Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Adventures in Independent Publishing

Over the past few months, I've been having adventures in the world of online self-publishing. I'd like to share my experiences, in case any of my readers is thinking of publishing their own books.

To start from the end and show you the finished product, after some trial and error, I decided it's important to publish my book on more than one site. I'm glad to have had a chance to do a dry run with my book of my Great Grandmother's Recipes, "Emma's Pennsylvania Kitchen," because I have at least 4 or 5 others books in mind and in various stages of writing and research.

Where to buy "Emma's Pennsylvania Kitchen":

In print, and also in PDF download at Lulu.

In many different formats of ebook at Smashwords.

For Kindle (MOBI file) at Amazon.com.

Initially, I published the book on Smashwords. This had been suggested by my Dad, who has also published books on Smashwords, here.

Dad has a long history of traditional publishing as a professor of American Literature, but more recently he's been writing memoirs, travel books, and comedy, and has turned to electronic publishing. Since he's been doing this longer than I have, I decided to take his advice, which I think turned out to be good advice.

My experience with publishing sites:

Smashwords is exciting for anyone who wants to publish an ebook, because they have technology that converts your Microsoft Word file into many different formats for use in different devices, including EPUB, which Smashwords says is their most popular and most important format, and makes your book available for the Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony Reader, and "most e-reading apps," also MOBI (for Amazon's Kindle), also HTML, PDF, RTF, LRF (for older Sony readers), and Palm Doc (PDB). If your book conforms to their exacting standards, they make it available on many different partner sites, as part of their Premium Catalog. Publishing on Smashwords is free for authors, and you set the price of your ebook yourself.

Getting into the Smashwords Premium Catalog is no cinch, however, and currently takes a long time. Smashwords recently announced they have hired some new people to try to clear the backlog. My book has been on Smashwords for over a month, and still has not made it into the Premium Catalog, although I assume it will eventually be eligible, once I fix any formatting issues. The book was on their site for over two weeks before they got back to me and said it had a formatting problem for EPUB, which I worked on right away and uploaded a new version. I think this one is complete, but I'm still waiting to hear back from them.

One of the things I like about Smashwords, apart from the conversion into multiple formats, is that they seem to be genuinely eager to help independent authors. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, has gotten back to me quite quickly on a couple of occasions with answers to questions I had submitted (through their customer support link at the top of the page on their site).

The author profile pages on the site are another way that I think Smashwords is very helpful -- they allow you to link to your web site, facebook, twitter (complete with a feed of your recent tweets) and even allow you to link to where you have your book available in print or audio book -- something they might be expected to view as competition, but instead, they take the more author-friendly approach.

Perhaps the downside is that, since they convert your book into so many different formats, they have very exacting standards for the format of your Word file going in. If you haven't followed their Style Guide carefully, you're likely to run into conversion problems. This seems a small price to pay for getting your book into so many formats, but I can see how it may be daunting to some authors.

While I've been waiting to get into the Smashwords Premium Catalog, I noticed that a facebook friend had simultaneously published her book about Tarot cards on Smashwords and Amazon.com. I wondered how she did that, since Smashwords does not currently make books available on Amazon.com, so I made it a priority to find out.

It turns out that Amazon lets independent authors publish for their Kindle device through their Kindle Direct Publishing site.

Publishing on Kindle Direct is free for the author. You can set the price of your ebook yourself, but it must have a minimum price of 99 cents. (Smashwords allows you to publish free books.) If you publish your book on Kindle direct, it will only be available in Kindle format (free apps are available for reading on other devices, such as your PC).

The benefits of publishing on Kindle Direct are that your book is available from one of the biggest online book retailers in the world, and that it's available very quickly.

My book only took about 48 hours to become available on Amazon, after I had uploaded it. However, I ran into a strange problem where, immediately after I had uploaded the book, I found something minor that I didn't like about the file I had uploaded. Instead of being able to upload a corrected version immediately, I had to wait for Amazon to approve the one I had already uploaded, which I knew had a problem. Only then did the link become available to upload a new, corrected version.

Another pitfall of publishing on Kindle Direct is that the process of preparing your book for upload is not all that straightforward, and they have buried the most relevant instructions, so that they are very difficult to find on their site. (Click the link in the previous sentence to read them.)

