I’ve talked before about self-publishing, how it’s been a huge boon to my writing career, but also how authors should temper their expectations: realize that writing, editing, designing a cover for, formatting and converting, and marketing a self-published book is a lot of hard work, and is less likely than the lottery to make you rich. (For that matter, traditional publishing is hardly a high-percentage method for getting rich, or even making a decent living.)

Of course, just like with the lottery, there are a few unvarnished success stories that provide something for independent authors to aspire to. The two most exceptional are independent authors John Locke and Amanda Hocking. This week, Amazon announced that Hocking joined Locke (along with 12 traditionally-published authors) in the “Kindle Million Club,” by selling over a million copies of their books in the Amazon Kindle Store. (Twilight author Stephanie Meyer attained that lofty mark this week as well.)

Hocking began as a self-published, independent author, and her runaway success led to her accepting a four-book deal with St. Martin’s Press (a subsidiary of Macmillan) worth over $2 million.

The most interesting thing to me about Amazon’s press release was this note:

In addition to the more than 2 million books sold by John Locke and Amanda Hocking, 12 KDP authors have sold more than 200,000 books and 30 KDP authors have sold more than 100,000 books.

(KDP stands for “Kindle Direct Publishing.” It’s the method by which self-published authors may upload their own works to be sold in the Kindle Store.)

So, how likely are you to strike it rich by self-publishing? There are now over 1,000,000 titles in the Kindle Store, and probably at least 100,000 self-published authors selling their books through KDP. E-books on Amazon are sold for a minimum of 99 cents per title (netting the author $0.35), while many independently-published e-books (including my own) are sold for $2.99 (netting the author about $2.05). So, if we assume 100,000 self-published authors, of that number:

  • 2 authors (0.002%) have sold 1,000,000 books, earning at least $350,000
  • 12 authors (0.012%) have sold 200,000 books, earning at least $70,000 (and possibly $410,000)
  • 30 authors (0.03%) have sold 100,000 books, earning at least $35,000 (and possibly $205,000)

Of course, those dollar amounts are before taxes (yes, Amazon sends a 1099-MISC, so you have to pay income taxes) and any expenses for agents, editing, cover design, e-book conversion, advertising, web hosting, etc. And I think it’s fair to assume that the majority (probably the vast majority) of these high-selling titles were sold at 99 cents — I know almost all of John Lock’s titles were sold at $0.99 and most of Hocking’s were as well. So, 44 indie authors in the world have managed to make $35,000+ (before taxes and expenses) through selling e-books on Amazon — and we’re assuming each author may have written about 10 books, which would take several years, if not a decade or more. (Hocking has 11 books on Amazon, and Locke has 12.)

I’m not writing this to either convince you or dissuade you from writing a book, or trying to sell it on Amazon. I’ve long maintained that if you want to write a book, my best advice to you is to write it for yourself, because you enjoy the writing process and have a story to tell — assume you won’t make any money from it, and if you still yearn to write, then go for it. After that, you can decide if the potential monetary payoff is enough to offset the time, effort, and money you’ll spend, and the inevitable criticism you’ll receive by self-publishing. (For what it’s worth, even though I’m not yet one of the 44, I am glad of my decision to self-publish.) But I wanted to include the numbers above, which were the first I’ve seen that really specifically give us a clue as to how common these success stories are. They prove that it certainly is possible to “strike it rich” as an independent author, but it takes a lot of work, and the odds of you even making a living (let alone getting rich) are still quite low.

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 Formatting

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.

Conclusion

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!

Mar 222011

New York Times-bestselling author Barry Eisler recently turned down a $500,000 advance from “Big 6″ traditional (or “legacy”) publisher St. Martin’s Press for a two-book deal. Now, it’s one thing for indie authors to turn their noses up at large publishers, and it’s even another thing for best-selling indie authors to spurn mid-list book deals (J. A. Konrath comes to mind), but we’re talking about turning down half a million dollars. This is pretty big news.

