Self-publishing e-books: How to get started

It's not difficult to put out your own e-publication, but there are several decisions to sort through first.

Self-publishing has become an increasingly important industry for both individual authors and businesses who want to put out their own books. But how do you begin? Here are some tips for self-starters.

Self-published e-books are all the rage. Authors are finding it much easier and much quicker to get their stories in front of a wide audience when they do it themselves, versus waiting to find an agent or traditional publisher willing to take them on. There's also an advantage in having control over where your book is sold, what it looks like and other issues that a traditional publisher usually has the final say on.

According to Bowker, the bibliographic information management company that hands out the ISBN tracking codes used to track books created and sold in the United States, some 40% of books published in 2012 were self-published e-books, versus just 11% in 2007.

Overall, e-books made up around 20% of books sold in the total trade category -- which includes fiction and nonfiction for adults -- in 2012.

But even considering all that, the decision to self-publish our 10-year labor of love --- Charcoal for Lunch, a guide for teens living with a parent who has a major mental illness -- was not an easy one for myself and my co-author, Lynn T. Kerner. After all, to many writers, a book still isn't real unless it sports a cover and is blessed by a known publisher.

But we got over it. The tools are here, the Web can help readers discover our book, e-readers and tablets are tailor-made for book freaks, our targeted audience of teens and young adults is certainly made up of online readers -- and here we all are.

We're at the beginning of our journey with self-publishing, but have learned a few things that could prove useful to businesses and individuals who are thinking of taking the same route.

Note that, like any other field affected by technology, the e-publishing world is moving and changing quickly -- so what was true a year ago isn't necessarily the case today. If your book-in-the-making won't be ready for some time, make sure you check the e-publishing landscape before you decide how to share your masterpiece with the world.

So you've embraced the decision to self-publish. Now what?

Which format(s)?

Most writers create their manuscripts with word processing packages such as Microsoft Word or Apple Pages, or sometimes output them as text files. But those formats won't work as an e-book.

In fact, for your book to achieve any measure of success (eyeballs, downloads and/or revenue), it will need to be available in at least a few of the most popular e-formats: Kindle Format 8 (KF8) for Amazon's Kindle Fire, AZW (based on MOBI) for older Kindles and ePub for most others, including Apple devices, Barnes & Noble's Nook and most Android e-reading apps. Apple also supports the proprietary iBook format.

Depending on your target audience, you may need to translate your content to other formats, too, particularly if you want to succeed in overseas markets. Wikipedia offers a good rundown of the various formats, with a helpful table at the bottom of the page comparing whether each format supports images, sound, digital rights management and other features.

For your book to achieve any measure of success, it will need to be available in at least a few of the most popular e-formats.

But what about PDFs? PDFs are accepted by many e-sellers, of course, and they are very convenient for authors to produce using any of a number of software apps from a wide range of devices and platforms, including Windows PCs and Macs.

But the problem with using a PDF to submit directly to an e-seller is that invisible codes can result in a book that does not look as you intended it to. Booknook, a conversion house that formats books for the Kindle, offers an example of a Word file that was then output as a PDF.

It looks great initially. But when that same PDF file was uploaded to the Amazon Kindle publishing site, every single line becomes its own paragraph because of the hidden "p" code at the end of each line. In fact, because of the formatting issues with PDFs, Booknook charges extra for converting PDFs (versus the cost of native DOC files, for example).

As my co-author and I are finding out, formatting the book correctly is the most important step, to both ensure the book will be accepted into the e-stores we choose to sell it on and so the book looks the way we want it to. The major online booksellers have various guidelines to help with this; Amazon in particular offers loads of help for getting your book into a format it will accept.

There are lots of other tools to help with this, too, from Apple's free iBooks Author and Adobe's not-so-free Digital Publishing Suite (which starts at $395 or $50/month for the single edition) to your favorite HTML editor.

But, as even Amazon warns, your mileage may vary. Converting JPGs and GIFs and even bulleted sidebars or boxes into several different, incompatible formats is not necessarily simple, especially for untrained individuals. Text may run over in one format but not another, photos or illustrations might look muddied in yet another. There's a ton of checking and re-checking, formatting and reformatting, needed to get this right.

Of course, if you don't have the time, talent or inclination to format it yourself, there is an alternative. Rather than futz with multiple formats and get a giant, multi-person headache, my co-author and I decided the formatting step would be a good thing to outsource. Yeah, we could have figured it out; we just didn't want to. We both have full-time jobs, among other commitments.

Aggregator or formatter -- or both?

Companies that specialize in e-publishing fall into two major camps: aggregators and formatters. Formatters will accept your content as a document or text file -- or pretty much anything reasonable -- and translate it into one or multiple e-formats, depending on what you're willing to pay. They do the hard work for you; that's the whole point. Not all will accept PDF files, and those that do will charge extra for the additional work the conversion entails, as explained above.

Photos and illustrations are okay, of course; most companies will accept up to a certain number of JPGs, GIFs, etc., as part of the basic fee and then charge extra for anything over that number. (That goes for the number of pages, too; the maximums vary by company.)

