A Self-Publishing Primer (From a Not-Very-Successful Self-Published Writer)

Preface

The following is a slightly modified version of a piece I wrote up for an MFA class that was kind enough to want to talk to me about my self-publishing adventures. I’d been meaning to write a blog post along these lines for a while, so I’m glad I finally had an excuse to get these thoughts written up. I present them with all appropriate disclaimers: these are merely my thoughts and opinions, based on my subjective experience, and they may prove only that I didn’t know anything at all about self-publishing. Yet in the hopes that they are helpful for others, here they are.

 

I. What I Got From Self-Publishing

The language around the growing number of powerful self-publishing options strikes me as either far too apocalyptic or annoyingly evangelical. Readers are too savvy not to notice signs of mediocrity, and becoming a bestselling author is just as much of an uncommon event for a self-published writer as it is for one traditionally published.

Yet still! Attending a writers’ meet-up recently in New York, I heard a self-published author say things like, “Put your book on Amazon, get ten friends to give it positive reviews, and guess what? Magic happens. Your work starts selling.” She claimed her chick-lit book was earning her thousands of dollars a month. It felt like we were being told there was gold in them thar hills.

Advice from lottery winners about the ease of winning the lottery may not prove accurate on a larger scale.

Of course, it’s also true that my experiences may be equally unusual. Certainly for some writers, like Amanda Hocking and E L James, the vein was rich indeed. I likewise have no doubt that David Mamet and Stephen King and any other already-known name will make trainloads of money on the ebook market. But not everyone found the Colorado Lode when they went west, and not everyone will become a self-publishing success story. I’ve made under two hundred dollars during the last nineteen months of my self-publishing life, which is better than nothing (I will most certainly take it!), but nowhere near life changing.

Magic, alas, did not happen for me.

Honestly, though, if you’re in this for the money (whether from traditional or independent publishing), you’re probably in the wrong business. Get into finance. Learn to code iPhone apps. Open a business and buy for a dollar and sell for two. Anything else, really. Just don’t be a writer. Most writers I know suffer a lot and earn not that much.

What I did get from self-publishing was the energy to write again. I dumped all my old stories that had been rejected for years and years (that I still for whatever reason adored enough not to throw out) into a collection and hit the publish button. It cleared the table. After that, I had nothing to do but write new stuff. And I won’t lie: having self-publishing as a fallback measure makes me feel safe. Whatever I write, I can publish.

I also got a piece of fan mail. It was the first and only one I’ve ever received, but what a moment. We’ve since become good friends, and that’s definitely the single best thing that’s happened as a result of my decision to self-publish.

But who cares about all this preamble. Everyone has a chance to win the lottery. So say you want to give it a shot.  Here are a few things that I’ve learned from my experience.

 

II. What You Might Want to Pay For and What You Might Not

Be suspicious of anything that costs you money. This especially applies to anyone who wants to print your book or format it. DO NOT PAY THESE PEOPLE! With a little effort, there’s no reason you can’t do most of the formatting yourself.

Also do not do what I did and pay for things like:

* ISBNS: I bought ten of them. Used two when I didn’t have to. Now they sit there. Need some?

* Banner ads on websites, or ads anywhere: Guaranteed to not get you the exposure or generate the revenue you’re looking for.

* Too many proof copies: A silly mistake I made, but I was excited. I ordered a box of improperly formatted books. The truth is that you should use the online tools well, and only order one proof copy at a time, because you will make mistakes and no one really wants the broken books.

Also, I never paid for any reviews, nor do I think buying one from a place like Kirkus is a good idea. It costs more than you’re likely to earn, and I’ve read too many stories about people who paid for them and saw no increase in revenue. You’d do better to give your $5K to charity.

What I would pay for, if I could afford it:

* Professional cover art: By far, one of the most important things you can have is a great cover. I don’t. Not really. And guess what? My books don’t sell.

* Proofreading / Editing: It’s so expensive, but it might be worth it. I didn’t go down this road, but a lot of others have. Nothing beats a good editorial eye. Personally, I didn’t have the money to pay for an editor (or anything else, for that matter), so I adopted a practice of reading every story aloud until I could get through it twice without changing a word. I also recorded these readings, so I could listen to the stories on my daily commute. I caught a lot of mistakes, and every time I did, I realized how fallible I really and truly am. Good editors are the stuff of dreams. Someday, I hope to have one.

* Writing classes and books: The best investments you could ever make.