If I were a legacy publisher, I imagine this would feel like hearing the lookout yell, “Iceberg, dead ahead!” Or possibly like one of the more degenerate Roman emperors realizing the Visigoths had breached the city gates for the first time in 800 years. Maybe they feel like the railroad companies when the Interstate Highway System was announced, or like buggy-whip makers watching the first car drive down the road. Or maybe the more apt analogy is Marie “Let Them Eat Cake” Antoinette wondering what all those peasants with pitchforks were doing outside. I could do this all day.

Anyway, it’s a pretty monumental event. And I don’t think Eisler is insane, or just wants to stick it to “the man.” In fact, by all accounts, “the man” has been generally good to him and he has lots of nice things to say about publishers (albeit with plenty of complaints as well). For him, it was mostly a financial decision: he thinks he will earn more than $500,000 self-publishing these two books. He might even be right; he’s already made $1,600 in a few weeks (and is on pace to make $30,000 this year) on a short story he self-published and released electronically. He clearly has fans, and he’s listened to Konrath’s advice to price his works attractively (under $5). He believes that, in the long term, he can’t see giving up e-book rights to a legacy print publisher forever (which, even if they earn out that hefty advance, would only net him 14.9% on additional e-book sales); he believes the print distribution advantages that publisher would give him will be short-lived and outweighed by the greater e-book royalties (70%) and control (especially over pricing) that he’ll have by going it on his own. Several times, he mentioned that he just didn’t feel right signing away e-book rights to a company that he believes is trying to delay the ascendence of e-books as long as possible, by fighting instead of embracing them.

And I can certainly understand many of those same feelings and concerns … but it is half a million dollars. Of course, I don’t know Mr. Eisler or his financial situation, and I don’t know exactly how well his books sell (obviously pretty well). And I’d imagine, whatever offer the publisher gave, the rights are worth more than that, especially when maximized effectively with proper pricing and customer-friendly policies. But, it’s another salvo in the “It’s easy to get rich e-publishing” meme gaining traction online, which I think is dangerously seductive to aspiring authors the same way the lottery is seductive to people who can’t afford buying tickets and the NBA is seductive to kids who should probably spend more time studying trigonometry instead of the triangle offense.

In any event, this move is a pretty big deal, and has to be a big blow to the legacy publishing industry. I’ve said for a while that best-selling authors will start migrating away from traditional publishers and going it alone (what can a big publisher offer Stephen King at this point that he can’t do on his own?), and Eisler appears to be the first big domino to fall. Sometimes these types of paradigm shifts happen “gradually, then suddenly,” so we’ll see if Eisler is merely an aberration or the start of a trend. Either way, legacy publishers can’t be happy with this news.

For the record, no, I’ve never been offered a $500,000 advance, and yes, I would take it in a hot second. Then I’d live off that money and write a whole bunch more books that I’d probably self-publish. ;-)

Mar 222011

I really do think I've heard every one of these.

Author John Scalzi posted this most excellent “Electronic Publishing Bingo” scorecard over on his blog, and, while it’s hilarious in its own right, I think it’s also worth a bit of closer discussion. (As with most humor, it has more than a grain of truth in it.)

While the scorecard includes some funny misconceptions and inconsistencies (“Stop Being Greedy and Also Where’s My Sequel?” is gold), it also includes several references to unbridled e-book success: “Everyone Will be as Successful as these Outliers;” “Amanda Hocking” and “J.A. Konrath” (the aforementioned outliers); “All You Need is 100,000 Readers;” “Anyone Will Read Anything if it’s 99 Cents;” and my favorite, “Publicity? Just Go Viral!” A number of squares also reference how easy it is to be a successful writer or publisher: “Crowd Source the Backend,” “Cover Art? You Can Just Photoshop That,” and “Spellcheck is Really Advanced These Days.”

