Saturday, December 4, 2010

Guest Author Sunday: Judith Arnold's Adventures in Ebook Wonderland

As an unpublished novelist, I did not want to buy a computer. I’d been writing on a manual typewriter since I was a child, and I was convinced my muse lived somewhere inside the simple mechanics of that clunky machine. The mind-boggling technology of computers intimidated me. If I get one, I thought, I’ll never write another word.

But thanks to a lot of prodding and nagging from my husband, I did get a computer: an Osborne-1 with a 5” black-and-green monitor, WordStar software and no internal memory. A few weeks after buying the Osborne, I sold my first novel—the last novel I ever wrote on my beloved typewriter.

Fast-forward twenty-eight years. I’ve owned more computers than I can count, I’ve sold more than eighty-five novels, and my muse has proven a bit more flexible about her living arrangements than I’d expected. Yet I’m still a technophobe. I’m still boggled by all the high-tech stuff of computers. I still occasionally indulge in nostalgic daydreams about my slow, clumsy typewriter.

Which is why I find it quite amusing that I, of all people, am now publishing my own books in e-book format.

As I said, I’ve written more than eighty-five novels. Many of those books were widely read and well-loved when they were originally published, but they’ve been out of print and unavailable to readers for eons. Occasionally I’ll hear from a reader that she located an old Judith Arnold novel in a used bookstore or on her mother’s keeper shelf, but for the most part, my older books are years past their sell-by date. Unlike perishable foods, however, they don’t go bad. They just disappear.

A few years ago, I contacted my publisher and requested that the rights to those expired novels be returned to me. I had no idea what I’d do with the books, but I figured that if my publisher no longer had any use for them, I’d just as soon get the rights back to them. I’d like to say I was clairvoyant and sensed that a revolution was about to transform the practice of reading, but I had no such premonitions. I simply wanted my books back because my publisher wasn’t doing anything with them.

Well, lo and behold, the revolution has arrived! The Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, the Sony Reader and other e-readers have changed the way people buy, collect and consume books—and the way authors reach readers. With great trepidation and angst (I don’t do anything technological without great trepidation and angst) I decided to reissue some of my old, out-of-print books as e-books.

Can you say steep learning curve? Can you say aaaiiieee!? I feel like one of my absolute favorite literary heroines of all time, Lewis Carol’s Alice, wandering around in a Wonderland of jpeg cover art and filtered html text. My tab key must be ignored? I’m supposed to format italics this way? Do I upload or download? Aren’t they the same thing? I have read at least five different (and often contradictory) guides on how to format manuscripts for Amazon’s Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Store and Smashwords. And frankly, I’ve understood only about half of what these guides tell me to do.

But I’ve also reread the old books I’m formatting for sale as e-books, and...they’re good! They hold up. They did not go sour like out-of-date milk. Readers in the twenty-first century will enjoy them as much as readers in the twentieth century did.

So far, I’ve published as ebooks two novels which helped to cement my reputation years ago: Cry Uncle and Barefoot In the Grass. Cry Uncle is a comic romp about an arranged marriage between the heroine—a prim Seattle architect who’s trying to hide from a hit man, and the hero—a bartender-cum-slacker in Key West, Florida who needs a proper wife to convince the family court that he can provide a stable home for his orphaned niece, a maniacal five-year-old who goes by the name of Lizard. The story has suspense, sex, a touch of voodoo, and the irrepressible Lizard, who wears feathers in her hair and names her Barbie doll “Snoot.” For years after the book, which was at one time optioned by a film producer, was published, readers told me how much they enjoyed it. Yet it’s been out of print and unavailable for more than a decade.

