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Adventures in self-publishing an e-book novel

Guest post by Ann Houston

I'm a newbie to writing fiction. Having just completed my novel, Blind Tasting, six months ago, I immediately began pursuing traditional publication channels. I researched potential literary agents (ones who represented books in my genre) and I tailored query letters to those agents, steeling myself psychologically to receive dozens, maybe hundreds, of rejections in the hope of getting one or two offers of representation. I created a database of agencies and publishers and sent my email and snail mail query letters along with synopses and sample chapters -- according to each agent's preference. I was prepared to wait, hearing that it often took weeks, months, for agents to reply, given the volume of unsolicited work they receive.

A week after sending off the first batch of queries I came across Smashwords, a recent online self-publishing service. I had been warned by those in the literary know to shun 'vanity presses' as exploitive dead-ends, but Smashwords didn't come across as a vanity press. Smashwords was inviting authors to retain most of the royalties for their self-published e-books and they were offering access to big e-book distributors (Sony, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Amazon (pending)). Acceptable works for self-publication included both long and short pieces, fiction and non-fiction covering most genres. Mark Coker, who founded Smashwords, sees huge potential for self-publishing digital material at this point in time, given the available reading platforms now in existence. Writers don't need the bankroll and the typesetting machinery to get their works to potential readers any longer, and thus they also don't need agents and traditional publishing houses. These professions are playing a smaller role as gatekeepers in deciding what the public gets to read. (Smashwords has published over 900,000,000 words to date, which is more than 12,000 titles of average 75,000 words in length. It's actually a much larger set of titles, because many works are short pieces.)

I then had an epiphany about my own novel: in the best-case scenario, (not to be counted on) my title would not appear in print via a traditional publisher for at least 24 months. Assuming an agent liked it, they would have to shop it to editors at publishing houses, which would add more months, and assuming someone bought it, the time to publication and distribution to retail bookstores would be more months. My novel is set in an ultra-contemporary time and place, and I worried that part of its intended appeal had an expiration date. In two years it might not create the same impression I was hoping for now.

Then and there I decided to go with Smashwords. It was a very smart and gratifying decision. It was also not without some hair-tearing and time commitment. For authors considering self-publishing, let me point out the major highlights of this experience in the hopes it will help your own effort be productive and successful. By the way, a month ago Amazon announced that, for the first time, it sold more e-books online than print books for a given reporting period -- 140 e-book units to 100 print-book units.

1) The most important point is that self-publishing technology is changing rapidly; in the five months I've been exposed to it things have changed in non-trivial ways, and they will likely keep changing. Changes are occurring in a) who the providers of self-publishing are, b) the distribution channels available to different self-publishing services, c) the input formats allowed for conversion to e-book outputs, d) the reading devices available for e-books, e) the style guides to follow when formatting your e-book for a given service, f) the royalties, pricing and copy-protection options available to authors, and g) the quality of available format-conversion programs and viewers.

2) The industry appears to be converging on one standard, ePub (Apple, Sony, and Barnes & Noble use this format), but Amazon (a huge player) uses mobi, and there are others. The most important point to remember about formatting an e-book is to forget about pages and think of a continuous flow of text whose appearance to some extent (font size, font styles) is under the control of the reader. Keeping your input formatting as simple as possible will result in fewer headaches and fewer surprises in how the output looks. This constraint poses more challenges for authors with technical books containing tables and charts; it's not so difficult for fiction writers. Style guides and user forums for e-book formatting are uneven in quality and coverage, but hopefully will improve in the future. If you are a computer-oriented geek, you may be used to online forums that provide clear and useful questions and answers; fiction writers as a group aren't as technically savvy and, unfortunately, there are a lot of confusing questions and answers posted on forums and websites, regarding specific formatting details and bug reports for various devices. You may have to sift through a lot to find useful information. Smashwords does provide a free on-line Style Guide which is quite helpful in understanding how to avoid ugly output and succeed in achieving attractive output for their conversion process. Smashwords accepts only Word docs as input format, and produces a variety of outputs, including ePub and mobi, PDF, html and others via their master converter -- which is named the Meatgrinder. (Boy, that name gave me pause :-) ) I found formatting for Amazon's Digital Text Platform more confusing -- Amazon has put a lot of effort into helping the big publishing houses get their authors' titles converted to e-books, and doesn't provide as much information to self-published authors. They do respond nicely to your email questions, however. I wanted exposure on Amazon and didn't want to wait for Smashwords 'pending approval' there. (Smashwords does not restrict you from pursuing any other publishing venues, by the way.) MobiPocket and Calibre are free programs that will help authors convert their input document into suitable mobi output for Amazon. I prefer Calibre, probably because it runs on the Mac as well as PC (MobiPocket is only for PC).

3) The effort required to market a self-published work cannot be over-emphasized. I completely neglected marketing efforts of my novel prior to publishing it -- a big mistake according to the e-book marketing gurus. If you want to make a splash when the book goes public, you must already have laid publicity groundwork. Social media can provide efficient ways to market the work: write a blog, have a presence on Twitter and Facebook and link your author profile to these and other similar social media sites. What e-books need most, however, are reviews -- word-of-mouth is what sells books, and nowadays, online reader reviews (e.g., reviews on Amazon) are what creates buzz for an e-book, or printed book, for that matter. Authors of e-books need to find their piece of the 'long tail'; in traditional publishing I read that 7 percent of the titles account for 93 percent of the sales, and 85 percent of all titles never sell more than 1000 copies. There are only a very few super hits. Most authors need to find their niche -- it's probably easier now than ever to do this, via social media and all the resources the Internet makes available, but it does take time and energy. Authors of e-books must be prepared to put in some hours to help potentially interested readers find their works. But, it's pretty exciting to see your book's cover appear at a major distribution site like Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble, and see a review, and that you have actually sold copies of your work! I was deep into this process, and about to upload a revised version of the novel, when I finally received replies to my first batch of queries to literary agents. They were all rejections, all nicely worded and they all encouraged me to continue to seek representation out there in literary-agent land. But, they came to me months after I'd sent them, and served as a vivid reminder of how slow old publishing moves compared to digital self-publishing.

-A.C. Houston
~ author of Blind Tasting ~

(Thanks, Ann! The URLs and images added by L.M. - Ann is too modest to include them herself.)

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