Doing the book-buying links

I wanted to put up a couple of those nice picture links that would take interested people to places where they could buy (or at least take a look at) my self-published book.

Amazon has a program called Amazon Associates that allows a blogger or website to get a little commission from links to Amazon that they put on their site.  A lot of websites use these.  Ain’t It Cool News, a movie critic and review site, must have hundreds of these.

So I checked it out, and it looked a bit complicated to me.  I didn’t want a pile of ads of all kinds.  It’s not like I have a big “circulation” anyway.  I just wanted a few permanent links related to my own writing, and maybe some other things later.  And the Amazon-provided widgets had some coding involved, which began to put it in the category of “Work.”  (Your mileage may vary, though.  If you have a blog or website you think could use this, go for it!)

I ended up doing it the easy way.  In the standard WordPress “widget” page (under the “Appearance” menu), there’s a widget called “image.”  Drag it over, and it will put an image on the sidebar.  A form comes up where you give the URL of the image you want, and it also gives you the option of filling in a URL that will come up when the image is clicked.  That was all I needed.

Of course I had to go to Photoshop and build up my own images, and upload them to my Media Library, but that was easy enough.  If you are doing Amazon links, you could copy and paste images from the associated Amazon page that will get the job done with little artistic input.  You can resize the images once they’re in place, and do a few other things, too.  My images are larger than most such link images, but I wanted the cover picture to be clear.

Tweaking this site to look like what I want is an ongoing project.  That header picture (currently a theme-provided placeholder) is on my list.

What?  Me, use my blog to plug my books?  Perish the thought.

Buy my book

Final self-publishing notes

So, this basically brings me up to date on my first experiments with electronic and paper self-publishing.  Mostly I covered the mechanics of creating product.  The wide world of marketing is yet to come, and I have a lot of research to do and more decisions to make.  I’ll be posting on this. (Occasionally.  This isn’t a daily blog and never will be).

There are a lot of places that have much more detailed information on things like formatting than I’ve discussed here.  Amazon, Createspace and Lulu offer instructions and advice at every level.  Some of it, like the detailed HTML manual for Kindle formatting, is over my head.

All of these outfits will be more than happy to do extra things for you for a fee.  Editing.  Artwork and cover design.  Professional formatting.  Marketing.  You name it.

That’s up to you.  The way I see it, I’m just dabbling in this, and I didn’t want to spend money on the project.  Of course, I already had some decent publishing and artwork software, a manuscript that had already been professionally edited, and some experience in manipulating documents.  Your own mileage may vary.

Just be aware that these companies will happily take large chunks of cash for services they will try to sell you.  This isn’t a rip-off:  the services are probably good ones.  But how much are you willing to sink into a product that’s going to earn you a couple of bucks at most for every sale?  Always calculate how many books or e-books you’ll need to sell to make it back.  It’s usually a lot.

This is why a lot of professional authors are using these methods to publish old works that are out of print.  The product is already there, and ready to go except for possible conversion issues.  What’s to lose?

And me?  Why am I doing it?

I wrote Castle Falcon for my kids.  Finished the first draft on Midsummer Eve of 2006.  I started out, completely naive, to find an agent.  With a book over 200,000 words long.  The first agent who was seriously interested, in the beginning of 2008, wanted to cut the length (no problem.  I shaved 30,000 words on the first try).  But then she wanted to cut out all the adult characters, too.  I agonized over this, and decided to keep looking.

A year later, another agent was very enthusiastic about the book (at this point about 143,000 words long).  This was after over 120 rejections.  He signed me on almost immediately, but had trouble selling it to publishers.  Based on feedback, his editorial assistant recommended–yes–cutting all the adults out again.  Apparently the school of thought is that a book for young people where you haven’t kicked all the grownups out of the picture won’t sell.

This time, I did it.  Chopped huge chunks of story and characters out, knocking it back to 100,000 words.  I didn’t have anything left in me to drop the agent and go back out into the query cycle (not to mention the world was running out of agents for me to query).  But to ease the pain, I constantly kept a “director’s cut” of my own vision going in parallel with the “abridged” edition that I was working on for the agency.