I am certainly excited about the future (and the present!) of electronic publishing, and have written glowingly of it many times. I’ve even tried to help fellow authors on their path to self-publishing in both electronic and printed formats. And I do believe that authors today (whether first-time novelists or mega-bestsellers) should seriously consider self-publishing as an option — and that, in some cases, it may make more sense than publishing with a legacy publisher who is fighting instead of adopting electronic publishing.

But I’ve never promised easy riches or fame. I’ve never even promised very difficult riches or fame. At the end of the day, there are still way better ways to earn money, and even way better ways to take a gamble and strike it rich (practicing your jump shot or playing the lottery come to mind). Writing has never been a profession of easy riches (just of a very very tiny minority who make a lot of money, a fair number of authors who struggle to make a living, and countless authors who earn nothing or even lose money), and self-publishing is, in many ways, even tougher: part of self-publishing means that you have to do everything yourself (or pay to have it done). That means not only writing, but editing, proofreading, cover design, jacket blurb, author bio, print formatting, e-book formatting, marketing, social media, maintaining a website and blog, sales tracking, income taxes and expenses, etc.

As I’ve mentioned, there are more and more self-publishing authors who are doing well, some even very well, financially by self-publishing. But “more and more” is a relative term: there were exactly 0 people making good money in 2009 self-publishing, 1 or 2 in 2010, and maybe half a dozen so far in 2011. There are probably another few dozen making some kind of living at it. And this is out of about 1,000,000 books that were published last year, about 3/4 of them self-published. I’ve heard stats that claim the average self-pubbed title sells only 200 books. Considering it takes around a year to write and prepare a book, and might cost several hundred dollars or more for cover art, editing, and formatting, most books either lose money, break even, or earn their authors literally pennies per hour. I’m closing in on 10,000 sales, but I’m probably closing in on 10,000 hours spent (between writing 3 novels, all the other tasks I mentioned above, never-ending marketing, and all the research and blog posts I read and write on the publishing industry). So pennies an hour about covers it, and I’ve done better than most.

Even for the success stories, there’s no guarantee that their current sales trends will continue. I’ve seen my own books fluctuate from a few sales a day to 1,500 a month, and back down again. Same books, same covers, same hard work, same everything. I’m glad I wasn’t relying on the income to pay the rent. The electronic publishing future could change pretty drastically: publishers might get on board with low prices, Amazon might lower royalty rates or stop allowing self-publishing altogether, or there might be so many books out there that no one finds yours.

I say all this just to help temper expectations: as the Bingo board above illustrates, the Internet is alive with people touting self-publishing as a get-rich-quick scheme, an easy money-maker, and something you just have to get in on. Many of those shouting the loudest are companies looking to make money in publishing the same way it’s been made for decades: by preying on the dreams of aspiring authors and charging them for questionable editing, marketing, printing, or distribution services. Others are well-intentioned people or aspiring authors themselves who sincerely believe we’re in the midst of a “gold rush.” It is not my intention to throw cold water on anyone’s dreams, but I also don’t want to mislead anyone, and the reality isn’t necessarily as rosy as some would like to hope.

Even J.A. Konrath (arguably the first self-published author to start making good money) will tell you, over and over, that a whole lot of publishing (including self-publishing and electronic publishing) comes down to luck. Let’s face it, the big publishers, with 100 years’ experience and big marketing budgets, can’t predict what the next huge bestseller is — forget about home runs, they can’t even always hit singles, with about 80% of their releases losing money. Sometimes, things get hot, and go “viral” for no discernible reason; it’s just the right thing at the right time that was picked up by the right group of people.

That’s not to say that you can’t increase your odds by writing a good book, editing it until it shines, having a professional-looking cover, doing a good job with formatting, writing a compelling blurb, and pricing your work competitively (under $5, usually $0.99 or $2.99). But even doing all that, the odds of making a living at writing — let alone becoming rich or famous at it — are stacked firmly against you. Yes, electronic publishing offers some exciting new opportunities, and I’ve obviously taken on the challenge for myself. But the advice I’ve given authors all my life — and I still stand behind today — is to write a book only if you want to write it for yourself, and look at any future sales or income only as a secondary bonus, not a sure thing.