 

III. How to Do the Technical Stuff

All ebooks are essentially stripped-down HTML–the cleaner the better. Basically, my process for converting a document to an ebook is to write it in Word, save it as a Web page, open it in Calibre (free ebook conversion software that I’ll provide a link to), and convert it into an epub that I upload wherever I need to.

Where it gets tricky is if things go wrong in the conversion process. Usually, this happens due to some garbage Word throws in there. So if you’re really having trouble, I’d suggest formatting your book or story as a basic webpage (using Notepad or some other basic text editor that won’t throw in a lot of crap formatting), using the following formatting:

Start with basic HTML.

<html>

<head></head>

<body>

<h1>Wrap chapter titles in header tags, like the ones here.</h1>

<p>Wrap all paragraphs in paragraph tags, like the ones wrapping this line.</p>

<p>Some more fanciness: <strong>Put any bold words in strong tags.</strong> and <em>any italicized words in em tags.</em></p>

<p>After you have your document formatted like this, close out the html.</p>

</body>

</html>

That’s all you need to do to format a document properly. From here, Calibre should be able to do the rest for you, whether you need your document converted to a .mobi file for Kindle, or an .epub for just about everyone else. (And for what it’s worth, I always had more success uploading epubs to Kindle rather than .mobi files, which is sort of funny.)

Calibre allows you to attach a cover image to your book, as well as tweaking some basic information about it (though don’t get worried about this, as I don’t know if any of the other publishing platforms take the information Calibre puts in there seriously).

In Calibre, my process is generally to convert to epub, but I set a couple of special options.

* Structure Detection: In this window, I enter the following in the field that reads “Insert page breaks before (XPath expression)”:

//h:*h1

What this does is create a section break before any of those chapter title tags I recommended earlier that can be interpreted by the table of contents auto-generator. This makes for easier navigation on an e-reader.

* Table of Contents: To complete the process, check the box under this window for ‘Force Use of Auto-Generated Table of Contents’

And that’s really all I do. I encourage you to play around, experiment, and test! Calibre comes with a mock ebook reader, which is okay, but almost all the platforms have some kind of previewing mechanism, which I encourage you to download and use.

One last tip: If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of an ebook, download a free one without any copyright protection on it, open it in Calibre, right click and choose ‘Tweak eBook.’ From there, click the button to ‘Explode Book’ (a delightful option), and you will be able to browse all the little bits and pieces that make up a valid ebook.

 

IV. Resources & Links

Calibre – http://calibre-ebook.com The single best tool for converting almost every kind of document to any other kind of document. A must for anyone turning things into ebooks.

FlightCrew – https://code.google.com/p/flightcrew The epub validator I use, however you can find and experiment with a number of them online. Just don’t pay for one.

Createspace – https://www.createspace.com My choice for creating a physical book to sell on Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and for just getting a cheap copy printed for yourself!). There’s no minimum number to buy, and a paperback copy of your book (designed by you!) will remain permanently in stock all over the place without you needing to spend a dime. I cannot stress enough how absolutely cool print on demand services like this really are. CreateSpace is affiliated with Amazon, so linking your ebook to your paperback is a piece of cake.

Smashwords – http://www.smashwords.com – A great overall site, which I don’t use. I might, someday, just to reach a few more markets. I like their coupon-generation ability, and their royalty rates can sometimes be higher, however exposing your book to Amazon through them is a bit trickier than I think it should be. Be sure to read their ‘Secrets eBook,’ which contains excellent tips on the self-publishing game – http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/145431

Lulu – http://www.lulu.com A decent clone of Smashwords, if for some reason you don’t like Smashwords.

Kindle Direct Program – https://kdp.amazon.com Amazon’s self-publishing portal. Easy to use, tricky to truly master, but Amazon is certainly where the bulk of my sales have been. It’s accounted for 99% of my sales. So if you’re going to self-publish, don’t ignore them.

iTunes Connect – https://itunesconnect.apple.com/WebObjects/iTunesConnect.woa The portal to publishing your book on Apple’s iBookstore, where I’ve made the least amount of money.

Nook Press – https://www.nookpress.com The portal to selling your work on Barnes and Noble’s website.

