Monday, December 5, 2011

A Short Course in Self Publishing

I should be using my “free” time today to write.  I should be using it to do some marketing.  Instead, I am going to do something for my fellow authors.  Ain't I nice?  Nah, I just remember what it felt like not all that long ago when I was faced with the huge prospect of self publishing.  It was a daunting prospect and I screwed up in almost every way possible.  That is why I did not call this post an "Idiot's Guide to Self Publishing."  I still feel like an idiot for some of the things I did and did not do so the "idiot" would have been me.

Somehow, I have people sending me emails and asking me about the nuts and bolts of self publishing.  People on forums send others that are new to self publishing my way…like I am an expert.  I am not!  I have just done it before.  Maybe not well, maybe not smoothly, but I did it.  Many of the same questions keep coming up over and over so I decided to address some of them in one blog post.  Along the way, I will give you some definitions and alternate sources of information…like people who ARE experts.

Someone told me that I should put this out as a short pamphlet for $.99 and make a few bucks, but since I am no expert, I would not feel right about taking money for what I have learned thus far.  Plus, I like “free.”

FREE!  I love that word.  Our whole country was founded on “free.”  Our definitions might change, but we all love “free” in one form or another.  One form of “free” that I love is “no-charge.”  When I give away my books, I usually use the term “no-charge” because the time and effort I put into writing that book was definitely not “free.”  People do not appreciate “free” because the concept takes away value, but when they hear “no-charge” they rightly think that the item has value.  They are just not paying for it.

Others may have written this information down and done it better, but I have not found all the information I wanted in one place.  You won’t find it all here, either, but it is a start for you.  Today, I am going to talk about how to self publish your books for FREE (or very close to it).  I will endeavor to do it simply and in an uncomplicated manner even though I may take a diversion or three.

Maybe someday, I will write a book called, “How I Sold a Million Books Without Spending a Nickel.”  I do have that goal but, ummm, I am going to need your help with that.  I know some of you have a similar goal so when you sell that millionth book, remember those of us who tried to help you along the way, k?

You are FREE to publish your own book just as you are free to dance.  I say “you are free to dance” because I have been banned from performing in several jurisdictions:

So you see, even though you are “free” to do something, that does not mean that you should.  Cambria Hebert and I had a discussion about self publishing versus traditional publishing here:

There is a mystique about self publishing.  I imagine that people picture self publishers as either computer geeks turned author or authors turned computer geeks.  That may be true in some instances, but the only thing you really need to be is an author.  Seriously, self publishing does not take genius…just look at all the poorly done self published books out there.

That brings us to the flip-side of the mystique: the stigma.  People think that self published means poor quality.  While that is true in many cases, it does not have to be true for you.  Or me, I hope.

I am not trying to sell you on going one way or the other on self publishing or finding a traditional publisher.  Do what is right for YOU.  For the sake of argument, and there is a debate raging across the Internet if you want to Google it, let us say that you have chosen to self publish.  You have been rejected by publishers OR you do not want to wait for them OR (if you are like me) you have a compelling need to Do-It-Yourself.  Even if you choose to go with a small publisher, you should probably KEEP READING so you will know a little about what goes into the services they perform for you.

A Simplified Process to Self Publishing:

1)  Write the book.  This is what we do as writers.  There are MANY opinions on “how” to write a book and I won’t get into them here.  I am focusing on function.  You will need a word processor program like Microsoft WORD or Open Office.  I know a lot of you hate Microsoft, and while I am a big believer in Open Office, WORD is the way to go if you have a choice between the two for getting your book ready to publish.  Amazon and Smashwords like the .doc format for conversions.  You can save documents in Open Office as .doc files, but they do not come out quite the same and that can lead to formatting issues.  However, because Open Office is a free program, I import WORD documents into it and use the grammar and spellchecking functions because each program finds different potential errors.

Michael J. Sullivan just wrote an article about Scrivener here:  Sullivan on Scrivener.  It is a program to help authors write books.  I have not used it and probably will not in the near future because I finally have my own system and am loathe to change to something else so quickly, but it sounds like a good way to stay organized.

2)  Read your book a million times and correct all the errors that you find.  Honestly, I only do about six re-reads and self edits before sending it off to my first round of test readers.  The VERY FIRST person to get their hands on my new work is Jenn at Indie Supporter.  If it is terrible, she will tell me.  Then I send it out to half a dozen people who do not normally read the genre in which I write.  I am LOOKING for criticism at that point.  I want them to point out the flaws.  I want them to be blunt and honest.