UPDATE: Some interesting specific numbers from Amazon here, showing just how few authors “strike it rich” self-publishing.

As 2010 comes to a close, it’s a good time to take a moment to reflect on everything that’s happened this year with e-books, e-readers, the publishing industry, and writing. I’ve included plenty of links to posts with more detail on individual topics you may be particularly interested in.

E-Books

In 2010, e-book sales roughly tripled, increasing from about 3% of total book sales to about 9% — a figure that finally seems to have the publishing world sitting up and taking notice. As we transition from paper books to a paper + digital world (and perhaps eventually to a primarily digital book world), we’ll see many changes in the centuries-old print publishing industry: bookstores will close, publishers will struggle, and new companies will step in and pick up the slack. In the digital world, in 2010 we’ve seen a proliferation of available e-book titles (the Amazon store roughly doubled its catalogue to over 750,000 e-books), e-books starting a global expansion (including the launch of the Amazon UK Kindle Store), and we’ve even seen e-book sales on Amazon overtake hardcovers and overtake all print books for best-selling titles.

We’ve also seen a battle over e-book features — with publishers generally fighting some of the very things that make e-books so useful and convenient for many of us. Publishers lined up to block text-to-speech functionality (which lets your Kindle read e-books aloud to you); add restrictive, annoying, and mostly ineffectual DRM copy protection; provide many e-books as poorly-formatted, non-proofread scans of print books; and we’re still stuck in an era where readers in many countries can’t buy the e-books they want to pay good money for, as geographic legal restrictions serve to partially negate the huge e-book advantage of instant, inexpensive, global distribution.

In 2011, I predict e-book sales to continue to increase (perhaps continuing the trend of doubling or tripling each year for another year or two), especially considering the technological advances in e-readers (and lower price points) and how many people probably just unwrapped new e-readers last week. I’d expect slow improvement in worldwide e-book availability and improved formatting of e-books, as publishers realize that they’re losing money and start to take e-books more seriously. But I’d expect large publishers to continue fighting certain e-book features, as they’re still in the mode of protecting print book sales, not fully embracing e-books yet. However, the pressure will continue to increase on them next year.

E-Readers

2010 brought us the introduction of Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s new Kindle 3, a new round of Sony E-Readers, and the Nook Color, among others. We’ve seen improvements in technology, including the new e-Ink Pearl screen with better contrast, and a battle between tablet computers with LCD screens (like the iPad) and dedicated e-readers with easy-on-the-eyes e-Ink screens (like the Kindle); at the same time, we’ve seen prices come down from $259 for the Kindle 2 to only $139 for the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi. This has combined to make e-readers much more affordable and a better value for more and more people. Estimates put e-reader sales from about 5 million in 2009, to 12 million in 2010, and predict 27 million in 2011.

Personally, I’ve tried the iPad, and found it better suited for Internet surfing, movie watching, and game-playing than for reading. I also recently upgraded from a Kindle 2 to a Kindle 3, and I am very, very pleased with the Kindle 3 — I think it’s the best device available for e-book reading, and I am finding it considerably better than the already-quite-good Kindle 2. I especially appreciate the increased contrast (much darker blacks and slightly lighter background) of the e-Ink Pearl screen, which is why I wouldn’t recommend either an LCD-based device (which has short battery life and is harder on the eyes), or an older-generation technology like the e-Ink screen in Barnes & Noble’s Nook. I’ve written a Holiday E-Reader Buying Guide here that compares and contrasts the options available, if you’re still trying to decide which one is right for you.

Next year, we can expect to see (a) more tablet computers being introduced, and many of them will masquerade as “e-readers,” although they are really Jacks-of-all-trades that are better suited for other tasks, (b) continued improvements and refinements in e-readers, and (c) perhaps even lower prices, as we’re approaching the $99 price point for e-readers — remarkable when the Kindle 1 debuted just 3 years ago for $399.

