Oct 10, 2011

Self-Publishing from One Newb to Another

Recently, on twitter, I found myself answering a few inquiries about getting started in ebook self-publishing. What strikes me odd about those conversations is not so much that they occurred but that I found myself answering with an actual air of authority as if I had clue one as to what I was doing. You see it’s been less than a year since I self-published my first book, a mishmash of old short stories I had written way back during my college years. Since then, I’ve been doing my best to play catch-up, releasing two original novels and continuing to chug along, but I am still but a babe lost in the woods of this industry.

However, since then I’ve realized that perhaps I’m not entirely as na├»ve as I had thought. We’re all used to working in fields where one’s maturity is measured in the sweat accumulated over years. If you were to try acting like an authority on your first job out of high school or college then you’re liable to be laughed at, probably rightfully so. However, the e-publishing business is still so much in its infancy that the difference between a newb and a journeyman can probably be measured in the space of weeks, not years. Thus perhaps I wasn’t entirely out of turn answering these questions like I did. Of course there’s still a chance that I’m just a self-important, egomaniacal dick. I leave open that possibility.

Regardless of that last part, however, I do have a year of experience under my belt that perhaps you do not. That being the case, I would like to present to you my experiences with some of the e-publishing resources out there so that you might be better armed as you dive into this crazy world. I offer no guarantees to the below. Your mileage may vary. All I offer is my viewpoint and the note that the below is by no means exhaustive. I only know that which I have tried...

Amazon / Kindle: If you are just starting out in the e-publishing world then I personally can not think of anywhere else you would wish to start. Amazon is the big dog out there. While everyone else might pretend to be players, when it comes down to the actual pissing match nobody can measure up to Amazon.

If you have an Amazon account (and if you don’t then I might suggest you have a nice stern talk with the wolves that raised you) and a book to sell, then voila you can sell it on their website. The only emphasis on you is doing a little research on their site beforehand with regards to formatting. If you need help, Amazon has a great many writers on their forums that would probably be happy to give you some pointers.

From personal experience I would recommend utilizing Mobi-pocket to format your first Kindle e-book. It’s an old program and doesn’t work well on some PC configurations, but it’s easy to use. Outside of their Table of Contents wizard, which can be a bit tricky on first use, the rest is a breeze. You basically take an MS Word version of your book, save it as filtered HTML (from within Word itself), and then import it into Mobi. Within about 3 clicks you’ll have an ebook. Just be sure to test it first on Amazon’s free Kindle previewer.

Aside from that, Amazon also offers other resources to help you get the word out, such as an author page for you. The best part: aside from their cut of the sales, there isn’t any charge to you.

I sell at least 90% of my ebooks through Amazon. They are the duke. They are A-number 1 as far as I am concerned.

My only downside with them: If you upload an ebook and then realize you’ve missed a massive typo, you’ll have to wait 24 hours to fix it. That can be a pain in the ass as you sit back and hope you don’t get crucified with bad reviews for all of your The’s that are spelled “Teh”.

Barnes & Noble / Nook: B&N doesn’t offer nearly the support for self-pubbed authors as Amazon does. However, they’re not exactly chopped liver either and they’re a huge, well known company. Another plus in their favor is that B&N supports their books uploaded in epub format (as opposed to Amazon’s propriety format). Once you have your books formatted for the Nook store, you can pretty much port them over anyplace else you’d like.

I typically use a program called Calibre for formatting. Since Amazon is my number one ebook seller, I almost always format for them first. However, Calibre will allow me to import my files in Amazon’s format (.prc) and export them as epub books. The program isn’t the easiest to use for a first timer. However, once you get the hang of it you’ll find it’s a breeze to reformat your files.

I don’t sell a lot through B&N, but I do sell. Thus they are always a consideration for me. Even better, they don’t have Amazon’s pesky 24 hour lockout rule. If you find a typo, you can upload a new file right away.

Like Amazon, B&N offers a PC version of their Nook software to preview your work. Take advantage of it.

Smashwords: Some authors swear by Smashwords. I do not. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t. To date I have sold a grand total of two books on Smashwords. However, two is still greater than none, so I shall continue to utilize them.

The beauty (and curse as well) of Smashwords is that they’ll do all the work for you. As long as you have a Word document formatted to their guidelines (you will remember to read their guidelines first, won’t you?), all you need do is upload it and let their conversion software do the rest. Smashwords is one stop shopping for nearly all ebook formats. However, since they do the conversion and formatting for you, you’re kind of at their mercy. This makes me a little nervous. If my ebook is formatted like shit, I’d prefer it to be my fault. At least that way I can probably fix it.

