted to go down the self-publishing route.  However, to do this properly will involve considerable time and expense, with little prospect of a return on this investment as my book is likely to be lost amongst the competition unless I can find a way of getting it noticed.  Unfortunately, the level of competition is formidable, with more than 2 million eBooks currently available in the Amazon Kindle store alone.

The Web is awash with sites offering advice for unpublished authors, but most of these focus on fiction rather than non-fiction and the two categories are sufficiently different that much of the advice does not apply.  Therefore, if there are any non-fiction authors out there who would be willing to share their publishing experiences, good or bad, I would be keen to hear from you.

Of course, I don’t need to make a decision on this anytime soon.  With a busy day job and other commitments, it’s likely to take me some time to complete the book.  The later chapters have taken longer to write due to the larger amounts of primary source material to digest, so on this basis I probably have another 9 months or so before I’ll actually have something worth publishing.

Sample Chapter Added

I’ve now added a sample chapter from the book in PDF format which can be accessed by clicking on the Download button on the ‘Sample Chapter’ page. I chose Chapter 1 (Computer Prehistory – Calculating Machines) as, unlike later chapters, it doesn’t rely on other chapters to set the scene and can be read as a standalone work.

As the title suggests, this chapter covers the earliest efforts to mechanise calculation, from the calculating aids of John Napier through the mechanical calculators of Schickard, Pascal and Leibniz to the incredible engines of Charles Babbage.  To put these into context and provide a more rounded picture, it also covers the advances in engineering technology or ‘building blocks’ which facilitated the development of such machines.

Like many good stories, there are also elements of mystery. These include the discovery of a mysterious object in an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900, which changed our perception of mechanical technology in the ancient world, and the role of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, who may or may not have been responsible for the first design for a calculating machine.

Feedback would be much appreciated but please note that the text has not yet benefited from the attention of a professional editor so don’t be too surprised if you spot the occasional typo or grammatical howler.