Publishing

As I mentioned above, the continued rise of e-books will have a profound effect on the publishing industry. First, print book sales declined in 2010, being replaced by e-book sales. This shift has strained the margins of publishers and bookstores, who are finding it difficult to adapt to an online e-book-selling world. Publishers have long-entrenched ideas, facilities, processes, and business models that can’t turn on a dime, and they’re seeing increased competition from online retailers (like Amazon and B&N) and smaller publishers, who don’t need the huge economies of scale and financial capital that the print book business requires. Predictably, these businesses have responded by trying to fight e-book adoption, trying to protect their print book business for as long as they can, and squeeze out a few more profitable quarters. They, so far, don’t appear to be interested in making the tough changes and painful downsizing required to succeed an an e-book world, and they (rightfully) fear that their spot at the top will be jeopardized during the upheaval, as newer, leaner, more forward-thinking companies replace some of the “Big 6″ publishers at the top of the heap.

To that end, publishers, fearful of Amazon’s e-book dominance, in April embraced the agency model, which stopped Amazon from selling best-selling e-books for $9.99 and allowed publishers to retain control of e-book pricing (most best-selling e-books then increased to about $12.99). This caused a temporary dip in e-book sales, which have since recovered. Publishers complained that low e-book prices “devalued e-books” and were unsustainable, while many independent authors (like myself) argued that selling more units at a lower price was a win-win scenario.

2010 will also be remembered as the year of the rise of self-published authors, with a couple I know of in particular (Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking) selling over 100,000 e-books and earning a very nice living — without traditional publishers. Several other indie authors joined Amazon’s “Encore” publishing program, competing directly with large publishers. In 2010, we saw e-book royalties for self-published authors (through Amazon, B&N, Apple, and most other outlets) increase from 35% to 70%, which compares quite favorably to the 8% authors used to get from publishers for paperback sales, or the 17.5% (net) they normally pay for e-book royalties.

As large publishers continue to decrease the amount of advances paid, hold the line on e-book royalties, overprice their e-books, block features, and reduce marketing services, my question to best-selling authors in 2011 is: why give 90%+ of the profits to a large publisher, when you can hire someone to do your covers and formatting for you, and keep 70% for yourself? I think we’ll see more and more big authors strike off on their own — and do very, very well. After all, when you buy a Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown book, you’re buying the book for the author, not the publisher (quick: who can even name the publishers for those 3 authors without looking it up?).

Writing

2010 was a milestone year for me personally, as I finished writing and editing my third novel, The Twiller, and released it for sale in June. Of course, being independent, I was also responsible for doing my own formatting and creating my own cover, along with doing my own marketing, which can take more time than actually writing the book! I was very pleased by the launch of The Twiller, which had the following results:

  • Ranked #1 on Amazon’s “Movers & Shakers” List.
  • Ranked in the Top 5 in both “Humor” and “Science Fiction” in the entire Kindle Store.
  • Ranked #188 overall in the Amazon Kindle Store.

My other novels also exploded in sales in 2010 (I only made them available through Amazon for the Kindle in late 2009). I ended the year with several new sales records, selling several thousand copies and earning several thousands of dollars from my writing for the first time — not yet enough to make a living, but certainly a nice start. More importantly, I reached thousands of readers, received dozens of positive reviews, and interacted with many great and passionate readers by email, through my Facebook Fan Page, and more. I sincerely do appreciate all the readers who have read my book, taken the time to contact me, written a review (they really do help!), and generally been supportive in my writing endeavors this year.

For my first novel, Right Ascension, I had the following encouraging and exciting milestones:

The sequel, Declination, also showed encouraging signs:

  • Sold over 3,000 copies this year — so more than 60% of the people who bought Right Ascension went on to purchase the sequel as well.
  • Both Right Ascension and Declination were on the Top 25 best-seller list for “Science Fiction” at the same time.
  • Ranked #827 overall in the Amazon Kindle Store.

