Surviving the Self Publishing Minefield

Last January I made a resolution. I declared that 2012 would be the year I finally got some of my work self-published in e-book format. In June I put one book (a short story) on Smashwords. For a variety of reasons, mostly my marketing failures, it did not do well once I set a price on it. However, I still wanted to keep my resolution. I was determined to do everything myself and spend as little as possible on the process. I am finally ready to launch two other books – another short story and a collection of three flashfics – on both Smashwords and Amazon. It has been a steep learning curve and I thought I would share the main aspects of it with you.

I have spent approximately six months researching and practising. I have read widely about the phenomenon of self-publishing. I have investigated the myths surrounding tax issues and ISBNs. I have wrestled with the great god Formatting. I have learnt how to construct a linked Table of Contents. I have grappled with new cover dimensions. I have explored and come to terms with Word10. It has been exhausting. I hope it has also been worthwhile.

I was amused to realise that learning all this has taken me longer than writing the three books in question. In one sense, of course, that is not true. I wrote the first of the three in 2005 and it has taken a long time to polish my work, to have real confidence in it and to decide to launch it on an unsuspecting world, a world that might well take little notice. But I have definitely spent more hours on the practicalities of publishing than I ever spent writing or editing. Thinking is harder to quantify, but the same probably applies.

So what have I learnt? I will summarise my new knowledge here and anyone who wants more detail on any of the issues is welcome to email me. I wish I’d had someone to guide me through the minefield. That isn’t to say that my friends haven’t helped; they have, enormously. That includes some of you. They have shared their findings, allowed me to use them as sounding boards (and occasionally to rant), and encouraged me. They have attended conferences and courses and passed on the notes. They have pointed me at websites, blogs and books. None of them had the full set of answers to my queries, and many of them subscribed to the ‘myths’. This is even true of Writing Magazine, which I tend to use as a handy reference guide. And I still have one query, which I will leave to the end.

1. Self-publishing. During the past year, the self-publishing industry has really taken off. Last Christmas was the first time people started talking about the way e-readers were taking over the reading public, and the traditional publishers started worrying. There will, I think, always be a place for traditional publishing, especially for reference books, art books, the books we call ‘coffee table books’, maps, some children’s picture books, some ‘comics’ and other publications that don’t lend themselves well to an e-reader, or even an iPad or laptop screen. But for the bulk of ordinary fiction, the e-reader is just fine. It is small enough to slip into a shoulder bag, or even a capacious pocket, it has a long battery life, it lets you carry a whole library of books on a journey or on holiday, and it suits the way people nowadays interact with the world. Most people are easily converted to using e-readers.

There are issues related to piracy and copyright that need to be solved, there are arguments over pricing structures and distribution, and there are other problems that will be dealt with and yet others that will arise. They shouldn’t worry the writer. The things the writer needs to worry about are writing and editing. The writing needs to be good if the book is to stand any chance against all the thousands of other books competing with it. The writing also needs to be well edited and proof read; readers are soon turned away by too many typos or misspellings, never mind other errors.

Self-publishing is no longer synonymous with vanity publishing. The stigma is disappearing very quickly as longstanding authors appreciate how much control they have over a self-published book, how much greater the royalties might be, and how long, in comparison with a printed book, their work remains available.The only thing the big publishers still offer is marketing, and I gather they don’t do a great deal of that. They also offer validation, but so do sales. So for the new writer, there is no reason not to try self publishing but I should stress that you need a good editor and beta reader to help you polish your work.

2. Tax Issues. I did a separate post about this when I got my EIN and was wildly excited. So many people told me I needed an ITIN which would have been costly and difficult. In the end, I got my EIN which exempts me from American tax, for the cost of a phone call to Philadelphia. I used Skype so the cost was negligible. Now all I have to do is download the W8-BEN form and send a completed and signed copy by snail-mail to Smashwords and to Amazon once I have actually sold some books. Again, postage to America. All told, the entire operation will probably have cost me less than £2.

3. ISBNs. Basically, you don’t need one for Amazon, which has its own internal numbering system, and you don’t need one for Smashwords. You do need one for some of the other retailers e.g. Apple, but if you distribute to them via Smashwords, Smashwords will very kindly provide you with a free ISBN – provided you click on the right box on your dashboard.

4. Formatting. This is much harder than tax or ISBNs though it doesn’t initially engender as much panic. You need:

The Smashwords Style Guide (free pdf)

Building your book for Kindle (free download; you can read it on Kindle for PC, also free)

Word. Yes, really. You can write in any program/word processor you like but you need a Word document for upload to Smashwords and Amazon. No exceptions.

Notepad This should be in your ‘accessories’.

