Sam. Johnson famously observed that only a blockhead would write for no money. He might also have said that only a fool tries to self-publish; a sad fool if it’s poetry. So, foolishly, I’ve been looking for a better way to distribute my newer recordings of Don Juan so that they’ll be accessible for more people and, I hope, more visible.
I used to make my recordings available to Librivox.org. But I don’t like their insistence on branding the recordings to themselves and their indifference to marketing. I have no present intention of charging for these recordings but I no longer have any intention, either, of placing them in the public domain. The effect of doing so is to loose all control of the distribution and quality. Fortunately, so far, the re-publishers of whom I’m aware – YouTube and other streaming sites – have not bothered to change anything; only putting a ‘cover’ on the recording.
The sound and the sense
Besides, I am equally interested in both the sound and the text of the poem. The narration is only a performance of the poem; fleeting, a figment. Of course it’s supposed to sound as Byron may have wished it to sound. He must have had some sound in mind, or why bother with the demanding constraints of ottawa rima? He certainly chose words in part for their metre and sound and the narration must convey this music. But Byron chose among themes and expressions for reasons the narration can barely hint at, and never fully capture.
You need the text for that; and even commentary on the text. Does that ruin it for my listeners?
I hope the opposite might be true. Don Juan is great entertainment, but it is still more fun when you understand the jests, satirical barbs, personal confessions and evasions and that, today, are no longer evident on the surface that narration skims. For his contemporaries, the poem contained so many provocations that John Murray could bring himself to publish only the first five Cantos of the greatest comic epic in English and then anonymously. It is a great pity to miss out on them.
Byron brings to his greatest work a classical education and a sense of his social environment that is now antique, although combined with elements that were radical for his time. Too, he has a fascinating personal history — somewhat obscured by a rakish, romanticised reputation — and a fascination with his own psychology as an author that is entirely modern. Alas, only notes on the text can give every punch-line the weight it deserves or reveal where Byron pulls a punch to save himself some pain.
Publishing and distributing my own narrations and texts, however, needs an economic and easily accessible channel to readers and listeners. One upon a time I might have considered, for example, including a sound recording on CD with a printed book. (If you purchased any of those huge computer-related tomes popular in the 1990s you will remember the format; the plastic CD sleeve pasted in the back cover.) But the Internet has made that formula expensive and nearly obsolete. The assault of music-streaming means fewer people bother to own a CD player. Besides, only big publishers and big stores can now provide a book+CD distribution network. It would still be possible to combine print and audio with an on-line ‘companion site’ for the printed book. I may go in that direction one day. But, as of now, the market for my narration is too small to warrant it and my annotated texts are only an experiment. So digital distribution is likely to remain my choice if only for economic reasons.
Which digital format, then? I’ve tried only one, so far: ePub. Specifically, a form of ePub defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum as ePub 3.1 that provides for a standard ‘audio overlay’ format for the ePub text. When I published Canto I of Don Juan in September 2012 only Apple iBooks fully implemented this format but – as is inevitable with Apple – using some proprietary extensions. Unless you have a Mac or iPhone, iPad (or a later iPod) you will have trouble playing it.
Slowly, other companies are producing software capable of playing the ‘page-by-page’ overlay; more or less accurately.
On a Mac or PC the Adobe Digital Editions software (version 4.0) or, on the iPad, IPhone and Android platforms the Menestrello app will play the iBook ePub while doing different kinds of damage to the presentation.
Still better than both of these, at present, is the Readium plugin for the Google Chrome browser. If you download the free ePub of Canto 1 from the Apple iBook Store (use this iTunes link) and save it to your local disk, you should be able to import it into Readium with acceptable results.
PDF with embedded audio
What about other formats for text + audio?
Adobe has released a sort of ‘slide presentation’ format based on their Adobe Air (ShockWave-replacement) platform. I’ve made a short Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan with some verse extracts. But Voice files are huge; Adobe evidently intends that they be brief (~1 min.) presentations streamed from Adobe’s own cloud. Not really an option for Don Juan.
There is, too, a (chiefly) Adobe means of embedding audio in a PDF file. Now it happens that PDF is probably my favoured format for distribution of an annotated text. As a page description language, PDF provides strong control over layout, ensuring that what I devise appears in just that form on every platform that displays PDF (there are dozens of these). Furthermore, PDF is a ‘first class citizen’ in the Apple OSX equipment that I use. There are many editing platforms that natively output PDF using the facilities provided by the Apple operating system.
I do not however prefer Apple software to produce PDF. Instead, I use LaTeX (actually the LuaLaTeX engine) to produce PDF. This gives me a more consistent output, typographically superior to any of the WYSIWYG editors on OS X that produce Apple-flavoured PDF. It also allows me to use a low-level library (LaTeX macro) for embedding audio files in the PDF in such a way that they will play automatically, requiring no user configuration or intervention.
As an experiment I have embedded an extract from my earliest recording of Canto I of Don Juan (the first 36 verses) into an annotated text that I created sometime in 2010-11. Here is a link to the audio-PDF file. I have not optimised the images or the audio in this file so it’s 19 MB in size (a 2-3 minute download if you’re on a consumer-level DSL link to the Internet).
Please let me know whether this is a successful experiment in your opinion. I’d be grateful if you’d give me some feedback – even if only thumbs-up or down – on this format.
Still, I know that some of my listeners are not at all interested in reading the poem, much less notes on the poem. For them, the audio relieves them of the need to read it to themselves. They might like simply to listen, possibly to enjoy their imagined scenes. Or perhaps they like to have the distraction of listening while they do other, less imaginative, things like washing the dishes or commuting to work.
I am still thinking about how best to serve them.