Advice Wanted for Book Writing/Publishing

  • #1
BillTre
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I have been interested in writing a book for a while and recently got to talk with a book agent to get some understanding of how publishing might work for me in my specific case. This has caused me to rethink some things.

The book I want to write is about what it means to biology if you approach living things as autopoietic chemical systems. As conceived now, it would include many color line diagrams. There are lots of cool implications that have not yet been well explored in a coordinated way. It relates nicely to origin of life issues and has metaphysical implications (natural units and their meaning on an evolutionary context).

The agent had several things to say:
  1. My style is kind of curt, academic, and technical. I'm not too surprised, especially since they wanted big summarizes in few words. Kind of forces curtness. And academic is what I have written before.
  2. I have a lot of color line diagrams I have made. This would increase cost and limit the places that it could be published.
    Unlikely for traditional print (non-academic presses).
    Won't work for certain kindle formats.
    Won't work for audio books if the pictures are important for comprehension.
    These are financial considerations of publishers. They want as much money as they can get.
  3. #1 and #2 would make it not commercially viable for large publication runs of print books.
  4. Publishers don't like publishing things if you have already put them on a website.
    This affects my plan to make a website and post book related stuff as I am writing it to "build a platform" for publicizing the book when it is done. Basically build an e-mail list to for publicizing the book. Publishers do like a big platform.
Since I consider the color diagrams I have made important to conveying the meaning I want to keep them. I think of this as somewhat like an extended slide talk.

My primary consideration is to get these ideas out in an easily understood manner (thus pictures) that non-specialists or popular readers could understand. This may make it more like a biology textbook (lots of color pictures). Making money would be nice, but it is a kind of niche subject, so that is not really an expectation.
Wide distribution would be helpful in getting eyeballs on the books to better disperse the ideas.

The agent mentioned academic publishers (often no agent needed) as a possible alternative. Apparently some of they have both specialized publications (like monographs on insect development) and publications for wider audiences. I don't know much about these yet.

Self-publishing some kind of E-book might be the best way to go (some self-publishing can also do print books). There are a lot of formats, some don't do color diagrams and I'm not sure small screens would do well with all my diagrams.
Perhaps a pdf, it should do fine on a big screen (and I could include links too👍).
Squeezing big pictures onto too small screens seems problematic to me.
 
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  • #2
BillTre said:
I have been interested in writing a book for a while and recently got to talk with a book agent to get some understanding of how publishing might work for me in my specific case. This has caused me to rethink some things.

The book I want to write is about what it means to biology if you approach living things as autopoietic chemical systems. As conceived now, it would include many color line diagrams. There are lots of cool implications that have not yet been well explored in a coordinated way. It relates nicely to origin of life issues and has metaphysical implications (natural units and their meaning on an evolutionary context).

The agent had several things to say:
  1. My style is kind of curt, academic, and technical. I'm not too surprised, especially since they wanted big summarizes in few words. Kind of forces curtness. And academic is what I have written before.
  2. I have a lot of color line diagrams I have made. This would increase cost and limit the places that it could be published.
    Unlikely for traditional print (non-academic presses).
    Won't work for certain kindle formats.
    Won't work for audio books if the pictures are important for comprehension.
    These are financial considerations of publishers. They want as much money as they can get.
  3. #1 and #2 would make it not commercially viable for large publication runs of print books.
  4. Publishers don't like publishing things if you have already put them on a website.
    This affects my plan to make a website and post book related stuff as I am writing it to "build a platform" for publicizing the book when it is done. Basically build an e-mail list to for publicizing the book. Publishers do like a big platform.
Since I consider the color diagrams I have made important to conveying the meaning I want to keep them. I think of this as somewhat like an extended slide talk.

My primary consideration is to get these ideas out in an easily understood manner (thus pictures) that non-specialists or popular readers could understand. This may make it more like a biology textbook (lots of color pictures). Making money would be nice, but it is a kind of niche subject, so that is not really an expectation.
Wide distribution would be helpful in getting eyeballs on the books to better disperse the ideas.

