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ePub 1: Adventures in Digital Publishing

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Indigo: Ink to Blood, my first digital book, came out last month — February 2013 — and as I look around at the carnage and neglect that is my office I realize the notes I’ve kept on e-publishing might be of use to writers orienteering their way through the same digital dust bowl I just managed to cross.

Consider this a sort of sign-post on the Chisholm Trail: “Pylgrim do not cros here go sth yoo hve bin warnd”, only with slightly worse spelling.

ePublishing is fairly young, and there’s a confusion of tools out there, only some of which you need. There is also an army of well-funded interests who would like to lock authors into a proprietary way of working that is more to their benefit than to yours. Over the pages in this section I’m going to lay out what you need in order to ePublish, I’ll point out the decisions I made which may or may not work for you, and I’ll explain all the geeky parts of ePub formatting and tell you how to avoid them if it’s not your thing. On a positive note, there are also a great many tools and publishing platforms that allow you to do most of your work for free. Companies like Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble are rooting for you, if only so they can make money off your work. Wired Magazine ran a March 19, 2013 article on one of the great success stories of digital self-publishing, Hug Howey’s Wool series, which talks about how fast things are changing and how a different kind of relationship is beginning to develop between publishers and authors. You should read that article to get a sense of the business landscape. This article is more about the technology of putting out your book.

But first, this word from Cart Before The Horse Enterprises: Are you worried about the extra cost of having to buy premium unleaded instead of regular for the Bentley GT Speed Convertible you’ll buy from the movie deal you’ll strike after your book comes out? Worried the Democrats will raise the tax rate on the ultra-rich so you won’t be able to fuel your private jet? First, ask yourself: Have I actually finished writing my book? Has anyone, not related to me by blood or marriage, said anything positive about my manuscript? Perhaps one more round of editing is in order before I start pricing infinity pools. Thank you, and have a nice day.

Everything I’ll say here is secondary to your story. If your story isn’t great, nobody’s going to read it. If how you say it isn’t great, don’t even think about the technical aspects of ePublishing. Wait until you’ve finished writing and rewriting and editing and re-editing. And rewriting again. The most important thing you lose by self-publishing, is the service of an experienced and dedicated editor. Is your story as good as it can possibly be? No? Then stop here and come back when your manuscript is finished. Yes? Read on.

What’s an eBook?

Most people by now are used to reading documents on their computers in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). But the accepted standard for eBooks is actually the ePub. Why not just stick with good ol’ PDF? Because PDF is both proprietary — everyone would have to pay a licensing fee to Adobe to use it — and also “heavyweight”. A PDF contains all the fonts it needs, all the graphics, all the electronic display and print information to produce exactly the same look on a screen as it does on paper. It’s pretty brilliant technology and critical for computer documents and electronic books full of charts and formulas. But it’s also overkill for publications, like novels and non-fiction literature, which are all about words and not the page layout.

ePub follows a simpler and more democratic model: the web. On the web, a content creator gives up some control in favor of a more straight-forward formatting language. In ePub, just as on the web, the designer suggests which font to use but leaves the final decision up to the display device. In your eBook you might specify your fonts as Garamond, but the best thing available on the reader’s device might be Times New Roman, so that’s what they see. With a PDF you’d get the font you insist on, but at the cost of having to carry it around inside your PDF everywhere you go. A PDF is sort of like Jack and Rose clinging to each other on the last of the Titanic floatsam, PDF will never let go (of its fonts). ePub, on a happier note, would let go of Jack at the first sign of ice, knowing there’ll be another Jack as soon as they make port. And probably one with better serifs.

If you’re that worried about the precise, pixel-level formatting of your book, you’re not an author, you’re a control freak. On most ereaders, the author doesn’t even know how many pages his book will be. Your 800 page epic might appear to a reader with very good eyes and a preference for very tiny fonts, as a novella.

ePub will do other things that the first-time ePub reader might find jarring: it will run pages together. It will show little or no respect for traditional ‘recto’ and ‘verso’ layout. The publisher’s page and the half-title page you so elegantly laid out in Microsoft Word will run together with your dedication page as if page break was something it had never heard of.

Most ebook reading devices will read PDFs, but you as an author shouldn’t think of this as an option because most ebook stores won’t sell your book in PDF format anyway. Just assume that while some readers will see your book beautifully laid out as you conceived it, others will use an ereader that ignores digital publishing standards, won’t display your expensive cover image, overrides your font preference and doesn’t respect chapter breaks. Remember that I said you need to rewrite? The words of your manuscript are all you have, so make sure they’re great.

All that said, ePub is not the only electronic book format. As I mentioned, many readers will display PDFs, the Kindle as of this writing, will play nice with ePub but prefers the .mobi format (a format designed for mobile devices) and a large number of other ebook standards exist which are supported by a varying number of devices.

