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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.

One block from work, my phone stops playing music for no good reason. Ordinarily, I’d assume I’d hit my pocket just so, but there’s no chance this time. My hands were out, drumming the air in a mostly unobtrusive way to “Zero” by the Smashing Pumpkins. I really don’t think it was me. The phone’s on the fritz. Sometimes it does this, and I have to just find another song. Just one of those things–something else in the world going wrong. I’m scrolling through artists, wondering if I want to spend the rest of the day listening exclusively to The Police, when I think, “HOO BOY! I’m really going to die someday!”

I said I thought that, but really I shouted part of it at a street vendor. Picture a man walking along, thumbing through his iPhone, walking past a food cart, suddenly screaming, “HOO!” with a look of surprise and a bit of a faint smile.

It’s certainly not the first time this thought has occurred to me; first time I had it I believe I was three or four years old. In the pie chart of Thoughts Most Thought in My Head, it’s probably somewhere between “I want to have sex” and “I could really go for some tater tots.” In junior high, I almost stopped reading horror novels because it no longer seemed to matter if the characters lived or died, since they were all going to die someday (only later realizing that, all things considered, it was better to go in one’s sleep than to be carved up by a clown wielding a rusty chainsaw). These days, I’ve gotten used to the thought, scolded it for being cliche, and yet still it comes bounding along from time to time, in varying strengths and severities. It stops by, says hello, menaces me a bit, then flitters away again to wherever it goes after that.

But like a slap, the thought can be playful or painful. For whatever reason, this morning, it’s born hard–a real sharp crack right across the cheek of my half-awake mind. The smile on my face is because I find the sudden severity of it amusing, and my masochistic side is closely tied to my sense of humor. Call it self-schadenfreude.

It’d be the same if someone came running around the corner with a giant mallet and hit me hard in the stomach. I’d go down, sure, but I’d do so laughing, because, honestly, who does that to someone? Like putting pureed habanero in someone’s OJ, it’s rude but so funny.

Then I’m on the south side of 20th Street, heading west toward my building, watching people walk past me with their dogs and their own iPhones and iPads and Kindles and things, thinking, “Yep. I really am gonna die. Rumor has it it can’t be avoided. And no afterlife, not for me, dirty atheist that I am. It’ll be like before I was born. Remember that? Sure don’t! That’s the good part. I don’t think I know what death’s like, but, really, I do.”

The mind-melting idea of nonexistence, the suffocating lack of any thoughts at all, terrifies me. I cling to fantasies: that maybe everyone else is playing a giant joke on me and no one really ever dies and someday all the people I think are dead, like Stanley Kubrick, my grandfather, and Osama bin Laden, will pop up over the other side of my cubicle and say, “Surprise!”; or that someday, given infinite time, the universe simply has to repeat itself, and I will return to relive my life an impossibly long time from now–a resurrection through recycled molecules, the spiritual equivalent of monkeys eventually randomly retyping Hamlet.

Such thoughts rarely work, and they didn’t today, either. The people passed me, I passed the people, that old drink-to-the-face thought evaporated, and I pushed play on “Next to You.”

Then I went into work and wrote some computer code.

The day after the limb came down, barely missing our neighbor’s new Mustang for the second time, I took the phone book down from the top of the refrigerator. She came out of the bedroom and walked right past me without a word.

I marked this wordless passing as strange, but I needed to find an arborist. I found a list of numbers and started dialing and asking for rates. While I was on the phone, she came in and put together a bowl of mini-wheats and soy milk. She didn’t talk, and I noticed how she didn’t try to catch my eye, either. I guess if I’m honest, I knew right then that I was in trouble for something.

As for the tree, I settled on a man who would remove the tree and also de-stump the place where it had been, as well as all the other places around our yard where the last owner’d cut down a scattered crew of other trees. This new guy wasn’t the man who had trimmed the tree down the first time, because that guy had told us the thing wouldn’t be a menace anymore and that was clearly a lie. The tree was out in the lawn with yet another giant limb split off its trunk and fluttering its leaves in our front yard for all to see.

I put my cell phone down and grabbed my coffee and went to see what was going on with my wife. She was on the couch reading The Economist and eating her cereal. She didn’t turn when I came in.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, because it had to be something.

“Nothing,” she said. “When is the tree guy coming?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Thanks for taking care of that.”

“No problem,” I said. “But seriously, what’s wrong? You didn’t say a thing to me when you got up.”

“You were on the phone.”

This was now tedious. “Yeah, but before that,” I said. “Look, I know you, so just spill it.”

She put her cereal on the coffee table about as indignantly as I could imagine someone putting a bowl of cereal on a coffee table.

“I’m just thinking,” she said.

“All right. Okay. What are you thinking about?”

She looked at me for the first time that morning. “Ok, I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not to be upset.”

I looked at the ceiling. Great. “Ok,” I said.

“Three things. One: I want to have kids, but I don’t want yours. Two: I don’t think I’ll ever find you sexually attractive again. And three: I’m not sure why I married you, but it might have been just to keep you happy.”

These days, I can hear these words and treat them like toxic canisters I buried in the ground and marked with the loudest signs I could find. I can say to myself, “Those deadly things are over there.” That’s the nature of distance. It makes you think the shit is over there.

At the time, what I thought was, “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! I was just happy I’d taken care of that fucking tree, and now look at this shit!”

I didn’t say anything to her. I put my coffee down and grabbed my keys and left the house. I got in my car—the gas-guzzling Dodge with lots of horsepower and AC enough to defeat the Texas heat—and I went for a drive around the most conservative suburbs in the country.