Calibre. A free download that does a good job of converting things into e-book formats.

Patience. In really large quantities, probably accompanied by tea or coffee but preferably not alcohol as you will need all your wits about you and wish you had more – wits, that is.

Go through the guides, make sure you understand them, go through again and memorise as much as possible, go through again and make notes, and go through again just in case. Practise what you have learnt. Use text that doesn’t matter – I used some flashfics I was never going to publish. Add chapter headings, add italics, add a title, add anything you think you might want till you know the rules backwards. Use Calibre to convert your formatted text into ebook format and use either Kindle for PC or Adobe Digital Editions to check how things look. Learn from your mistakes and make notes. Then apply the rules to the text you do want to publish.

Something you need to learn quite early is that Amazon and Smashwords are not singing from the same hymn sheet. Most of the instructions are similar but the devil is in the details so don’t get over-confident. For both, however, it is worth applying what Smashwords call the ‘nuclear method’. Copy/paste your book into Notepad (which should be in your ‘accessories’) then copy/paste from Notepad into a fresh Word document that has had the formatting you want set up. This clears previous formatting and lets you start with a clean slate – invaluable. By fresh, I mean close Word down and open it again; don’t just start a new document.

Once you’ve done your best with the formatting you need to save two documents – well, more, because you need back-ups, but two types. For Smashwords you need a Word document in .doc format. For Amazon you have to save your text as a filtered web page. Make sure you get the right formatting saved in each kind… There are all sorts of pitfalls. Read your notes! Read the two guides again!

(If you’re considering selling your book from your own website, you still need to do all of this – then you can create a mobi version, an epub version, a pdf version and an html version – which should satisfy most needs.)

5.Table of Contents. You have to have one, even if you are publishing a single short story. You have to have a linked, navigable one. Why? Well, because e-books can have them, so retailers think they’re smart, so…  There are various options.

(i)Smashwords version.

If your work is a novel with standard chapters, you just give all your chapters the heading Chapter…. and Smashwords will create your ToC. You format your chapter titles using a heading style.

If your work doesn’t have chapters, maybe because it’s a short story or a collection of stories, you have to build the ToC yourself and this is as difficult as the initial formatting. You mustn’t use the heading style but have to creat a custom style for your headings.You use Word’s bookmarking and hyperlink functions and they can be seriously strange. Even when you’ve finished, your converted book (via Calibre) might show anomalies. This whole process is not for the faint hearted and has made me resolve never to write anything else that doesn’t have ordinary chapters.

There’s a minor query here. You are advised to add a link to your end notes ‘about the author’. I formatted the heading for that exactly the same as the stories I had put together, but in the final ToC the line ‘about the author’ insisted on centring itself even though all the rest of the ToC was left justified. I decided to leave well alone rather than risk having to do the whole thing again. Mystery…

(ii)Amazon version. You use the heading styles and then you use Word’s ToC generator, which you must not touch for Smashwords….

(If you’re selling from your own website you don’t have to go through all this but your readers might expect aToC so you could use either the bookmark method or the ToC method to produce one. Of course, they don’t work in pdf which has another system altogether but then any reader who buys a pdf isn’t going to expect a live ToC.)

6. Cover dimensions. Recently, both Smashwords and Amazon issued new guidelines about the size of the covers they expect. Smashwords have chosen to align themselves with the new standards set by Apple and by Barnes and Noble. Amazon just seem to be following the trend. The new sizes are approximately 1500×2500 pixels. Huge. The reasoning appears to be that as screens of all kinds get better and better the covers need higher resolution to look good. Whatever the logic  or necessity of this, new uploads have to follow the rules. There are a couple of problems. You might, like me, design your own covers, using your own photographs or free/cheap stock photographs and a cover generating service. You might use a cover artist and pay them to produce a design for you. Whichever route you used you might well have designed your cover or had it designed before the new rules came into being earlier this year. You or your artist might have been working while the editing and proof reading was going on. Or you might be issuing a new version of a book, with a new cover. The trouble is, your beautiful cover might have an original file source that is too small to look good in the new dimensions.

Smashwords warn against merely using a photo editing program to re-size because it can cause pixelation and a rough outcome. If you’ve paid an artist you might have to go back to them and pay them some more to fix things, which might be easy cheap) or difficult (expensive) depending on the originals they used. Or, if you did the work yourself, like me, you might have to spend a great deal of time… I even downloaded a trial version of a seriously posh and expensive editing suite which promised the earth and did not deliver anything better than I already had.