If you went through the normal, paper-based publication process you wouldn’t have to think about any of this. You wouldn’t be reading this page. A book printed on paper is compatible with any healthy set of eyes. A paper book can be sent anywhere in the world and sold in any bookstore as long as it fits on a shelf. But with an eBook you (or somebody) has to consider where and how it’s going to be read. If this sounds like something you don’t want to think about, there’s a way around it. Use an aggregator.

Keep it Simple: Leave The Tech to Someone Else

An aggregator is a company that formats your book and pumps it out on your behalf to the various publication channels. Apple’s approved aggregators, for instance, include Smashwords, Ingram and Bookwire. I only have firsthand experience with Smashwords, but the basic idea is that you write your book in a standard word processing package like Microsoft Word, then upload that file to the aggregator which runs it through some conversion software (Smashwords calls theirs “the meatgrinder”) which churns out ePub, PDF, mobi and other formats which are routed to the sales channels. In this model, you’re the author, Smashwords is your publisher and your print house, and the digital sales channels that have a contract with Smashwords — Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony and many more — are your bookstores.

The other aggregation service I’ve heard good things about, but which is not on Apple’s list of approved aggregators, is Bookbaby. The difference between Bookbaby and Smashwords is their pricing model: With Bookbaby, you pay them a fee to convert and format your book, and then you get 100% of whatever royalty is provided by the sales channel. Last I read, Bookbaby was charging about $100/book for their service. With Smashwords, you pay nothing, but they take a small cut of each sale from any of their sales partners, or from the Smashwords store itself. Either model can be a good deal. Obviously, if you think you’re going to sell a lot of books, paying Bookbaby’s up-front fee frees you to collect your royalties without sharing. If you’re not sure you’ll even make back your initial investment (or if you’re planning to give your book away for free), Smashwords’ model would be the way to go.

Other considerations come into play: As I mentioned, Smashwords distributes to Apple, while Bookbaby does not. If you think your audience will use Apple’s more high-end readers (iPads are currently the most expensive e-readers on the market) you might want to make sure your book is in the iTunes bookstore.

Summary: The Single Step Approach

So there you go: option 1 — the cheapest, most hassle-free digital publication route — goes like this:

  1. Write your book in Microsoft Word.
  2. Open an account at Smashwords and upload your book as a Word document.
  3. Let Smashwords convert it to ePub, mobi, pdf and all the others and distribute it for you.
  4. You use the Smashwords interface to check your sales numbers and royalties.

No muss, no fuss. You only have to deal with giving your tax, contact and bank information to one site (Smashwords), and you go to that site to get all your sales reports.

And what does this cost you? Well, Smashwords is basically free — as mentioned earlier, they make their money by taking a bit of your royalty. But you’ll still have costs. You’ll want an ISBN for your book. You can buy these for $100 apiece or 10 for $250 at the official ISBN registry in the USA, Bowker.com (also known as MyIdentifiers.com). Some people recommend not bothering with ISBNs, but I’m a traditionalist, so I bought 10 and used two of them (one for the ePub version and one for a print-on-demand version). You’ll also want a nice cover, and if you’re not an illustrator or a graphic artist, that can cost you a bit — some people go as low as $100 for a cover, others will run as high as $1000. In my case, my wife is an artist and illustrator and her father is an artist and illustrator so I’ve gotten family-pricing and a pretty spectacular result. You might want to pay for an editor. I belong to a writers’ group and we exchange manuscripts regularly, so that’s where I went for editing services, and my friends came through for me.

What’s the downside of the all-Smashwords approach? Well, while it’s “free”, you’re paying money to Smashwords out of the royalty you would have gotten from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo or any of the others. It’s a bit like having an agent; they might sweat blood on your behalf, or they might have just stumbled onto a big sale that makes you lots of money. But regardless of the effort they put into it they make a commission on all your work. The other potential downsides of Smashwords are that they can be a little slow putting material out to various channels (if you Google this issue you’ll see some complaints). It’s possible that some of this is due, not to Smashwords, but to sites like Apple which do a lot of content review to make sure your work is up to their standards.

In general I’m a big fan of Smashwords, not just for their service but because the founder, Mark Coker, is a very prolific and articulate supporter of the digital self-publishing movement. I highly recommend reading his advice column and watching his PowerPoint presentation on the secrets of successful digital publishing.

That’s it for installment 1. Next article I’ll get into the geeky part of ePub and why I bypassed the aggregator for some publishing channels.

Adventures in Digital Publishing II: A slightly more complex approach

Written by Alan

February 19th, 2013 at 9:08 pm

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