Now I had my book published on Smashwords and Amazon.com, so I was happy. I had a vague thought that some people may want traditional paper books, but I was so happy with the Kindle for PC app that I had downloaded from Amazon.com that I was getting used to ebooks very quickly. I incorrectly assumed this would be an easy switch for most people.

Not long after I had published the ebook versions, I ran into a friend of mine, who asked me when "Emma's Pennsylvania Kitchen" would be available in print. I told her I wasn't sure that it would be, because it was my impression that most self-publishing sites that make paper books available, do so at a premium to the author. I was aware that in most cases, self-published books are not big sellers (unless the author also becomes a successful marketer), so it's usually foolish for an author to spend hundreds of dollars up front to publish their books. Having looked into some of the vanity presses out there a bit, I was aware that on many of them, hundreds of dollars is what you pay. My friend told me she's definitely a paper book person, however, so I decided to look into it more and see if there wasn't an exception somewhere.

I had been a site visitor to Lulu.com before, and I knew that they at least claimed you could publish on their site for free. I had also heard people express the opinion that this wasn't really true. I decided to investigate.

Actually, it turns out that publishing a paper book on Lulu is almost free.

The truth is, you can upload a book and publish it for free on Lulu, but if you want them to distribute it to Amazon.com and list your ISBN in major bibliographic databases, then you have to at least buy one copy as a proof copy (for printing cost plus shipping), which you have to approve before they do their distribution. Their Extended Reach distribution is then free (after you buy your proof copy), but more extensive distribution options are not free. I opted for the free extended reach distribution, because my ebook was already available in other places, and I just wanted to be able to give people a link to where they could buy a print copy.

Lulu is currently running a promotion where your proof copy is free, too.

Getting your book ready to upload on Lulu is fairly simple. Just use their downloadable Word template for the book size you choose, and you can easily format your text correctly. You may want to use their printing cost calculator (on the left margin of the linked page) before deciding what template to use. You don't want to design your book for a specific template and then find out the printing cost is too high.

The template downloads also include a cover layout template, so you can design your own cover. Unlike with the ebook publishing sites, for print books on Lulu, you need both a front and back cover, and a book spine. For less experienced users, they also have a book cover designer, but I'm not sure how well it works, because I designed my own cover in Adobe Photoshop.

Once you use their templates, the book conversion process is largely a matter of what you see is what you get. They say they prefer PDF uploads, but I uploaded mine as a Word document, and this worked fine. The one problem I ran into with the conversion is that I had left certain pages blank on purpose, so that chapters would start on odd numbered pages. They removed the pages I had left blank on purpose, so once I discovered that by looking at the PDF file they created, I had to go back into my Word document and put something on the pages that were blank intentionally, then upload the file again. It was quite easy, though.

Lulu shipped my proof copy to me quite quickly, and there were no problems with it, so I approved it for distribution. They say this will take 6 - 8 weeks.

Between the three sites, Smashwords, Amazon, and Lulu, I'm quite happy with the online availability of my book in various formats, at basically no cost to me as an author. This doesn't mean I'm expecting big sales, and one of my major goals is to learn how to market my writing better. It's a major feeling of accomplishment to have the book published on these three sites, though, and one I'm celebrating.

Why publish independently?

There used to be a stigma against self-publishing, but that is changing.

Traditional publishers can offer authors a certain level of proven marketing expertise, although authors generally still end up having to market their own books to a great degree. Traditional publishers are also pretty good at picking out books that meet a certain basic level of quality, so having a book chosen by them is an accomplishment. (Even if you think much of what gets published by corporate publishers is crap, at least most of it is saleable and edited well enough to be at least intelligible.)

Why self-publish, when I'm sure with a year or two or a few of effort, one or more of the books I have in the works could be accepted by a traditional publisher?

The simple truth for me is that I'm not big on accepting authority. I like to do things my own way. I like it a lot. Although I would welcome being published by a traditional publisher, I'm not inclined to seek their permission to publish. They act as gatekeepers. I've jumped over the fence.

At some point, I'm sure I will submit some work to traditional publishers, especially once I have established a proven sales record with self-publishing. For now, though, it seems more important to me to write and publish, not wait and wait. For me, independent publishing is empowering! That seems like a good enough reason.

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