The agent mentioned academic publishers (often no agent needed) as a possible alternative. Apparently some of they have both specialized publications (like monographs on insect development) and publications for wider audiences. I don't know much about these yet.

Self-publishing some kind of E-book might be the best way to go (some self-publishing can also do print books). There are a lot of formats, some don't do color diagrams and I'm not sure small screens would do well with all my diagrams.
Perhaps a pdf, it should do fine on a big screen (and I could include links too👍).
Squeezing big pictures onto too small screens seems problematic to me.

First off let me note this.
The term autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-) 'self', and ποίησις (poiesis) 'creation, production') refers to a system capable of producing and maintaining itself by creating its own parts.

This is pretty much the definition of a living system. Viruses are not autopoiesetic so they are not considered to be alive. Surely you know this so I'll assume that you mean you are focusing on this aspect of living systems.

That being said, I'll share my limited experience with publishing. I know two people who have been published. It seems to me that the way they got that to happen was by shmoozing the publisher. One of them was the daughter of a man very famous and powerful in New York City, very charming and social, holds great parties there in NYC. That didn't hurt. I think this is the way it is really done.

My friends told me, your writing is really good, you should try to get published. I looked at the submission guidelines for publishers of fiction. They were so onerous and silly I said to myself, I'm not going to play this humiliating and absurd game. So I didn't. There are too many writers of fiction already.

Later though I came up with something non-fictional that is unique. That was motivating. If I didn't write this stuff down it would be lost, and that would be a shame. Very few people would be interested in such a specialized topic, but I felt certain that those few would find it good. Obviously non-commercial, so I didn't put one second into trying to get it published. I wrote my own book, hired artists, and made it exactly the way I wanted to make it. I put the book on a free website in pdf and Word formats.

There is an Internet forum for this esoteric topic so I was able to direct readers to the free text. This little forum has at most a hundred casual readers and maybe two others besides me who are really interested. One of those two read it and gave it the thumbs up, so I've been peer reviewed! Success. Others may have read it but they were mum so I don't know how many or what they thought. The free site told me hundreds had read it but I felt this included those who had glanced at it for one second so that wasn't exciting. Did anyone get past the first page. Maybe. Maybe not. I just don't know. This lack of feedback is deflating.

There are all sorts of formats. One of my cousins said that he wouldn't read it unless it was on paper. You can hire a service that converts to all these formats and posts your book to the various web sites. I decided that pdf and Word was enough. If the reader doesn't like it that's just too bad for them. I don't have enough of an audience to make the hassle and expense worth while.

I wrote the book to be accessible as was possible with such an esoteric subject and was planning to advertise it. I'd put it up for sale for $9.95 and recycle any income into more advertising. The goal was to get enough readers (one hundred?) so that the book would get a life of its own and wouldn't be forgotten. Also I figured if the book is on sale for money the selling website will never delete it. Free websites can't be trusted like that.

There IS some popular interest in the subject. This is evidenced by the success of Flatland, a much more basic book on the same topic. It's been in print for over a hundred years and shows no sign of slowing down. My book is a much more advanced, 21st century treatment. More advanced books are always less popular but there must be some audience. My book would also be very suitable for modern targeted advertising. Just direct said advertising to purchasers of Flatland. Easy. But I hate advertising. I couldn't bring myself to create advertising myself and wasn't willing or trusting enough to hire anyone else to do it. I also boycott Amazon, the dominant outlet. So to heck with it. That was the end of my plan. I did once have ChatGPT come up with a blurb. It did a great job, for free! But I still haven't taken it any further. The ad has to direct the reader to a website that extolls the book is and I'm not willing to produce that.

I do get satisfaction out of having done a good job on the project and gotten the approval of my peer. Self publishing online also has the major advantage that if you want to revise the book you just go ahead and do it. Can't do that with print.

I've put some tidbits from the book into the science fiction section of PhysicsForums. It's not science fiction -- there are no characters, no story -- it's fictional science. Rigorous science of a fictional world. I got approval for that too. That's nice.
 