For their part, aggregators will take a manuscript you have already formatted (or that you've paid a formatter to do) and submit it to multiple e-stores (Apple, Amazon, etc.) on your behalf. They then get a percentage of your royalties; this is on top of any percentage that the bookseller itself gets.

Some will also, if you wish, handle marketing, manage your metadata, deal with the online booksellers (including tracking any revenue) and get an ISBN number for you, which is recommended even if you're not planning on charging for the book. Not every aggregator provides the same menu of services, however. Some aggregators also function as formatters and vice-versa. It's a confusing world out there, so choose carefully.

Apple provides a list of companies it recommends for aggregation. Amazon has its own list of aggregators and formatters.

One example of an aggregator is BookBaby, which works with self-published authors, defined as people who do not have an agent or a signed contract with a publisher (some aggregators work only with agented writers or with publishing houses that have a printed book they want to convert into an e-format). BookBaby will accept content in Word files or as a PDF.

Smashwords, another firm that has become well-known as an aggregator and e-book distribution platform, also works with self-published authors. Smashwords does not accept PDFs but does accept Word files. It then puts your manuscript through its Meatgrinder converter to make the e-book available in different e-formats.

So it pays to look around to see which aggregator/formatter best suits your needs. For example, if you wish your book to go to the Japanese or Chinese markets, Apple requires it to be in ePub3 format (as opposed to ePub2), so your aggregation/formatting partner must know how to do that. Not all do.

Also, payment options vary. BookBaby, for instance, offers a variety of pricing packages. A Standard Package translates your text to both ePub and MOBI formats, provides a proof for your approval prior to distribution to booksellers and includes some other benefits for $99 plus 15% commission. If you opt for the $249 Premium Pack, you get all the same benefits as the previous package, and you get to keep all your revenue; BookBaby takes no cut.

If money's tight, BookBaby will take your ePub file (which you need to format yourself) and then distribute the book to the online sellers you choose. There's no fee for this, but BookBaby takes a 15% commission of all sales.

Smashwords, on the other hand, works strictly on commission; its rates depend on whether you sell your book at one of its partners or on the Smashwords site. Booknook's rates depend on how complex your manuscript is -- a medical textbook with multiple illustrations per page will cost more than will a memoir with minimal graphics or charts. For this reason, many formatters/aggregators charge more to translate nonfiction than fiction. Most will take a look at your manuscript and then quote you a price.

A large bottle of aspirin and an even larger calculator -- or perhaps the other way 'round -- will come in very handy as you're making some of these decisions.

How do you choose? It depends on your needs. For example, we're still deciding on an aggregator and our criteria include the ability to translate into multiple formats (from our word processing document), how long the company's been in business and how many clients it has, what the overall pricing structure would be for our nonfiction book and what the aggregator charges for redoing any pages.

Next steps

After your book is formatted correctly, you need to figure out how and where to sell the book. You have a choice of working with aggregators that, as noted above, will also distribute your book for a fee, or you can skip the middleman and work directly with the e-sellers.

Currently, the Big Three e-book retailers are Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes.

Amazon has a program called Kindle Direct Publishing Select (usually known as KDP Select). Basically, you agree to list your book at Amazon exclusively for a term of three months (which you can renew). The book is eligible for Amazon's Lending program, as well as its Countdown Deals (which offer limited-time discounts) and other promotions.

Barnes & Noble, of course, has its own contractual terms, as does Apple and any of the other distributors.

As in all contracts, the fine print is important. For example, with Amazon's KDP Select, you have a choice about whether to take the 35% royalty or the 70% royalty. Your first thought would be to take the larger percentage, right? Well, if you take the 70%, Amazon assesses "delivery charges" (yes, even for digital books) based on how many megabytes of storage the book requires. And they do that for multiple countries -- Canada, India, the U.K., etc. It works out to pennies per MB, but still... Amazon doesn't charge delivery fees on the 35% royalty, however.

Confused? That's not surprising. It's a very confusing marketplace -- with no established "best practices" available. E-sellers want writers to stay true to them -- Amazon wants you only on Kindle, Apple on iTunes, etc. -- while aggregators, who mostly make a living by taking a cut of your sales, want you on as many e-seller sites as possible. Do a lot of research before you commit; one good resource is 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service by Jane Friedman.

In short, a large bottle of aspirin and an even larger calculator -- or perhaps the other way 'round -- will come in very handy as you're making some of these decisions.

And don't forget marketing

Beyond that, part of the deal with self-publishing (in electronic or any format) is to be prepared to market your own book. You'll get some help from the aggregators or booksellers, but you can't depend on them alone to get the word out.

For example, my co-author and I will be creating packets (which are essentially press kits) pitching local media, and figuring out a general plan for how to do that -- while keeping faithful to our day jobs, of course. We're also going to request help from the 50-plus people we interviewed for the book, asking them to get the book mentioned on their personal and/or professional websites. And, of course, social media will become our new BFF.

Self-publishing can be an exciting time, with all sorts of possibilities -- and some confusion as well. But when you've gotten through all the decisions and your book is finally finished and available, then the journey may become interesting in ways you haven't even begun to consider.

Johanna Ambrosio is Computerworld's managing editor, technologies. Her self-published book Charcoal for Lunch is currently planned to launch in late June.

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