I consider Smashwords my K-mart of ebook outlets. They’re big enough and they do just enough to make it worthwhile but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Lulu: The Hyde to Smashwords’ Jekyll. Lulu pretty much serves the same purpose as Smashwords. They’re an ebook aggregator who will help get your ebook out there across multiple stores and formats. I’ve also never sold a single book through Lulu. So why bother? A couple of reasons.

For starters Lulu is much stricter than Smashwords. They won’t format your files for you and your book had better be formatted perfectly otherwise they’ll boot your ass to the curb. I find I have to use a third program called Sigil to edit my epub books because Calibre leaves a little extra formatting in their files that B&N is cool with but Lulu is not. It may be a bit of a pain but the flipside is that I know my books will be formatted as I’ve intended them to be on Lulu, as opposed to Smashwords.

The second reason is this little thing called ibooks. They’re the one-hundred pound gorilla in the room with aspirations to being eight-hundred. They’re also not particularly friendly to self-publishers. Using Lulu, however, I can get my books loaded up into the ibooks store with no problem. Technically Smashwords offers this same service, but I’ve found my books appear on Apple’s devices more quickly with Lulu. Thus I continue to stick with them. Even if they offer me no sales (so far), they get my books into an exclusive club where I might otherwise get tossed out on my ass by the bouncers.

Print-on-Demand: Finally there’s always the possibility that for all the work you’ve done to get your ebook out there, you still won’t be able to satisfy your great aunt Betty. “What’s an ebook?” she’ll ask in her shrill tone. If print books were good enough for her daddy then, by God, they’re good enough for her. So to cover your bases I’d recommend finding a print on demand outfit to fill that need.

I prefer Createspace for a couple of reasons. For starters their prices are reasonable. Nobody, relatives included, is going to buy a copy of your book if it’s $30. The profit margin is very slim, but I can put a 300 page paperback version of my book out there for about $13. It’s even less if I want to purchase it myself. Keep this in mind for the holidays. The best Christmas gifts are the self-serving ones.

Perhaps more important, though, is the Amazon factor again. They own Createspace. Therefore, you print via Createspace and your paperback will show up on Amazon. That alone makes them a contender.

As for formatting, they prefer your work to be a PDF. However, they have plenty of samples to download to help you out. With one of the many free PDF converters out there (I use PDFCreator) you can export your book directly from MS Word and be good to go. The only thing you’ll need to worry about after that is your cover image. Don’t have one? Use one of Createspace’s many free templates and you’ll be set.


That’s it. Sound simple? Well, while it may be harder than I make it out to be, I think you’ll find it’s all easier than you probably imagine it to be. Follow the above, do your homework, and you’ll have your bases nicely covered on the ebook front. Then you just need to worry about the marketing and Conan the Barbarian’s chronicler would another story.


Lisa Vaughn said...

Good advice! I'm a newbie too - self pubbed in April of this year. I went through Amazon & Createspace - Smashwords too. So far Smashwords has not produced the fury of sales I thought it would, as most come from you said, they ARE the giant out there.

M Pax said...

Smashwords lets your produce free work, whereas the others don't. That and the ability to create coupon codes make it useful. Plus, when you get into the premium catalog they distribute you to B&N, iTunes and other outlets. I have not sold oodles on Smashwords either, but I just started.

Thanks for the added info on POD. Someday I'll add that component, too.

Unknown said...

Good advice. I'm currently planning a self-published poetry anthology for some time next year. This was really helpful. =)

Rick G said...

Thanks, all, for the comments! Nick, excellent to hear. If you need any help once you're ready please drop me a line.

J.L. Campbell said...

Interesting and useful advice. Gonna tweet.

Southpaw said...

Nice article. Mobicreator created errors for me. I reported it to them and and recommended using KindleGen. It was the whole TOC issues. (There working of fixing it.)

I should hard copies through Lulu, but most sales came through Amazon distribution. I intend to migrate to CreateSpace because the profit margin is quite a bit better.

I got here via J.L Camobell's tweet!

Rick G said...

Thanks for the tweet, JL!

Southpaw, I've found that mobi doesnt like Internet explorer 9. If you have that installed, it's probably the source of your problems. In my case I don't use IE much so I downgraded back to 8 for the time being. A pain but it fixed the mobi issue until it either gets patched or Kindlegen (which I currently don't like) gets better.

Anonymous said...

With 3 ebooks out, I'd say you were a veteran! I just put out my first one, a collection of poetry with prose commentary. So far I've only dealt with Smashwords with any consistency but then again, I'm offering mine for free, hoping to at least get my name out there. I found their guide to be extremely helpful in getting clean formatting.

Rick G said...

Sweepyjean, excellent! Best of luck to you.