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  • #3
Hornbein said:
First off let me note this.
(Uncopied quote about autopoiesis here)
This is pretty much the definition of a living system.
Yes! But many don't think about this.
Hornbein said:
Viruses are not autopoiesetic so they are not considered to be alive. Surely you know this so I'll assume that you mean you are focusing on this aspect of living systems.
That is one of several aspects.
WRT viruses, if you think of life as a process (or a system) then you could consider viruses as alive when inside a cell doing their own autopoietic process, but not alive when they are inertly drifting around outside of any cell.

Your writing attitude sounds kind of like mine now.

I have been reading about self-publishing.
One hint was to get a well know person to review your book and then get it publicized in some way on the web. Maybe some mathematician based on your description.
Another was to post things on your website, get feedback and attract followers. The great example of this approach would be Andy Weir writing The Martian. It became so successful with that approach that big publishers and movie producers came after him. Of course the writing was very good.
 
  • #4
BillTre said:
I have been reading about self-publishing.
One hint was to get a well know person to review your book and then get it publicized in some way on the web. Maybe some mathematician based on your description.

I tried to do that. I got the impression that mathematicians are often approached by crackpots. So much so that anyone trying to get them to look at stuff is treated like poison. They can't afford to waste their time on such.

The whole blurb business is incestuous and corrupt. I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine. I don't want to have anything to do with such things.

Books are funny. The purchase price is often almost nothing. The true cost is the time spent reading the thing when the reader could be doing anything else. My book is brief but packed with unintuitive ideas so reading it would be no small investment for people unfamiliar with the stuff. It is no coincidence that my one reader was one of the other two who work with this. They already understood it so for them reading wasn't a big deal.

BillTre said:
Another was to post things on your website, get feedback and attract followers. The great example of this approach would be Andy Weir writing The Martian. It became so successful with that approach that big publishers and movie producers came after him. Of course the writing was very good.

Having a website is like throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean (something I have actually done). There are already billions of websites. I don't know how Andy Weir did it. It seems wise to study his example. By the way, this shows the hypocrisy of the publishing system. They say that they require exclusive access to your manuscript. But if you self-publish and it becomes popular then they'll fall over themselves to get you to sign up. Pshaw.

Your approach sounds quite visual so you might consider making a video instead. The trend there is up while books are going down. Though you usually can't get Youtube to direct their viewers to anything that is novel. I expect you'd have to figure out a way to get viewers yourself. In general the Internet is not what it was. Back in 2017 my novel stuff routinely got maybe 500 views on Youtube. Now it's usually more like 2. Frequently it's zero. It's discouraging but I mostly do it as backup storage so what the heck. On the other hand DNA is a popular topic, it's not as left field as what I do, so you have a reasonable chance. It might work. Youtube works mostly on keyword match. Test the waters by making a simple video, put popular keywords in the title, and give it a go. If it works, great, you can build on it, if it flops you haven't lost much. I've learned that this is the attitude of successful businessmen. Youtube pays pretty much nothing but now allows you to promote your own work. The vid could direct viewers to the book.
 
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  • #5
Some thoughts:

(1) Who is your audience? How many books do you hope to sell?
(2) Even if you aren't in it for the money, your publisher is. She has a family to feed.
(3) Color printing is extraordinarily expensive. Typically a factor of ~5, (It goes through the process four times) or more. Books are offset printed in "signatures" of 16 (often, although other numbers can be used) pages. Reducing the number of signatures saves money, and printing color on just one side saves money. That would be, for example, pages 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 16.
So color on pages 8 and 9 is cheap(er) but 1 and 2 is (more) expensive.
(4) Have you considered enclosing a CD-ROM with each copy for the pictures? That will cost you mayve 60 cents each (in quantities of 1000)
 
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  • #6
Hornbein said:
I tried to do that. I got the impression that mathematicians are often approached by crackpots. So much so that anyone trying to get them to look at stuff is treated like poison. They can't afford to waste their time on such.
I have had some similar experiences with some of the faculty I know. In any case if they don't already have some interest in it, they are too busy.