As for this blog, its popularity has steadily increased since I launched it in April, with over 18,000 visitors. Average hits per day increased from about 40, to 60 in August, 90 in October, and over 100 a day in November and December. My most popular blog posts from 2010 were:

  1. E-Ink vs. LCD: What’s The Difference? (2,075 views)
  2. E-Book Market Share: Amazon At 75% (760 views)
  3. Kindle 3 Announced: 3G for $189, Wi-Fi for $139 (675 views)
  4. Kindle 3: Hands-On First Impressions (607 views)
  5. E-Book Sales Continue Rapid Growth (483 views)

Thank you again to everyone who visited my blog, left a comment, bought or read one of my books (available in the right nav bar or through Amazon here), became a Facebook fan, or shared some encouraging words this year. I’ve definitely excited to see what unfolds in 2011, and discuss it with all of you. Happy New Year!

To follow up on my earlier post about print-on-demand paperback self-publishing options, here is a primer to help you create, format, upload, and distribute your writing in e-book format. The best part is that the process I detail below is 100% free. Always be wary of anyone charging you money in relation to publishing your book — not that it’s never a good idea to get some professional help, but you should know exactly what you’re paying for and whether it’s worth it.

The down side to spending zero money on your e-book is that you have to do all the work. Cover design, editing, formatting, uploading, promoting, etc. Don’t expect to spend an hour and have a nice-looking, professionally-formatted e-book. I’ve spent many, many hours getting my e-book files just right (ensuring proper indents, special characters, interior images, and tables of contents in various electronic formats). Hopefully, my experience can save you some time.

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.

Amazon

Amazon is the most important e-book distributor; it still probably accounts for somewhere between 50% and 80% of all e-book sales. You publish e-books to the Amazon Kindle store using Amazon’s free Digital Text Platform (DTP) service at dtp.amazon.com. There, you can enter info about your book (author name, description, price, etc.) and upload your e-book cover and interior file. Amazon pays either 35% or 70% royalties; there’s more info in my recent post here.

You can upload the interior file in MOBI (the Kindle’s native format), or DTP will convert it for you if you upload an HTML or Word file. MOBI is best; HTML should be OK, Word is iffy. You can create MOBI files using the free Calibre (Mac or PC) or MobiPocket Creator (PC only) programs. A full MOBI or HTML tutorial is beyond the scope of this blog post — but see below for an easier, non-technical solution.

Smashwords

You’ll probably also want to upload your e-book to the free Smashwords e-book seller/distributor service. Smashwords sells e-books through its own website, but also will distribute them for you to be sold on B&N.com, Kobo, Sony, and the Apple iBook Store. They charge nothing up front, but they take a 15% cut of royalties.

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.

The Easy Way

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) take the MOBI file that Smashwords creates and upload it to Amazon’s DTP. You should end up with a nice-looking e-book, and it will be available on Amazon and all the major e-book sellers.

The Perfectionist’s Way

Some of us, especially after you start selling more than a handful of copies, want to craft the most pristine, best-looking, and most full-featured e-books possible. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time and effort and research (it’s also beyond the scope of this blog post). But it’s possible to create a proper cover, page breaks, special formatting, interior photos or artwork, a table of contents, and other useful e-book features. This involves creating an HTML file, which is trickier than it sounds, since Word’s “Save As HTML” produces code that needs a significant amount of manual cleaning up. That HTML file is then fed into an e-book creation program (like the two I mentioned earlier) and tweaked to produce a MOBI file that can be directly uploaded to Amazon, and that should retain all your exact formatting and features.

Conclusion

Basically, the aspiring e-book publisher (make no mistake: if you’re doing this yourself, you now become a publisher, not merely an author, and must take on all the duties of a publisher) has three choices: (1) go with a simple, clean e-book that will be OK but not spectacularly formatted, (2) spend a lot more time and effort producing perfect MOBI (and possibly ePub) files, or (3) hire a professional to format the e-book for you. Which option you select (I went with #2) depends on your budget, your technical ability, how much time you have, and how many e-books you realistically expect to sell.