I want them to let me know what needs correcting and whether my story and characters are any good.  Face it, at this point in the process, our books are terrible.  We might hit the mark on story and characters, but the writing will not be something of which we should be proud.  I know this because I made the mistake myself!  As a matter of fact, if you name the self publishing mistake, I have probably made it too: JA Clement's Blog.

As your test readers send you their feedback, make the corrections and send NEW COPIES to the test readers who are not yet finished with your book.  It is the only respectful thing to do so that they do not keep finding the same mistakes others have.  You want to be respectful of their time and you want them finding NEW mistakes.

3)  Now you have your book in a WORD document that has gone through one round of test reading.  GET AN EDITOR.  I know a few and if you ask, I will point you in their direction.  Leave a comment below and other authors will recommend editors to you too.

DO NOT publish your work without it being edited.  For the sake of the rest of us who self publish, have your book edited.  Work something out with an editor if you cannot afford it.

4)  What to look for in an editor?  You need someone to unabashedly point out why your book still sucks.  You need someone to proof read your words (this can be your editor OR you can get proof readers separately).  You need someone to find the flaws in your story from a “standards” perspective.  You do not need to heed all of their opinions, but you need them to point out potential problems that will jar the reader out of your story.

You also need them to polish your work.  Add this, subtract that.  They are there to make YOUR work better.

CAUTION:  You editor needs to love your book.  They need to see what you first send them as a four star book that could be a five star book once they do their magic.

5)  Your editor has your book and says it will take between two weeks and several months to get through their first pass on it.  What to do with all that “free” time?  Forget about free time.  Go build your social network: Lizzy Ford's Site.  Research what other authors are doing for marketing.  Here again, I failed for you.  I did not want to market my books before I knew they were good enough.  Silly me, that social network will always be there!  Start building it now so that it will be there when you write a book you think is good enough to let strangers read.

6)  In this free time, find a cover artist.  YES!  Any idiot with no artistic talent can use the tools (I will show you later) available for FREE to make a cover.  It probably won’t be a good cover, but it will be a cover.  Yep, I made my first cover and it probably sucked.  When I re-issued the first book, it had a professional cover.

I do not believe that many people buy a book based on the cover, but I positively know that sometimes the cover will dissuade them from reading the blurb which means “no sale.”  A good cover is mandatory.

What makes a good cover?  That is up for debate.  Talk to your cover designer about that.  Oh?  You don’t have a cover designer?  Leave a comment and I will point you to a couple.  So will other readers of this blog.  If you cannot afford them, work something out.  Chances are they need some services too.

7)  Write your blurb.  Write your tag line sentence or two.  Write a four word tag line: Robin's Write 2 Publish.  Do not think these things will be easy or that they do not matter.  There is a very good chance that your blurb will be your BEST opportunity to sell someone a book.  Your editor might be able to help you with this (you feelin’ me on this, Tricia? We need to re-write the blurb for The Reluctant!).  The blurb on my first book is “ok” at best.  The blurb on the second is pretty good, I think.  But if people do not read the first, they won’t read the second.  PROBLEM!

Authors are generally BAD at writing their own blurbs.  Maybe we are too close to the work to break it down to a few hundred words.  Maybe we are not good at promoting ourselves.  Maybe you are the exception.  In any event, use this “free” time to get the blurb and blurb-ettes perfected.

8)  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?  If you write a great book and no one knows about it, or you cannot attract them into reading it, are you really an author?  Develop a marketing plan.  I failed so hard at this, and am desperately playing catch-up, that I am not even going to touch this one.  Go do your research.  Find out what other authors say.  Try some things.  Get that social network going.

And when you find the magic formula, help a brother out and send me an email.

9)  Your editor sends back your manuscript with all sorts of red, yellow, purple, and green marks on it.  See how much you really suck as a writer?  Read through it, skim it, see the things that come up over and over…like my poor use of ellipses.  Then, consider everything your editor has marked and fix those things that need fixing.  If you reject a suggestion, explain to your editor why in the notes you send back to them with your "fixed” manuscript.

Your editor is no more of a writing god then you are.  They will not understand everything you were trying to do or why you used certain words.  Somewhere in the middle, there is a good balance.  Just understand that where that balance is PROBABLY falls more toward what the editor noted.  Be humble.

How “clean” your original manuscript was will determine how much time you will need during this first, real, re-write.  Typos are hard to find but easy to fix.  Plot holes are a different story.  If you had gaping plot holes that were not found until your editor pointed them out, you have a lot of work ahead of you.

10)  Have a conversation with your editor when you send your fixes back to them.  How many more editing passes do they think they will need?  What is their schedule like?  What is their time estimate?

Set a publication date—and add two months.  Stick to that first date as the “drop dead” date.  That just MIGHT leave you enough time in the extra two months to fix the things that you MISSED leading up to the “drop dead’ date.  Yes, I am saying you should lie to yourself about which date is the really important one.