Hornbein said:
The whole blurb business is incestuous and corrupt. I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine. I don't want to have anything to do with such things.
There actualy websites where you can trade reviews with people.

Hornbein said:
Having a website is like throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean (something I have actually done). There are already billions of websites. I don't know how Andy Weir did it. It seems wise to study his example. By the way, this shows the hypocrisy of the publishing system. They say that they require exclusive access to your manuscript. But if you self-publish and it becomes popular then they'll fall over themselves to get you to sign up. Pshaw.
You have to work at driving traffic to your website. It would then have a chance to snowball if people liked it. Good SEO would help it show up in searches.
The agent I talked with said several times that to publishers is all about the money. He was appolgetic but that's the way it is. Agents are the gateways to the big publishers who don't want to deal with all the millions who want to get published.

Hornbein said:
Your approach sounds quite visual so you might consider making a video instead.
Or Instagram perhaps. I have actually made some videos but don't like them.
I have done a couple fo talks a meeting, but one was online and didn't get a lot of traffic, the other was a small general biology meeting with people interested in other stuff.
 
  • #7
Vanadium 50 said:
Some thoughts:

(1) Who is your audience? How many books do you hope to sell?
I have had a lot of trouble trying to put any numbers on this I would have any confidence in. I would taken upper limit at successful books on similar subjects. Lower limit could be quite low, but not desired.

Vanadium 50 said:
(3) Color printing is extraordinarily expensive. Typically a factor of ~5, (It goes through the process four times) or more. Books are offset printed in "signatures" of 16 (often, although other numbers can be used) pages. Reducing the number of signatures saves money, and printing color on just one side saves money. That would be, for example, pages 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 16.
So color on pages 8 and 9 is cheap(er) but 1 and 2 is (more) expensive.
This is interesting stuff I never thought of!
Vanadium 50 said:
(4) Have you considered enclosing a CD-ROM with each copy for the pictures? That will cost you maybe 60 cents each (in quantities of 1000)
Its been a while since I've seen a CD in a book, but that is possible. Alternatively, I was thinking of links in the book, but this would only work for e-books unless they were QR codes.
 
  • #8
BillTre said:
There actualy websites where you can trade reviews with people.
First off, reviews aren't the same as blurbs. That being said, I did that and found it to be bogus. What happens is that most people don't want to write reviews so the website forces them to do it. What you get is phony reviews where the reader skimmed your paper. It may say something that is totally wrong, proving that they haven't read it. Even if they are sincere, it doesn't mean what they write is insightful and useful. I don't recall that it ever was.

There were two web sites where I did this. The first one everybody liked stuff I thought was junk and disliked what I deemed good. Eventually I figured out the true criterion was this : if it was similar to the style of Steven King then they liked it, else not. I had once written a sordid short story coincidentally similar to the style of Steven King. They thought that was great. I wasn't going to write any more sordid stuff so I got out of there.

The second site I found everything to be amateur, stuff that might get an A in a high school composition class. I had nothing good to say about anything so I wouldn't review anything. I got in trouble for that. I gave it up as useless.

Once I had somebody rewrite a little thing I'd done in a more popular style. It was like looking at something grotesquely reflected in a funhouse mirror. I was appalled. Another time I got fed up and purposely wrote as trashily as I could. Someone thought it was so good they continued the story themselves. I thought, "I have created a monster." None of these people were making any money and I was pretty sure they never would, so what value has their advise got. I got out of all Internet writers groups and never went back.
 
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  • #9
Hornbein said:
There IS some popular interest in the subject. This is evidenced by the success of Flatland, a much more basic book on the same topic. It's been in print for over a hundred years and shows no sign of slowing down. My book is a much more advanced, 21st century treatment.
I really enjoyed Edwin Abbott Abbott's novel "Flatland". So much so that I read some of his other pubs when I was studing mathematics.

Many authors have used Abbott Abbott as a treatment for fiction and textbooks including university professor turned SF author Rudy Rucker von Bitter. His novel "Spaceland" set in Los Gatos, California, replaces Abott Abott's main charecter A. Square with hotshot entrepreneur Joe Cube. Multidimensional hilarity ensues.