*     *     *

A few things about trees:

Bradford Pears, it was explained to me by the first arborist (a fat round white man with a Tilly hat and a fat black moustache) are notoriously weak trees. I drove out of my subdivision (those things they plop down in Texas that are labyrinths of six-foot-tall fences, wide sidewalks, mowed lawns, and anthills the size of basketballs sliced in half), and I was reminded how many other houses were tucked beneath the shadows of structurally unsound Bradford Pears. Developers plant them because they grow fast and look pretty and sell homes. But if the trees grow for too long, their shit apparently just starts falling on cars and feral stray cats.

Something about a place like Texas is that hardly anything ever looks old. The soil is loose, weak, and few things can take root for a serious length of time. It’s not like the northeast, or even the old growth of the northwest. In the south, the houses and trees are short; the time for which they’re needed even shorter.

My wife and I had specifically looked for a house with some trees, because they seemed in such short supply. We were from the north, and we both liked trees. We’d written a tree into our wedding vows. We both said we were going to be like a tree with two great branches, growing in our own way, but always held together by a unified trunk.

We’d been sold on our house because of the giant agave cactus in the backyard (or maybe that was me) and the giant shady Bradford Pear in the front yard (definitely both of us).

Suckers, I guess. Suckers like the rest of the idiots in my subdivision.

*     *     *

I am not a fast driver by nature, especially not in Texas. I resented the hazardous, maniacal, me-first way those fucks drove so much that in protest I became a very good driver. But that morning, it was bright, sunny, and there weren’t a lot of cars out, and I pushed it. I had the needle in the sixties when the posted speed was thirty, ninety when it was sixty. I was flying (for me). I had a CD in the player—Radiohead’s OK Computer—and I turned it up. She called and called. I didn’t answer. I drove and stayed out until the light started to fade.

I don’t believe in God. Lost my faith when I talked too long to some Jehovah’s Witnesses and discovered that really, when pushed (and they can be pushy), I believe faith is lunacy. So I’d put a lot of redirected faith into my marriage; I’d built up its importance. The man who writes goofy metaphors and promises he can’t keep into his wedding vows is a man who is goofy and unrealistic when it comes to his marriage.

These were the things I knew that day, driving under that Texas sun:

My marriage was splitting apart. The road ahead was empty.

You can’t really drive fast enough or angrily enough at such times, but I eventually calmed down and went home. She apologized profusely. She hadn’t meant it; it was all stuff she was “just thinking” about, and she didn’t know if any of it was true. I accepted her apology, because I was the kind of guy who bought a house because the Bradford Pear in the front yard looked nice.

But the Bradford Pear is not a very strong tree, and two months later I moved out. Went back to the northeast without her.

When my girlfriend and I were on a cruise recently, I couldn’t help but think in a few odd moments here and there what it had been like the last time I was on such a boat: same company (Royal Caribbean), same cafeteria name (the Windjammer, or the Jammer or just the Jam, as we called it now in cheerfully derisive, husky voices), and even more to the point: we’d signed up for the handicap room because we thought it would be a little bigger than the standard-issue shoebox-sized staterooms on the boat. Amanda couldn’t have been expected to know how strongly I would associate hand rails in the bathroom with my ex-wife’s father Chip, who had been dying of ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the last six years.

I’d helped to install the bars in my ex-father-in-law’s basement when the first of his muscles started to deteriorate. When he stopped being able to use them, I even helped him onto the toilet myself–dutiful son-in-law that I was. Chip’s illness worked its way up his body, where it would then take its time eating away at his lung capacity until he could no longer breathe. How long this would take was anyone’s guess, but in the three years that I was a witness to it, I saw him go from silver-haired, gangly patriarch ambling around a cruise boat to a man with less than twenty percent lung capacity in a motorized wheelchair that could go up stairs as well as rise up on two wheels to put him eye-level with someone standing in front of him. It was disconcerting to watch at first, but even so, such a wondrous advance in wheelchairs gave us all a false sense of hope in the advances of modern medicine. If a wheelchair could do that, what could drugs do?

Before getting divorced from his daughter, I started playing chess with him online. I thought it would be nice to play chess (he was a smart man), and it could give him something to do while he rolled around in the chair. After the divorce, I didn’t know how to stop (my ex and I parted on decent terms, even if we’ve long since ceased communicating for the benefit of everyone involved), so I continued to play. I was afraid that if I did stop playing, he would die. When I was on the cruise, I was nervous because I didn’t have any internet access at all, and that meant seven or more days without making a move. I told myself I was being ridiculous and that it was a foolish superstition.

I came back from the cruise, and he was still playing. He asked me how it was, and I told him it was fine. I felt a little guilty, since the reason I’d gone on my first cruise was because he’d wanted to take the family. He’d known then that he had ALS, and he wanted to travel as much as possible before it ate him up. Now I had returned from a second cruise with someone who was not his daughter, and he was in a wheelchair unable to walk out his own front door.

Not to mention that cruises, in general, make me feel guilty and spoiled.

We played for another week, and I started to lose. He made some great moves, and soon he had a bishop’s advantage on me and pawns within easy range of promotion. I was going down; there was little I could do. I usually won our chess games, but he had this one in his pocket. He brought his king around to back up his bishop. With nothing but my kings and a few pawns left, I moved my king to start an assault that would prove fruitless. I waited for him to advance his pawns on the other side of the board and promote one of them to a queen and finish me off.

Except three days later, I was still waiting for his next move. We generally moved four or five times a day. It was a telling silence. When I did a Google search and found his obituary, I was not surprised.

He was 64 years old. His last move was King to E1. Above is a screenshot of the actual board as it was left. A part of me wants the resolution of a finished game, but no–this is how things really are. There is no better, more perfect depiction of death than that of a game left unfinished, the mind that made the moves as coherent as ever within the body that turned against it.

Still, I think it’s clear: this one gets called for him by any objective judge.

Chip, congratulations; you win this one. Well played. Good game. Rest in peace.