B&N Announces "PubIt"

Barnes & Noble announced today that they will be opening their doors to independent publishers and self-published authors through their “PubIt” program, expected to launch in “Summer 2010.” While this move isn’t exactly groundbreaking (my novels are already available at Barnes & Noble), it’s still a welcome step forward. Currently, self-published e-books are made available on B&N.com through an intermediary: Smashwords, which is a fine company that offers a great service to independent authors. Soon, however, we will have the ability to upload our work directly to B&N, which will presumably offer us more control, a faster turnaround (it can take months to get your books or any changes to show up on B&N), and possibly higher royalties. B&N says royalties will be announced within a few weeks, and promises they will be “competitive.” It is hard to imagine how they could offer less than the 70% that Apple offers and that Amazon will offer starting July 1.

Amazon led the way for the self-publishing revolution with its Digital Text Platform, which allows any author to upload their work in e-book form to be sold on Amazon.com. So while one could argue that B&N has been following rather than innovating (releasing the Nook 2 years after the Kindle and arriving over a year late to the self-publishing scene), I’m glad to see B&N moving toward and embracing the future, unlike some businesses I could mention. I would expect a direct upload channel to B&N will enable me to create a higher-quality, better formatted source file (with Smashwords, it’s best to upload a simple, generically-formatted file that gets converted to multiple formats), quicker upload and revision times, better control over the description and category, and — hopefully — a higher royalty rate.

Another big benefit might be quicker sales reporting: currently, Amazon Kindle sales are reported instantly … which leads to incessant checking several times a day. ;-) B&N sales, on the other hand, get reported through Smashwords, and are currently on a 3-5 month delay. I started selling on B&N at the very end of January, and I haven’t even received my first sales report yet — all I can do is watch my sales ranking and guess. So I don’t know if B&N is turning into a worthy second sales channel, or if B&N sales are still just a tiny fraction of Amazon’s. It would behoove B&N to get this info to me more quickly, so I would know whether or not it’s worthwhile to devote more promotional efforts their way.

My only concern is whether the new file I upload will replace or sit alongside the Smashwords version that’s already active on B&N. I’d certainly like to keep my description, reviews, and sales ranking (Right Ascension has made it into the Top 7,500 there!).

Anyway, it’s an exciting development, and having both the #1 and #2 booksellers in the world throwing their weight behind self-publishing is certainly an encouraging sign. I still have more questions than answers (How many am I selling on B&N? What will the royalties be? When will it launch? What format do they want me to upload? Can I migrate over my existing product details?), but I remain hopeful.

P.S.: I seem to get most of my feedback from Kindle users, so I’d love to hear from a few B&N / Nook users: Have you purchased my books from B&N? Have you enjoyed them? How did the formatting look on the Nook? How many of you are out there??

A few friends have recently asked me about self-publishing, and it’s clear there are still several misconceptions out there. Most people think about self-publishing or print on demand (POD) services, and they think of high prices, large minimum order sizes, and the term “vanity publishing.” True, numerous companies still exist that are looking to make a buck by preying on the aspirations of new authors. It is important to do your research to avoid paying for overpriced services and “self-publishing packages.” But, the good news is that there now are ways to get your new novel, your family’s history, or your local cookbook into print for very low cost. In fact, you can print up a single copy of your book (and even make it available online and at Amazon so others can order additional copies if they wish) for literally ZERO in set-up fees — you just pay the cost of a single print copy plus shipping, which is under $10 for most books.

The service I most highly recommend is called CreateSpace. CS is a subsidiary of Amazon, and they offer a very low cost print on demand service that is suitable for printing small runs of trade paperback books (even just a single copy). While CS does offer optional, expensive author services packages (which I do not recommend), there is no charge to upload your work and make it available. You simply pay for a single proof copy and a reasonable rate per additional copy that you want to order. The price is based on the number of pages in the book, and includes a full-color glossy cover, perfect binding, high-quality white paper, and unlimited black-and-white interior photos.