Rucker has also published math related non-fiction books and IMS a guide to help new writers become published.
 
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  • #10
Klystron said:
I really enjoyed Edwin Abbott Abbott's novel "Flatland". So much so that I read some of his other pubs when I was studing mathematics.

Many authors have used Abbott Abbott as a treatment for fiction and textbooks including university professor turned SF author Rudy Rucker von Bitter. His novel "Spaceland" set in Los Gatos, California, replaces Abott Abott's main charecter A. Square with hotshot entrepreneur Joe Cube. Multidimensional hilarity ensues.

Rucker has also published math related non-fiction books and IMS a guide to help new writers become published.
Yep, there IS a market. A very stable and persistent market.

I checked out Rucker's Youtube vids. The commenters universally said that his writing was terrible. But in order to have hundreds of people denounce your writing as terrible you have to be pretty popular, yes? So Rucker was playing a winning hand. Good for him. I found his physics superficial (physics is not the same as math) but readers can't tell the difference and don't care anyway so this doesn't matter. His books are lively and fun to read so he has success. Good for him again, I'm always happy for people who succeed in challenging fields. My stuffy correctness and disdain for story wasn't going to win me a lot of love but that's what I want to do so there you go. I suppose my target market may be kids bound for Cal Tech or MIT who want geometry more challenging than what their school may offer them, or bored engineers looking for intellectual stimulation in their leisure time. Not a big cohort but not zero either, yes?
 
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  • #11
Problem is not with writing and publishing, problem is in getting audience/marketing.

Selfpublishing these days is trivial - basically if you have pdf, they'll print it in any number of copies (sure, there are things to consider). Just remember there is plenty of services offering help, but at least some of them are there to rip you off pretending they are helping, so you need to be careful.

But typical situation is you selfpublished your book and it was read by your mom, aunt and two close friends. Perhaps some people on the forum that you frequent - other than that, nobody.
 
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  • #12
Vanadium 50 said:
(4) Have you considered enclosing a CD-ROM with each copy for the pictures? That will cost you mayve 60 cents each (in quantities of 1000)

CD/DVD drive is getting obsolete, quick check suggests just around 14% laptops offered have it (and mobile devices don't have them at all).
 
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  • #13
Borek said:
CD/DVD drive is getting obsolete
Then he better get a move on it. :smile:

Flash drives are several times more expensive. Maybe this matters. Maybe it doesn't. That's why I asked my first question - it makes a difference if we are talking 5 copies, 5000 or 5 million.
 
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  • #14
Howdy @Hornbein To paraphrase recent comments on double negatives: I do not disagree with your critique. However:

"Spaceland" and other von Bitter novels such as "Mathematicians in Love" are funny. Certainly not profound. The physics in just about all SF is egregious to laughable. Humor makes up for lack of scientific rigor in my book.

Locality and immediacy assist Rudy's rather weak narratives. I have stood on the porch of the vintage house in Los Gatos where Joe Cube applies fish-rake-cake-teapot 'theory' to solve a knotty software/hardware interface project. I have banked at the bank on Santa Cruz Avenue that Joe robs via the fourth dimension to fund their venture. I have surfed the gnarly waves where the eponymous "Mathematicians" lose and find their love. Use what surrounds you (or make it up).

Naturally, you do not need to emulate Dr. Suess's "Cat in the Hat" as an allegory for nested functions but realize these are esentially novels and non-fiction primers for children. Grown children with discretionary spending, perhaps, yet Rucker remains popular by retaining a childlike awe for mathematics. Your 'kids' comment is spot on.
 
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  • #15
Klystron said:
Naturally, you do not need to emulate Dr. Suess's "Cat in the Hat" as an allegory for nested function
What? Next you will be saying Marjorie Flack's The Story About Ping is not an allegory for the ICMP Protocol.
 
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  • #16
Vanadium 50 said:
What? Next you will be saying Marjorie Flack's The Story About Ping is not an allegory for the ICMP Protocol.
Your comment makes litttle sense to me. The "ping" associated with ICMP derives from sonar, not children's literature.