Hey, guess what?  I screwed this one up too.  Tricia and I spent sleepless nights fixing my books before the final release date.  If you have a choice through good planning, do not follow in our footsteps.

11)  Now you have something to send out to your second set of test readers.  This document has had its first pass by a real editor so it SHOULD finally be readable.  Far from perfect, but readable.  Lots of people want a “free” read in exchange for their comments.

You have some choices here beginning with: what format do I want to send them?
A WORD document might be fine for some of these test readers.  They can easily notate corrections.
Many of these readers want to read your “book” on their eReader of choice so you will have to convert your document to an appropriate format for them.

How to turn a WORD document into a format for an eReader?  Here is one method that works pretty well:
First, understand that there are several formats with the most common being ePub, MOBI (Kindle), and PDF.
Second, download Calibre here: Calibre
Third, convert your WORD document into a PDF.  If your software will not do it, use a free service like this one: WORD to PDF Converter.
Fourth, go ahead and save versions of your book onto your computer in all three formats.

Calibre is pretty easy to use but do be aware that it can do some funky things to the appearance of your work in those new formats.  Make sure this new group of test readers KNOWS that what you are sending them is NOT a final version.  You will start with the PDF in Calibre and convert the PDF into other formats.

12)  Either while you are sending the book out to your second set of test readers, or after another editing pass or two, you are going to want to send out Advanced Reading Copies (ARC’s) to reviewers and bloggers.

Sorry, Scooter, you are only a self pubbed author with all the stigma that comes along with the label.  The New York Times will not take your phone calls.  Some bloggers won’t want you either.  Go to GoodReads and find a few groups with reviewers.  Here is just one of my favorites: Creative Reviews.

Research a blog before requesting a review.  Do they like your genre?  Do they give thoughtful reviews?  What are their submission guidelines?

Also understand that even amateur bloggers often have deep to-be-read piles.  Get an ARC to them MONTHS in advance, if possible.  Again—oops on my part!

13)  FINALLY, after your editor and test readers are satisfied, you have a document ready to publish!  Congratulations!  Now the really hard part begins.

I will focus on only three main avenues to getting your book into the hands of readers: Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Smashwords, and Createspace.  Amazon’s KDP and Smashwords do eBooks.  Createspace does Print on Demand (POD).  All are FREE.

Amazon and Smashwords like WORD documents.  Theoretically.  The truth is that you may have to export your .doc to “HTML unfiltered” for Amazon and Smashwords—well, they call their conversion software the “MeatGrinder” for a reason.  Just go start beating your head against the wall now to save time.

But, really, it is easy after you do it the first time…aren’t you glad you built in that extra two months so you could learn this stuff?

Amazon’s KDP has templates for making your WORD doc into something that will convert well.  Go here:  Kindle Templates.

Smashowrds has its Style Guide here:  Smashwords Style Guide.  Read it.  Learn it.  Live it.

You will need two separate documents, one for each site.  Your copyright page will be different for each AND...

Smashwords will make up an active Table of Contents (TOC) for you during the conversion process.  Amazon will not at this time.  Since I write fiction, a TOC is not even really necessary, but I copied Smashword’s into my Amazon document.  It is not “active,” but it works fine for what I do.  Smashwords will send your document through an “Auto Vetter” to make sure there are no glaring deviations from their Style Guide.  Still, you are going to want to download their conversions in various formats to make sure things turned out correctly.

At that point, your book will go into a review process for Smashword’s Premium Catalog where, if it measures up, it will be made available through other retailers like Barnes and Noble, iTunes, KoBo, and the like.  Cool, huh?  The bad part is that the review process takes up to two weeks for the Premium Catalog and then it takes some time for the book to actually show up on those sites.  Ask me how I know—SORRY to my Nook fans!  It is coming!

Amazon will only make your book available in the MOBI format for Kindle.  I will tell you now that it seems to be much more forgiving than Smashword’s MeatGrinder (which converts into several formats) and most of your sales will probably come from Amazon.  Try loading your WORD document but be aware that you may have to convert that first into an unfiltered HTML file to make the book look the way you wanted it to look.  You can do this through the “export” feature in WORD.

Yes, you might have to do some experimenting and trouble shooting.  Or, you can hire a formatter.  Yep, we know some of these people too, just ask.

-Once you have uploaded your book to Amazon, use their preview feature to make sure the conversion went well.  When you hit that “enter” key, your book will go into “review” and will be available to the world in about 48 hours.  Go make your author page on Amazon through Author Central: Author Central.

