Pub Ex Machina: The Revolution Will Be Digitized

Mark Z. Danielewski

From Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword.

From Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword.

From Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword.

A look at the ebook conversion process of one of America’s most trailblazing authors.

This article will appear in the January issue of Book Business.

Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of mind-bending, paradigm-busting works House of Leaves and Only Revolutions, has made a career of turning the novel on its head. So it should come as no surprise that he’s attempting the same with ebooks.

The digital version of the Los Angeles-based author’s The Fifty Year Sword (Pantheon)—which in print features elaborate stitched illustrations—came out late last year and is neither a print replica nor a reflowable document. Rather, the fixed-layout epub takes the fastidiously constructed ghost story for grownups to another level, incorporating an original score and a collection of text effects that are triggered as the reader turns pages .
“I was in many ways the art director and [ebook producer] Lillian Sullam was the technical director,” says Danielewski on the phone from Los Angeles.

The author takes a very hands-on approach to the design of his books, which is why he was intimately involved in converting The Fifty Year Sword, the first of his books to be rendered digitally.

“My role was to take what I had designed in InDesign, [and] things as crude as paper and thread, and help transfer all of that to a format that seemed amenable to an ebook format, and then to actually begin to deepen that experience. Lillian and I worked very closely. I’d suggest possibilities for a certain sequence and we’d look at how that would resonate thematically while not being an example of using one too many tricks.”

Danielewski points to a passage about a “valley of salt” where words become blurred, and a forest of falling notes where letters and words disintegrate. “Not only does it literalize the theme,” he says, “it creates a sense of immediacy in the reader who is trying to get through the page before it dismantles in front of her eyes.”
The book’s original music, which is cued by specific page turns, was written by Danielewski’s friend Christopher O’Reilly, who’d composed the pieces for a staged shadow play of the story when the book was first published in limited Dutch release in 2005. “I’d got a grant to support Chris’ role [in the live performances]. It dawned on us: Why not use it for a score for the ebook?”

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