Barefoot In the Grass was the first novel ever published by Harlequin Books to feature a heroine who’d had a mastectomy. It was included in RT Book Reviews’ list of the best romance novels of all time, and I received significantly more reader mail from that one novel than all my other books combined. I’ve heard from readers all around the world telling me that Barefoot In the Grass saved their lives, or gave them the courage to keep going. I’ve fielded countless requests for copies of the book from people whose sisters, cousins, mothers and BFF’s have been diagnosed with breast cancer. But my supply of the novel has dwindled to only a few copies; I can no longer provide the book to readers who need to read it. And it has been out of print in North America since shortly after it was published in 1996.

So I decided to start my excellent adventure in e-book publishing with those two novels. In addition to wrestling them into the proper (I hope!) format, I’ve updated them in minor ways. In Cry Uncle, the juke box in Joe’s bar no longer plays Madonna songs. (I was tempted to remove the juke box altogether, but it lent the joint a nice retro feel, so I left it standing in a dimly lit corner of the barroom. I did remove the pay phone from the back hall, though.) In Barefoot In the Grass, I allowed Beth, my brave, healing heroine, to dress a little more casually than she did back in 1996, when lawyers like her were expected to wear suits every day. I hired a talented graphic artist to design new covers for the books.

Then I uploaded both books to Amazon’s Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Store and Smashwords, which services an assortment of e-reading devices. The upload process was Not Fun. Each book took weeks to get from upload to bookstore, and I often found myself spewing words I don’t generally write in my books.

But I’ve done it. The books are back in print—or perhaps I should say, back in the new, technologically mind-boggling version of publication that used to be called print. Another out-of-print novel of mine, a RITA ® finalist titled Safe Harbor, is currently being processed by Kindle, Nook and Smashwords and will soon join Cry Uncle and Barefoot In the Grass in e-book land.

And I, the Queen of the Technophobes, did it. I brought two of my best novels back to life for new readers to discover and long-time readers to rediscover, with a third on the way and more to follow. I’d like to think that in time the trepidation and angst will fade away, but I doubt it. The thing is, I’m willing to face down my high-tech fears and phobias if it means that readers will once again be able to enjoy my out-of-print books.

Judith Arnold is the award-winning, bestselling author of more than eighty-five novels (after eighty, she stopped counting.) Married and the mother of two sons who know a whole lot more about gee-whiz high-tech stuff than she does, she lives in Massachusetts. You can learn more about her and her books—including links to buy her newly reissued ebooks—at her website:


  1. So true, this. A few friends from my writing group were blessed to have lunch with Sonny Brewer after his reading at Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, on Friday. (He was signing "Don't Quit Your Day Job," a wonderful new anthology that he edited.) We asked Sonny about his take on the whole eBook thing. He told us the story of an older woman in Fairhope (where he lives) who couldn't get her book published by traditional publishers but recently got it out there in eBook form. Sonny reminded us that books, that WORDS, will survive as technology and industry change, and we have to be ready for those changes and not fight them. Good post, Judith.

  2. I'm hearing more and more positive e-book stories. It seems the perfect avenue for out of print books. Congratulations to you for not only tackling the techno end of it, but for breathing new life into your wonderful books!

  3. I've been curious about Smashwords and others and wondered how easy it was to get a book published that way. It does sound like work, but it also sounds as if it's worth the effort. What a great way to please existing fans as well as to draw in new fans!

  4. Whoa. I'm still getting over the shock that you've written 85 novels! I don't think I've written 85 notes to the teacher or even 85 shopping lists. I'm so impressed. But then to go commando on the E-reader biz and do it in spite of your techno-fears, now I am very inspired! I'm so glad you wrote this post and am going to save it in my if-she-can-do-it-so-can-I file.

    Continued success for you Judith. You deserve to be rediscovered!!!!

  5. Fantastic news, Judith. As a fellow anti-techno queen, I can affirm that the e-revolution has begun. Right now, I have no less than 4 novels on the Kindle app for my cell phone. Who'd a thunk it?

    Looking forward to sampling your "vintage" reads.

  6. Good for you!!! IT's a brave new world out there, and you are so smart to be part of it!