Two years passed, and a number of publishers were approached with the “abridged” version.  The agent, to give him credit, made his best efforts.  But no sale.  Eventually, the agent started focusing on non-fiction, his original strength, and we parted company amiably, with all rights returned to me.

So Castle Falcon has already been through the wringer, and I frankly don’t see how further attempts to go the agent/publisher route are going to get different results.  Now here I am, taking my “director’s cut” (145,000 words), and trying the Road Less Traveled By.

The point is, I’ve got little to lose now by sticking Castle Falcon out there on self-publishing venues. It isn’t cost me any serious money (so far), and I’m learning a lot about how to put a book together, both physically and electronically.

However, this may not be the right road for other people who are just starting out with their books.

This is just my opinion, but if your dream is to really see your book in your local store, with a major publisher’s name on it, don’t go the self-publishing route until all the others have been exhausted.  I mean, really exhausted.

Maybe you’re looking at your tenth query rejection, or your twentieth, and feeling kind of low. You know what?  That’s a lot less than the 120 rejections I clocked before I signed up with an agent who loved the book.  I made a lot of mistakes early on (like trying to pitch a 200,000 word book), but learned as I went.  Try to find reliable critics and readers (not easy, but possible).  Tune your queries.  Get advice.

Getting your work published through the conventional routes requires the persistence of a glacier, and skin like a rhino.  Believe me, you will need to cultivate these traits.

Keep in mind that I have another completed middle-grade book that I’m still shopping to agencies, and a third YA fantasy in progress that I also intend taking through the conventional publishing routes when it’s done.  After all I’ve been through, it’s still my preferred way of getting my work to the bookshelves.

To all the other aspiring authors, wherever you eventually go to make your book real:  Good luck!

That was fast.

A Createspace update:

I ordered a proof copy of Castle Falcon yesterday (May 25).  This is one method of checking your work, and recommended.  It’s really the only way to spot issues like cover alignment, large enough gutters for the binding, and whether or not the book manufacture is any good.

The e-mail confirmation of the order came in yesterday (May 25) at 2:33 PM.

I found the e-mail confirmation of the shipping of my order on my e-mail this morning, dated May 25, 6:41 PM.

How do they print a book that fast?  Even a softcover?

Createspace

Createspace is basically Amazon’s hard copy publishing system.

The interface is pretty easy, same as with Kindle. Upload a PDF of your inside material, and an image file of your cover. I used the “full cover image” method, same as for Lulu. Createspace has some decent tools to create “off the shelf” covers using themes, but these won’t be as good (in my opinion).

Createspace assigns an ISBN to your work, and will automatically generate and place the barcode on your cover artwork for you.

The publishing interface is a lot more elaborate than Amazon’s Kindle interface, but very easy to navigate.  Their online preview system is very good, showing exactly how your book would be laid out, cover and all.  You also have the option of ordering a physical proof copy for about ten bucks.  The publishing process is set up on a chart with green checks showing what’s done, and you can skip around or go back if you need to make changes.  I found I had to make a lot of changes as I spotted formatting issues.

The bad news is that Createspace doesn’t have any other options besides softcover (essentially a large paperback.)  It’s one reason I stuck to Lulu for hard cover versions.  Maybe this will change.

As with Lulu, there are prices to set, and distribution choices to make.  Three of the distribution choices (Amazon, Amazon Europe, and Createspace Store) are free.  An expanded distribution option costs $25, and I’m still figuring out exactly what that means.

I’ve set up the book and am ordering a proof copy, but haven’t decided to pull the trigger on full publishing for this method yet.

Lulu

Oops. Got things out of order, there. This was supposed to come before Kindle.

So, I’ve had Lulu versions of my first novel sitting around in a private Lulu page for quite a while now. I printed books, not for general sale, but to give as gifts to friends and family (hang on to those, people. They’ll be worth big cash someday!)

I put together three formats: hardcover with dust jacket, hardcover casebound, and pocket book. Not so much because I needed all three, but because I had fun figuring out how to do it. Again, Adobe Indesign was the tool of choice. I went into this project knowing a lot less about how books are designed than I do now. I did a lot of internet research on exactly how a book should go together, with things like front matter, gutters, and lots of other terms.