Duotrope – https://duotrope.com For people looking to go the traditional route, or find the perfect little niche market to sell a reprint of a story they’ve self-published, this site (which requires a bit of money but is worth every penny) is one I’ve found indispensable. A rich database of markets and their response times, Duotrope puts anything I ever saw from Writer’s Market to complete shame. Thanks to this site, I usually have anywhere from 3-12 pieces out for rejection at any given time, and I’ve made a personal pledge to myself to never again let the number of responses outnumber the number of submissions I have in the wind.

 

V. About Amazon & Pricing Strategies

Amazon likes to push you into a little exclusivity agreement. The sales pitch is that Amazon users can read your book as part of the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, and that any copies borrowed in such a way will earn you a portion of a monthly pot of gold (usually somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 dollars). It does end up being a little more than you’d usually make on the 35/70% royalty, and it seems better for Kindle owners, who don’t have to pay for your book. You also get five days every ninety days you’re in the program to offer your book free of charge to Amazon customers, which can generate a lot of exposure.

The catch is that you can’t sell your book anywhere else.

In the end, I guess I’ve made so little from the other markets that it shouldn’t bother me to only sell through Amazon.

But it does. It’s the principle of the thing. Exclusivity rubs me the wrong way. I don’t like any organization that seeks to limit the audience for a book. Sure, Borders or Barnes and Noble would no doubt sell more copies of a book than Book Marcs (an old bookstore I spent a lot of time in), but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to let Book Marcs stock it.

Of course, Barnes and Noble have aligned themselves on the side of exclusivity in the self-publishing wars, as well, stating in the past that they wouldn’t stock any physical copies of books produced by Amazon.

I hate it all.

As for my favorite part — the five days you can give you book away to customers — you can get that without going exclusive. Simply do what I did and offer it for free somewhere else, like Barnes and Noble or iTunes. Amazon will figure out you’ve set a lower price somewhere, and they’ll start giving your book away to everyone under their “Free Price Match Guarantee” until you change your anti-capitalist ways.

I gave my book away for several months, until it occurred to me that people would have almost zero inclination to read a book they picked up for free. So now I charge $.99, which makes me look only slightly more reputable.

Pricing your book is a gentle art, which you should play around with. Experiment. Track sales. Change it up or down, and never assume the answer to greater sales is to cut the price. Sometimes, a higher price signifies better quality, and the Amazon $.99 bin starts looking like a garbage can, or just another pile of ignorable slush.

Which for the most part is exactly what it is.

 

VI. How to Promote Your Book (i.e., Social Networking is a Waste of Time, and read something other than this primer)

Twitter and Facebook are not the tools you should use to market your book. They do not work, and hounding your followers or your friends will get you LESS attention, rather than more. So forget about it.

I also have limited faith in the power of a blog. Also, shouldn’t you focus on writing stories rather than blog posts, anyway? [asked the writer, in a post on his blog.]

Promote your book by giving it a good title that accurately describes what it’s about, a great cover that conveys the tone and looks professional, and a carefully crafted description that makes people want to read your book and is coded with words important for search engine optimization.

Yeah. And I have no idea how to do this part of it. I’m terrible at it. Instead, I’m going to point you to a book I read that convinced me I was doing everything wrong:

http://www.amazon.com/Blogging-Facebook-Guerilla-Marketers-ebook/dp/B007XVWEIU

It’s a good book that I should read again and do a better job of learning from, and it supports some of the more contentious points I’ve made in this primer, which I hope you’ve found useful.

That said …

 

VII. A Special Offer for Everyone (While My Time Lasts)

Even with all these resources, I often ran up against challenges (often with the technical, idiosyncratic formatting issues that prevented the book being listed with iTunes). Luckily, I have a background as an Internet applications developer, so I was able to troubleshoot. The solutions were often simple tricks, easy to implement if you know how, and I encourage you to at least try to learn how to do it yourself before paying someone hundreds of dollars to do something that only takes a few minutes.

For that reason, I’d like to offer myself as a resource if any of you have technical trouble self-publishing ebook versions of your stories. Please, don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail with any and all questions, technical or otherwise, at daukherville [at] gmail [dot] com, or ask a question in the comments below. I might not have a good answer for everything, but I’m more than happy to share everything I do know.

And good luck out there! I hope you become hugely successful writers–self-published or otherwise.

Give ‘em hell.

1 comment
  1. Hey Kris, great Blog on self-publishing. Gives more insight as I mull over what to do with my next book. There are so many pros and cons. Totally agree with you about copy editing. That is what makes or breaks most books. Hugely expensive, but I do know a highly respected author/editor who is freelancing as copy editor at an affordable price. Tom

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