The thing to remember above all else for publishing an eBook is: keep it simple.  If you want to use 37 different fonts and have cool little illustrations, your workload is going to increase drastically.

-For print, I will focus on CreateSpace.  There are other services available, but I am trying to keep this simple.

CreateSpace has templates for different sized print books here:  Print Templates.  Copy and paste, Baby.  By this time, you should have just about all of the information you need to go to print.  An author bio, blurbs, a picture of YOU, a cover, a copyrights page, etc..

Don’t have a cover yet?  CreateSpace has a FREE cover design feauture.  The result will not be original but it might be useable.

A note on ISBN numbers: It’s a good idea to have them.  Smashwords will give you one for free BUT you should not use it on your Amazon eBook.  You will need a new one for your print version too.

Order your proof from CreateSpace, check it for accuracy, and frame it!

I have done everything on the print side except actually putting my books out in print.  Why?  Because I want to make them perfect.  eBooks can evolve a bit, print is pretty permanent.  Like I have said, I have learned from my mistakes and hope to avoid future mistakes.

There you have it.  I know it was a cursory glance at self publishing, but it is more than I had when I started.  The above is only one path to getting books into the hands of your readers.  There are other services, other retailers, and other theories.  Check out the list of blog on the right side of my page for more discussions.  Follow the sites I listed above for some in-depth discussion on the finer points of self publishing.

Want to say “thank you” for my no-charge little post here?  Just download a no-charge copy of “The Reluctant” from Smashwords: The Reluctant and/or buy the second book in my series, The Willing, at:  The Willing on Smashwords and The Willing on Amazon.  You don’t have to, just sayin’…

Most of all, HAVE SOME FUN publishing your work.  You don’t have to be a computer geek or web expert to self publish.



  1. "Your editor might be able to help you with this (you feelin’ me on this, Tricia? We need to re-write the blurb for The Reluctant!)."

    --On it, boss! Thanks for the editor kudos!

  2. Good lord!
    That's a ton of info and a LOT of shout outs!
    Thanks so much, I heart the hell outta ya!

  3. Wow a lot of info there for some reason my gutter mind stuttered over that line about cover artists needing a service!

  4. Maybe you need to start bribing bloggers into hosting you on a blog tour for your book, which again I promise is in my TBRVS pile!

  5. Blog Tour is TBA :).

    We do need services...

    I pointed out some of my "go to" sites and there are others. Like Amy Eye or Konrath or PassiveGuy or Alchemyofscawl or...the list goes on.

    There ARE resources, they are just hard to find.

    More comments welcome.


  6. Well you know you can use my blog for the tour.

  7. Thank you! Will be there :).


  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Awesome post Split. As someone in the position now of learning much of what you covered, I can only say thanks!

  10. Splitter dear, you so owe me, my friend. Yeah, you heard me right, you owe me. Why? Because I saw the message popping in my inbox saying "Splitter's Blog has a new post" and I rushed over when I should've kept doing what I was set to do, meaning WORK. But then you had to have such an interesting post and suck me in. You had to. The result, I read it AND bookmarked it so I can come back later and use your hard work to click on the cool help thingies instead of me researching them.
    And offering free of charge books? Really??? How am I suppose to focus on releasing my book in less than 3 weeks when you put out there books I can't resist?
    For all of this "BAD" behavior, please ask your wife to slap you--I'm too far away to reach over.
    Humor aside. THANK YOU in the biggest letters Word can possibly accept here.
    Thank you. Muchas gracias. Multumesc. Danke. Merci.

  11. Awww, you people are nice :).

    Camelia, sorry to cost you time. Are you self pubbing? Even if you are not, I hope you blog about your experience.

    Don't worry, sometimes Mrs. Splitter thumps me "just because."


  12. It'll take me a few days to get through this, but I'm going to share it on my Facebook as I know some people who are into the whole "putting a lot of words in a row" thing.

    If you don't approve then I'll happily delete it.

  13. Thanks for sharing your discoveries! I would suggest that aspiring authors be clear about the kind of editing they need, and start with content editing. You don't need to pay for detailed line editing or proofreading when you are still working on "big picture" items. I had one client who paid someone else a lot of money and only got grammar and punctuation corrections. Then the client found me and we went over major changes to plot, character arcs, and style. She would have been much better off hiring us in the reverse order!

  14. Feel free, Grrouchie. I wrote it and put it on here to help people if I could. Share away.

    Chris, that is definitely true and a good point. If you don't have a good story and characters, there is no reason to proceed until you get those things fixed. I know some editors who offer different levels of service.

    Thanks for the responses, people. Keep 'em coming.


  15. Wow! That's a lot crammed into one post! My eyeballs are spinning. Thanks for sharing though!