I cheated a bit: I pulled a Harry Potter hardcover off the shelf and basically copied the general format. Garamond text, spaced just so. Title at the top of the left-hand page, chapter name at the top of the right-hand page. I discovered that real books are justified on both sides. After reading thousands of books, I’d never actually noticed that before!

When I started doing the pocket book edition, I found out the layout rules were completely different. I spent a lot of time checking out my wife’s romance paperbacks. For the formatting! For the formatting!

I ended up with some nice-looking books to hand out. Lulu generates good quality stuff. I got only one paperback with a bad binding, which they quickly replaced.

I have added a table of contents in the past week, and a better image on the title page. Other than that, the book file I had a couple of years ago was good as is.

So, to make the Lulu books available to the public, all that’s left for me to do now is just flip a toggle from “private” to “general access.” Then somebody can search Lulu and find the books, or can go there if they know the URL. This is free, and you can set your own prices.

There are other things to work out, though. Lulu’s default is mailing out checks for royalties (20 dollar minimum). They also have a Paypal option. All of these companies at some point will ask for things like your Social Security number. They aren’t being nosy: the IRS needs it for anyone paying you money. We should all be so unfortunate as to make enough money on our books to pay taxes!

Lulu offers wider distribution packages, too. The Amazon one is free, and the Ingram Catalog one is only $75. The price is right, but the catch is that you must add a big retail markup to your existing price. In my case, this would take a “not cheap” book and move it into the “ruinous” category. That option would also assign me a Lulu ISBN. Not for me just now.

Once you’ve published for the public, you become eligible to create an “Author Spotlight” page. You’ll see the link over on the left of your “dashboard” in your account. This allows you to make a little marketing page of your own with all your books on it, with it’s own unique URL. Mine will look a bit weird since it would just be three versions of the same book.

Lulu turns out good quality books, but the prices are high, and profits low (in my case). Customers also pay for shipping, and it takes a couple of weeks for the books to show up in the mail (print on demand, you know). I’ve picked it for a very specific niche: books to libraries, and those who really want a hardcover instead of a Createspace softcover or a Kindle version. Not a giant market, there.

Kindle

Kindle e-publishing is almost fun to do, once you’ve gone to the hard work of creating your working file.

I had the advantage of doing all that work ahead of time for my Lulu gift books. All the formatting, spelling checks, beta-reader reviews, revisions, etc. I had the added advantage of starting with Adobe InDesign documents, which converted neatly with a plug-in (downloadable from Amazon for free) to get the final Kindle format (.mobi).

I made two changes. First, I wanted a table of contents. This isn’t essential for a Kindle book, but the classier ones have them. I had to construct a table of contents in InDesign that would then be converted automatically by the plug-in to hyperlinks in the Kindle document. This took a while, since I didn’t have any tables of contents in my Lulu documents at all.

As with a lot of word processors, the InDesign table of contents automatically fixes itself when you move pages around. The main technique is to assign a very specific paragraph style to your chapter headers (I very creatively labeled this style “Chapter Headers”). Then you just tell the table of contents creator to flag those for numbering.

When I was finally done, I liked the table of contents so much that I’m going back now and revising my old Lulu versions so they also have them (those, of course, will have page numbers, not hyperlinks).

The second thing I had to do was modify my Lulu book cover illustration for Kindle use. A hint: Always generate your cover graphics in a very high resolution (at least 300 dpi). You can always cook it down lower if you need it. Amazon likes Kindle cover images that are at least 2500 pixels high, with a 1.6 ratio of height to width. They’re selling books for some pretty high-res machines, now, and it doesn’t hurt to have your cover look great on an IPad Kindle app.

I dealt with footnotes in an earlier post.

Then you import your Kindle-ready file (.mobi in my case, but they do take others) and give Amazon a link to a properly-formatted cover image on your computer.

