So, you’ve written a book — congratulations! What now?
Unless you just want your book to sit on your hard drive or print it out to share with a few friends, you have two main choices: (1) write query letters to traditional publishers in the hopes they decide to publish you, or (2) self-publish, releasing your book on your own. This article focuses on the self-publishing option, and specifically self-publishing your work as an e-book through Smashwords (check here for tips on print self-publishing).
Once you upload your e-book (as a Microsoft Word document) to Smashwords, they will convert it for you into multiple formats, and then will not only sell it from their own site, but will distribute it to a growing list of e-book retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, Apple, and Diesel. The best part about this is that Smashwords doesn’t charge any up-front fees for conversion or distribution (they even give you a free ISBN, which is required to distribute through Apple), they instead keep 15% of the royalties you earn through sales. This allows you to get started with no out-of-pocket expense, and you can remove your books from distribution (or elect only certain channels) at any time. It is up to you to decide whether it is worth a 15% cut for Smashwords to convert your book for you, distribute it to multiple retailers, and consolidate your sales and payment reports in one place.
How to Get Started
The first thing you’ll need is a novel (or short story) in electronic format, probably in Microsoft Word. For purposes of creating an e-book, you generally want to strip out all the fancy formatting you might use in a printed book: get rid of fancy fonts (just put everything in Times New Roman), strange indents or block quotes, and weird symbols. You can keep bold and italics, and smart quotes and em dashes should translate properly, although they sometimes cause problems. It’s generally better to use first-line paragraph indents in Word (instead of hitting the tab key — and never use spaces to indent paragraphs). Do not leave blank lines between paragraphs, since some e-book readers add them and you’ll end up with triple spacing! The basic rule is: the simpler, the better. Various e-book readers will display your text in different ways, and users can adjust font sizes at will, so just forget about the idea of controlling every aspect of how the text will look and where pages within a chapter break (like you would in a printed book), and keep the formatting clean and simple. Do not use multiple line breaks, those look terrible on the screen — use a blank line and a row of asterisks to indicate chapter or section breaks instead.
The second thing you’ll need is a front cover, which should be in 2:3 ratio. It should be at least 800 pixels tall, although you’ll be using the same image (along with a spine and back cover) if you make a paperback, and that requires at least 300 dpi, so it’s best to make it high-resolution to begin with (1800×2700 pixels for a 6×9 paperback). Any interior art (like an “about the author” photo) should be black and white and at least 150 dpi. The less interior art, the simpler it will be.
Smashwords has an excellent free Style Guide that will help you prepare your Microsoft Word document for upload. It basically explains how to do what I said above: simplify and clean up your Word document, remove line breaks and extraneous formatting that translates poorly to e-books, etc. You can then upload your Word file and Smashwords will convert that file to all the e-book formats you need, including MOBI and ePub.
Like I said above, it definitely helps to keep your formatting simple, and follow the instructions in the Style Guide. E-book formatting can be an arduous process when you’re first learning, and it’s easier to follow the Style Guide instead of fighting it.
For a little more detail on a weird e-book formatting problem I had (which prevented my books from passing the dreaded ePubCheck), check out this post: Formatting for Smashwords and ePubCheck.
The simplest way to get your e-book distributed as widely as possible and looking pretty good is to: (1) read and follow the Smashwords Style Guide, (2) create a Word document with simple, clean formatting, (3) upload that Word document to Smashwords and let them convert it for you, and (4) enter your book’s information, description, price, etc. at Smashwords, and (5) opt in to all the distribution channels you want. You should end up with a nice-looking e-book, and it will be available on B&N, Kobo, Apple, Sony, and other e-book sellers. (At this time, Smashwords doesn’t distribute to Amazon or Google, although they have been working on Amazon distribution for a while. You can distribute directly to Amazon through their KDP platform.)
I do recommend the Smashwords service, and use it to distribute my own novels. Check them out on Smashwords here!