The OP asked for advice on updating "Flatland" for modern audiences. I suggest "Spaceland" by Rucker as an example of a popular (by sales) modern updating of "Flatland". We were evaluating target audiences for similar books. Rucker uses Dr. Suess references as allegory for engineering principles in this satire.
 
  • #17
I would guess a possible target number of sales would be 100's o 1,000s of copies, but In tend to be optimistic. On the other hand, higher numbers would not be too surprising to me.

In electronic media I would probably do something like links in the text of needed (but color pictures should be possible in PDFs.
In print (lacking color pictures), I would think QR codes would require the least from a reader with internet access. However, this would break the flow of reading (switch device to scan code and look at picture) and therefore not optimal.
In audio books, another option publishers think about, I have no idea how it could be done in an easy way.
 
  • #18
Vanadium 50 said:
Flash drives are several times more expensive.

Plus people are afraid of them, as they are a known vector for spreading trojans/viruses etc. (not to mention things like USB killer). People are even afraid of video games that emulate attaching flash drives.

This is a constant problem I see since I published The USB Stick Found in the Grass (which was a real USB stick in the first version, and VHD file mounted under Windows in the Steam version). If I got a buck every time someone accuses me of malicious intentions I would probably made more than I got from sales :biggrin:

This is a serious problem problem now, the easiest way is to post files on some dedicated website (or thing like google drive), other means that I would consider "normal" several years ago are less and less viable.
 
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  • #19
Do you need any assistance with those diagrams?
 
  • #20
DaveC426913 said:
Do you need any assistance with those diagrams?
Who me?
What do you have in mind?

Generally, I'm fine making diagrams. I have probably a few hundred.
Almost all are vector drawn diagrams of some kind or other. I suppose I could use some photos in places, but no real plans for it right now.
In the past I've used vector drawn overlays on photos, which can be instructive in the juxtaposition of diagram on a more real representation.

One constant issue is making understandable picture of a concept that is not normally presented visually. Requires new visual concepts.

My current issues are just making a publication with color diagrams and getting them widely and easily distributed, probably via PDFs of links of some kind to web hosted pictures for print.
 
  • #21
Here is a thought I just had about electronic publishing.

There versions like most PDFs that present pages in a static way to readers. The pages always look the same.
There are also reflow formats that are made to put the same text on different sized screens, to fit different mobile devices.

It a book were to have an index, would that even work in a reflowing format? The index would have to be reassembled each time the text is reformatted for different devices or if the font size is altered for readability purposes.
 
  • #22
BillTre said:
It a book were to have an index, would that even work in a reflowing format? The index would have to be reassembled each time the text is reformatted for different devices or if the font size is altered for readability purposes.
In an electronic document, you don't need a page number, you need a link that you can click.
 
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  • #23
BillTre said:
What do you have in mind?
I like making diagrams as a hobby.

But it sounds like you've got it handled.
 
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  • #24
DaveC426913 said:
I like making diagrams as a hobby.

But it sounds like you've got it handled.
When I get more organized about this I would be interested in what ideas you might for particular purposes.
I like making them too. Also kid of a hobby, but applied to particular purposes here.
I often make them to better understand things.
In some ways words are like a second language for me.
 
  • #25
BillTre said:
Here is a thought I just had about electronic publishing.

There versions like most PDFs that present pages in a static way to readers. The pages always look the same.
There are also reflow formats that are made to put the same text on different sized screens, to fit different mobile devices.

It a book were to have an index, would that even work in a reflowing format? The index would have to be reassembled each time the text is reformatted for different devices or if the font size is altered for readability purposes.

A major advantage of an electronic book is that an index is superfluous. Just use search. It's such an advantage that even if I already have a paper book I would like to have an ebook too for this reason.
 
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  • #26
Hornbein said:
Having a website is like throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean (something I have actually done). There are already billions of websites. I don't know how Andy Weir did it. It seems wise to study his example.

Just to follow up on this, I thought I would post this video I just found of Andy Weir explaining his interesting Martian journey:

 

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