I use Photoshop  and Fireworks, and sometimes use online editing sites for special effects. I am a keen amateur ‘artist’ and enjoy designing covers, cards, icons, etc. I eventually found that if I used the filters in Photoshop I could end up with a re-sized picture that was slightly different from the original but which had no pixelation or strange halo effects round the fonts. That last point is quite important because not all fonts work well at larger sizes. There are a number of filter effects that work but the ones I liked best were mosaic tiles, and sandstone texture. In future I will make sure I start with a larger source picture and will only use filter effects for effects, not for hiding problems! The photo at the top of this post is taken from my bedroom window in Portugal, in autumn with vine leaves showing autumn colours, then the picture has been subjected to Photoshop’s ‘plastic wrap’ filter effect.

7. Word10. There are probably those amongst you who are perfectly happy with Word10. Spare a thought for someone whose computer crashed and who had to get used to Word10 overnight with lots of documents that were already written in Word 2003-2007, Open Office, or RoughDraft, and which had all undergone beta and editing and tranfer through different programs, different computers, and so on. I don’t normally write in Word because I like RoughDraft – I like its tab system, its notepad system, etc. etc. I don’t mind copy/pasting into Word once I’ve finished and of course Smashwords’ ‘nuclear method’ helps. However…

I have dealt successfully with almost everything but still have one serious glitch and would welcome advice.

Both Smashwords and Amazon advise writers to format fiction with Times New Roman 12pt,  indents at the start of paragraphs and no line space between paragraphs. Fine. In theory you can set normal style in Word10 to produce exactly this effect. It works, for new writing. But I can’t get it to work for anything that has been imported in block paragraph style from elsewhere. I get the first line indents and the correct font. The extra line spacing between paragraphs remains stubbornly in place. If I work in compatibility mode and use Word 2003-2007 as default the problem remains, even when the imported work was written in that form. My crashed laptop was recovered, and the only workaround I have found is to reformat the work on that  (in Word 2003-2007) – which happily removes the line spacing, then copy the work via a pendrive to my current laptop which accepts the new layout of the text with no problem. So what on earth is going wrong and how do I fix it? I’m wondering whether to remove all my documents that matter from the current laptop, use Word’s reset to default function, and start again but that seems drastic and in any case might not work. Has anyone ever had a similar problem and if so, what did you do? (Feel free to be reasonably technical – this is someone who can understand the Smashwords Style Guide…)

Now all I have to do is actually upload the books. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Surviving the Self Publishing Minefield

  1. My hardly original conclusion: beginings are always difficult and beginners come across many surprises. OK, end of annoying banalities. 🙂 That was interesting, to look at self-publishing from a self-publisher POV. Good luck with your publications!

    The problem with re-sizing of covers gives me an immediate thought ‘vector graphic’. Or any type which is re-sizable by nature, like fractals. Well, the trouble is, of course, that vectors or fractals aren’t photos, and it’s more difficult to make them pretty enough… One can vectorize a photo with a software like Corel or similar (it’s called ‘tracing a bitmap’), and a traced/vectorized bitmap is easily resizable without worries about any pixelation, but such a photo doesn’t look like a photo anymore. It looks like a stained glass. Still, maybe such solution is worth of considering? Admittedly, it would need more work than a photo-cover, and maybe even engaging a more or less professional graphic.

    • I suppose that’s roughly what the Photoshop filter effects do – without me having to understand fractals! *g* The problem with using a professional designer is that it costs money, and I was determined to do this without paying anyone – I don’t count the Skype call and the postage. If I was already earning money from my work it would be reasonable to argue that I should spend some of it on professional help but as it is – shrugs. It isn’t that I don’t value my writing, just that I had vowed to myself to do it all unaided and without expense. To pay other people to help with my first venture into the field smacks too much of vanity publishing for me.

      It’s certainly true that newcomers to any situation have a steep learning curve ahead of them. I think the way Smashwords and Kindle tell everyone that oh, yes, anyone can publish a book and it doesn’t cost anything is a little disingenuous. A lot of people will need professional help on formatting and covers. Or of course they can just stumble ahead and produce a mess of a book. But actually, the whole upload system is designed to stop that from happening, though of course neither platform can do much about typos or bad grammar.

      Whatever the merits of various graphic programs, I think my best way forward is to use larger source photographs and then play with the Photoshop effects. It seems to have worked so far! And I am pleased with my covers. They aren’t, perhaps, artist standard, but they are, in my opinion, a lot prettier and more striking than some of the self-published covers I have seen, even those professionally produced. When I post to tell people the books are ‘live’ you can judge for yourself! The main thing is that I have had complete control, from start to finish, which is something that made me choose self publishing in the first place.

      • The main thing is that I have had complete control, from start to finish, which is something that made me choose self publishing in the first place.
        And this I can understand absolutely! For me it would be even more important than the financial aspect, even if I could afford paying a good graphic artist.

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