The rest is just going through the forms online and making some selections. There are decisions involved:

The “Kindle Select” option enrolls you in a program that gives you some benefits, but it prevents you from electronic publishing anywhere else for 90 days, automatically renewed unless you tell them. I went for this, since I wasn’t concerned about the other reader formats for now anyway. People can get a free Kindle reader app for almost any electronic device with a display screen.

DRM (Digital Rights Management) or not? I went for “not.”

Kindle does not assign you an ISBN. There’s a unique Amazon identifier number, though.

Pricing. There are restrictions (depending on other selections). The size of your file limits how cheap you can sell. Big files have higher minimum prices. There is a 30 percent and 70 percent royalty level (not bad), but that selection alters your price choices and some other things too. Pay close attention. I ended up with $2.99, which (in my completely unbiased opinion) is a good deal for a book of almost 500 pages.

Don’t overprice.

At the end of the process, Amazon will generate a final Kindle file and make it available to you for preview. Use that preview! As I said, you can get a Kindle app for any computing engine if you don’t own a Kindle, and they have an online previewer too. This is where you catch the bugs. I’d been previewing my plug-in output all along this way, so at this point I didn’t get any surprises.

When you finally hit the “publish” button, it takes time for things to mature on your new Amazon page. Features get added, bit by bit. Most of it is complete in a day or so, but some things like “Look Inside” take about a week to appear.

This is a very informal article, and Amazon has a lot more detailed help here. Make use of their forums, too.

Self-publishing fun

I’ve been fooling around with various self-publishing methods for a while now. I learned the ins and outs of Lulu while making gift books for my family, and frankly, that taught me ninety percent of what I needed to know for other methods, like Kindle or Createspace.

Formatting is always the prime issue. I compose my manuscripts in Microsoft Word, but methods of converting Word to workable text for publishing aren’t the best. For a real professional job, you need a real publishing program. I was fortunate that Adobe Indesign was part of the Adobe suite I had purchased some time ago (mostly, I use Photoshop and Acrobat in my regular work).

Indesign allows you to lay out the book as it will appear, with good tools for adjusting text for appearance, although the interface is more difficult in some ways than Word and it took a lot of learning. Fortunately, I don’t have to learn all of it, just what I needed to make a simple all-text black-and-white book.

Once you have that Indesign document, you can output PDF files that are accepted nicely by either Lulu or Createspace (the same file, actually). The Kindle plug-in I mentioned in an earlier post does fine for Kindle (.mobi) files that import quickly into Amazon’s publishing program.

The covers I did myself (the one seen in earlier posts was for Kindle). For the Lulu books I designed artwork for the “one-piece” option, that basically wraps a single cover image (text and all) around the entire book (even further if you’re using dust jacket layouts).

Next post: Taking those old Lulu gift books into the public space.

A quick P.S.:

Don’t go running out and trying this stuff with your favorite unpublished manuscript until I get to the end of this series. There’s things you need to know.

What’s the opposite of “writer’s block?”

Dozens of scenes buzzing in my head, scattered all over the manuscript, and instead of being paralyzed by a blank page, I’m paralyzed by not knowing where to start first.  It’s like being in a room where everyone is trying to talk to you at once.

I guess I put my hands over my ears,*  pick a scene, and run with it.  Shove the other scenes away for the moment, no matter how loud they clamor.

* Metaphorically, of course.  It’s hard to type with your feet.

(Cross-posted to Litopia)

Footnote follies

One flaw in the Kindle display system is that it can’t deal properly with footnotes. It can’t shove text up on a page to make room at the bottom like a word processor does. In my InDesign Kindle export plugin, you get three other choices:

Footnotes at the end of a paragraph.
Footnotes at the end of a chapter,
Footnotes at the end of the book.

The good news is that a footnote in Kindle is “clickable,” so that if you click on the footnote callout it takes you to wherever the footnote is. Hit “back” to get back to the story.

I have a load of Terry Pratchett books on my Kindle (he’s one reason I like to use footnotes in fiction). Oddly, they’ve used all three methods of locating footnotes, depending on the book. No consistency in presentation, but that’s hardly new in Kindle versions of existing books (that’s a whole post on its own). The one I found easiest to read, without breaking up the story, was the “end of book option,” so that’s where I’ll put them too.