Does it sound too good to be true? There is one “catch.” Since you’re not paying them anything (except the cost to print however many copies you order), you have to do all the formatting yourself. That means you have to create a PDF that is the right size with proper margins for the interior of your book (they offer numerous print sizes; my novels are 6×9 inches). Doing this is relatively easy, and you can use Word or pretty much any word processing or page layout program and save it as a PDF (even easier if you have a Mac). The more difficult part is designing a cover file. The cover will be a “full wrap” cover, which is the back cover, spine, and front cover all saved as a single PDF:

The full-wrap Right Ascension cover

Making a cover like this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I did mine with Photoshop, and it took a LONG time to figure out and get it just right. CS does provide some templates to help you out, which are based on the page size of your book and the spine width is calculated based on the number of pages. Even still, I had to find a high-resolution cover image (you want 300dpi or more for it to look its best), fiddle with the text and all the effects, mess with the color, etc., etc. There are easier ways to do it, and you can find simpler cover templates where you pretty much just add a photo and some text, if that’s enough for your needs. There are artists who will offer cover design services for a fee, but that only becomes worthwhile for commercial books where you think you can sell several hundred copies or more to justify that up-front cost.

Assuming you can come up with your cover and interior PDF files, you simply upload them to CS. So far, you haven’t spent a cent. Now, CS will ask you to order a proof copy of your book to make sure it looks good. If you only want a single copy, the “proof” copy can be it. Your book is priced based on the page count, and a 200-page novel (70,000 words or so) costs $5.50, with another $3 or so for shipping.

Once the proof arrives, you check it out, and if it looks good, you log into CS and “approve” the proof. Then you can order additional copies (as many or few as you want). If you’re buying more than 17 or so, it becomes worthwhile to pay $39 for the “Pro Plan,” which reduces the per-book printing cost: our same 200-page book would drop to $3.25. (Do this before ordering the proof to save a couple bucks on the proof copy as well.) Shipping is more economical on larger purchases, as a single book may cost about $3 to ship while a 20-book shipment may cost around $10. Obviously, if you order more, your total per-book cost will decrease. For example, 50 books ($162.50) with the Pro Plan ($39) and shipping ($15) should cost about $4.33 per book.

Once you’ve approved the proof, you can decide if you’d like to make the book available for purchase through CreateSpace, Amazon, or Expanded Distribution. If you’re just ordering a few copies of something for yourself and your immediate family, there’s no reason to select these options. However, you may want to offer a family history book, but don’t want to order 50 copies and possibly be stuck with them, or deal with shipping them or collecting money. In that case, you can enable CS distribution (which is free), and just email people the link where they can purchase however many copies they want, CS will print them up and ship them directly when ordered. CS takes 20% of the purchase price for CS sales, and you can set the “list price” so you make zero royalty (at 20% more than the per-book printing cost), or price it higher and even make a buck or two for your trouble.

Similarly, you can make your book available on Amazon or through Expanded Distribution, although Amazon takes 40% and ED sales take 60% of the list price. The ins and outs of selling on Amazon and ED (which makes it available for order in bookstores and libraries) are beyond the scope of this post, but leave a comment if you’re interested in more info and I may devote a later post to it.

Anyway, there are low-cost options to create your own printed books for family reunions, your short story collection, or anything else you’d like to see in print. You do have to put in some effort, but the cost is very low, and there are no set-up or other up-front fees (you just pay for the books you have printed). I recommend CreateSpace for their low prices and high quality, but some other solid possibilities include Lightning Source and possibly Lulu. I would avoid Author House, iUniverse, and xLibris, as each charges several hundred dollars or more for what you can get through CS for free.

UPDATE: For info on self-publishing for e-books, check this post.

© 2010 David Derrico