DIY Publishing, Part 1: e-books

There are, I’m sure, many ways to self-publish your e-book(s). I’m not an expert, but I do have some recent hands-on experience, which I may as well pass on in case anyone is interested. In a future post I’ll cover the paperback shuffle as well.

After reading a few opinion pieces online, I decided to simplify my life by using Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) setup. There may be other options that are better in certain respects, but KDP is fairly simple to use, it’s free, and you reach a large potential market.

Some authors are intimidated enough by the prospect of managing their publishing that they turn to specialty houses. These “publishers” offer to do all the heavy lifting for you, in return for an upfront fee and/or a slice of the royalty pie. I’m sure some of these services are excellent; I’m also sure that many of them are scams, or just hopelessly inept at doing what they claim to do. Before agreeing to work with any of them, do your homework! Use a search engine to learn how well (or badly) they have fared with other authors. Don’t believe the endorsements on their own website — have a look around.

E-book files  are uploaded to KDP in Amazon’s .mobi format. There are various ways to turn your text into a .mobi. The free Calibre program will do it, I believe. I wrote my epic using Scrivener (a $40 program, and well worth the micro-bucks). Scrivener can compile your text to .mobi, ready to upload, ba-da-bing.

The book cover will be part of the .mobi file. If you’re not familiar with the technical requirements for book cover images, you’ll need to do some research. (I hired a cover artist.) After loading a cover image into Scrivener, you can select it in the Compile options, and it will be embedded in the .mobi file.

For an e-book, don’t worry about the font. You have little or no control over that. Your paragraph formatting should be standard: use the ruler to indent the first line of each paragraph. Do not use the Tab key or (worse) hit the space bar 5 times to create indents. I saw an e-book recently where the author revealed himself as a rank amateur by not indenting his paragraphs at all and using an extra half-line of line space at the end of each paragraph. This is not how real books look. If you don’t know how real books look, buy a few.

Scrivener and all other word processors that I know of will let you right-justify your paragraphs. This is, again, standard. Do it. And don’t try hyphenating words to make the paragraph look nice, because a Kindle will change the widths of your paragraphs arbitrarily.

Scrivener will reproduce italic, bold, and centered paragraph formats when compiling to .mobi — no problem. It’s possible to do simple large-size capital letters (though perhaps not drop-caps) at the beginnings of chapters, but I elected not to bother with that. Instead, I did the first three words of every chapter IN ALL CAPS. This sets off the chapter start, and you can be assured it will look fine on any Kindle reader.

I’ve seen e-books in which these initial cap words were in a different font, and stayed in their native font when the Kindle changed the font of the main text. I don’t know how that’s set up, but it looks cheesy. Just go with the stock font.

When compiling to .mobi, Scrivener creates a table of contents with an entry for each chapter (that is, for each of your internal text files). A TOC can take up too much of the limited Look Inside page count that Amazon offers customers, so I didn’t want that. Instead, I created a set of five text files by copying and pasting all of the text from my 40-odd chapters into these larger files. I then compiled the larger files. These informal sections are all that show up in the e-book’s TOC.

Before uploading your .mobi, check it locally. The Kindle app is free; download and install it. You can also buy a Kindle. (I did.) Check the continuity by scrolling through the whole file; you may be surprised by the little problems that creep in.

I don’t even remember how the uploading process went, but it was pretty easy. If you later find problems in your e-book and want to upload a revised file: That’s just as easy. This is one of the advantages of self-publishing, by the way.

You don’t have to use your own ISBN number for your book, but I recommend it. If you should later run into a problem with Amazon (or any other online publisher) and need to change horses in midstream, you won’t want to be stuck with an ISBN that is registered to the retail site. Buy an ISBN at Bowker. (I bought ten. After publishing four e-books and four paperbacks, I still have two.)

Writing an effective blurb for your book is, I suppose, a topic for another time. My blurbs are not typical, because I didn’t want them to look like the standard off-the-shelf self-published fantasy blurb. That doesn’t mean they’re good blurbs, it just means I have a low opinion of self-published fantasy, in spite of the fact that I’m paddling around up to my nostrils in that particular swamp.

Before choosing a price for your e-book, do a little poking around in Amazon to see how others are pricing their books. Some authors offer Book 1 of a series for free (or for $0.99) to entice you to enter into their doubtless fascinating fantasy world. I choose to feel my work is a cut above, so I went with $3.99 for each e-book. I figure the implicit message is, “This is a real novel. I don’t need to trick you into reading it.”

Once your book is live, you’ll be able to use Amazon’s Author Central to set up your author page. My author page is not typical, for reasons that aren’t relevant here, so I’ll leave you to explore that process on your own.

Yes, you can do it all yourself. It’s less challenging than writing the damn novel, frankly. If you really can’t manage it, there will always be people who will be happy to take your money and handle (or mis-handle) the messy details for you.

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