Monday, May 9, 2011

How to Epublish a Book - the Perils and Pitfalls

So you want to be a writer?

Unfortunately, so do many others.  This is a field crowded with despair and filled with broken dreams - there are literally thousands of unpublished books out there.  But that is all changing now.  With the rise of the eBook, the power of the old gatekeepers – the publishers and agents – is starting to fade.  But their strength is still larger than your average author.  They have money for marketing, professional editors, and the contacts with the paid reviewers to raise a book above the endless sea of written material.

When I first started writing, I had visions of my book becoming a big success.  No longer would I have to work my dead-end job.  But the reality is, the publishing world only accepts proven genres, proven writers, and sure money-makers.  For example, I had my first ready-to-publish book rejected over thirty times.  Most of the rejections came quickly - almost as if my work wasn’t even being considered.  One or two good leads petered out since the agents in question wanted certain lengthy changes or wished the book was written from a different point-of-view.  I knew, from the feedback of my chosen critics, that I had a good book with “Of Ghosts and Gunpowder” but no one seemed to care.  It really breaks your heart to feel so ignored.

That’s when I decided to enter the world of ePublishing using Smashwords.  This is a route fraught with its own perils.  There is the matter of cover art, editing and marketing.  You have to do it all yourself or spend the money to have someone else take the time.

But first, you need a book to sell.  And that means writing.  I actually wrote four full-length novels before I felt comfortable enough to write “Of Ghosts and Gunpowder.”  In order to write well (and even now, I’m not 100% sure that I can), you must read well.  What makes your favorite book tick?  What brings the story together so well?  Are the conversations between characters natural and unforced?  Does the story make sense without too many imaginative band-aids?

Writing also takes practice.  And by practice, I mean grueling hours of actually writing.  Coming up with a story-line is the easy part.  The hardest part is getting all of the pieces of the puzzle together to tell a coherent story.  Make outlines or else you will find yourself flailing in the middle of the story.  Good stories take good planning.  Make character lists with descriptions of their past and general traits.  Maybe you will want to start with a short story and then eventually expand it to something longer.  For the first book, it’s definitely easier to start small and then expand instead of trying to tell an epic story.  It's best to leave that sweeping tale for the next book when your writing skills are better.

Writing mostly takes time.  Lots and lots of time.  You will have to shut off parts of your social and family life.  You will have to sit down and start typing.  Personally, I don’t like to agonize over every page.  I like to “get the story out of my system.”  Remember, the best thing about modern technology is the fluidity of data.  So whatever you write, it can easily change in the future.  Think of the first draft as the rough product that you have to hone into the best possible story.  Also forget about “Writer Workshops” and “Writer Groups” – you need all your time to actually write, not to socialize and agonize.

Once you have your first draft, it’s time to re-write.  And re-write.  And re-write once again.  This is your chance to remove extraneous words, fix sloppy sentence construction and tighten up the story.  Have someone else who is willing to be honest go over your work.  This is an important time to grow a thick skin and take criticism in a healthy manner.  Even though you have poured hours of sweat and tears into your work, that doesn’t mean it is perfect.  Take this chance to make your book even better.  The more critics you have, the better, but don't get too bogged down with advice on how to improve the story.  Take the best suggestions and go with them.
Editing comes next.  I’m lucky enough to have a wife who has a degree in English.  She is also trained in legal writing and is quick to find my errors.  She has also pointed out certain bad writing habits of mine, allowing me to become a better writer.  If you don’t have such a resource on hand, then consider hiring it out.  You need a second-pair of eyes to find errors because Spellcheck is not enough! 

After so many hours with your own material, it’s near-impossible to have any objective view of it.  Keep this in mind when you go over the final draft.  Is there something that would make the book even better?  Is there a plot twist that is not well explained?  Is one of the characters doing something “out of character?”  Again, your group of critics helps here.

And now you’re ready to publish.  But first you need a book cover.  Even though I’m well-versed in computers, I’m no graphic artist.  For the cover of “Of Ghosts and Gunpowder” I used a local artist.  However, for the cover of “Murder at Zero Hour,” I found a public-domain photo and modified it.  Photoshop is a nice software package to have, but I managed just fine with MSPaint and  The latter allows you to add titles, shading and other effects.  The free on-line version does just about everything you need.

For publishing via Smashwords, follow their style guide to the letter.  I had only a few problems with “Of Ghosts and Gunpowder”, but my older work “Murder at Zero Hour” had been through several text editors over the years.  I had editing issues until I copied all the text to Wordpad and then back to Word - also known as the "Nuclear Option."  This removes all the goofy bookmarks, special characters and tables.

After uploading the final document, it’s time for an agonizing wait.  The queue for submitting works to Smashwords is a long one.  There are literally hundreds of other writers out there , all trying to get a piece of the pie.  My last submission took roughly 24 hours.  After your work has been 'published', it is time to review the final product.  I like to examine the .mobi file on my desktop using the Kindle PC Reader available from Amazon.   If everything looks good, then you’re in for another wait until the book reaches the Preminum Catalog.  If your book still needs layout work, it’s time to fix and resubmit.

A quick word on pricing – I like to sell my eBooks for 99 cents.  Why?  The idea is to have a low price/high volume product.  Readers are more likely to take a chance for a low price, while a higher priced book will need critical reviews to be purchased.  Again, this is something you have to consider.  What is your book worth to someone else?  With my genre, action and mystery, the low-price seems to fit - for example, the Gold Medal books of yore were only 25 cents.

Do allow a certain percentage of your finished work to be downloaded for free.  This is chance for your potential buyers to sample your work.  10-20% is a good number, though higher rates may be used for short stories.

To make it to the Premium Catalog of Smashwords, your work will require review by their staff.  Depending on their workload, this can take a few weeks.  For my first novel, “Of Ghosts and Gunpowder”, this wait seemed interminable at only two weeks.  I was literally checking the site every few hours, growing increasingly frustrated.  Once your work is finally accepted into the Premium Catalog, it will be yet another wait before it is distributed to Apple, Diesel, Kobo, etc.  Patience is a virtue!  Or so they keep telling me.

Now comes the worst part – waiting for sales.  When you first publish, there will be an initial interest in your book.  Buyers will download the sample version, and if you’re lucky they will come back for more.  Your book will also make it to the other distributors, increasing your visibility and potential sales.  From there, it's a matter of fate.  But perhaps fate can be given a little nudge.

The second worst part about ePublishing is the marketing.  As an unknown author, how do you get your name out?  How can you tell everyone about your wonderful book?  It’s a tough question.  It helps to have an online presence, but this is not always doable if you’re busy writing.

Facebook is useful, but don’t over-spam your work to your friends.  I know I don’t like constant reminders – would you like it if a friend told you about their new car over and over?

Consider starting a blog, sharing your trials and tribulations with writing.  That’s what I did and why you are reading this.  If you have multiple hobbies like I do, tie your blogs together.  My Audio and Music related blog gets hundreds of hits per-month.  Any percentage of the traffic that is diverted here is just icing on the cake.

It’s also a good time to start writing your next book.  The more material you have out there, the more online presence you will have.  I’ve already started my third book and hope that the word-of-mouth of my previous work will bring sales to my new.


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