So I’m launching into this whole self-publishing deal (with a little chapbook of three desert stories, which you can find more about here). Formatting for ebooks, formatting for print books, which services to use, how to get ISBNs—it’s been a learning process, and I’m still not done. I want to share what I’ve learned without reinventing the wheel, so I’ve provided links below to all the articles and style guides that have helped me so far.
Since I’m just dipping my toe into the self-publishing waters here, my mantra has been to keep it “easy, quick, and cheap.” So I’ve decided to format and release the ebook directly through Amazon for the Kindle version, and to use Smashwords for all other ebook retailers (both formatting and distribution). As for print, I’m currently deciding whether to just offer a print version as a service to readers who don’t read ebooks or to try to get it into bookstores. I’m in discussions with a distributor right now, which should help me make that choice. A more entrepreneurial self-publisher might make different choices, but I hope anyone new to self-publishing will find the following links and discussion helpful.
Which ebook formatter/distributor to use? I found Giacomo Giammatteo’s post from 2014 comparing these services very comforting, since I’d already decided to go with Smashwords. That company’s Mark Coker had me at “It doesn’t matter if you only sell eight books, if those eight readers are profoundly affected by your work, that’s as valuable as a bestseller” (paraphrase from this video on how to market to Apple customers). With Smashwords, you upload one file (formatted to their specifications; see below), and it goes out to Apple’s iBooks store, Kobo, B&N, other retailers I’ve never heard of, and even libraries. It also creates .mobi (Kindle) files and PDFs that readers can purchase directly through Smashwords. The service is free, and it seems you can make unlimited changes, where other services charge you each time you re-upload a file. That seemed like a good deal to me. Here’s another author who leans toward Smashwords. And, just for discussion, here’s David Gaughran’s post on why he switched from Smashwords to Draft2Digital.
Smashwords Style Guide: How to format your Word document so that it will go through Smashwords’ “meatgrinder” and come out the other end as an ebook in a variety of formats. If you follow the instructions to the letter, it seems to work well (at least it did for me). Author and Smashwords founder Mark Coker is not one for brevity, but if you can zoom in on his instructions, it makes going through the guide a whole lot easier. For instance, he has a lot of info on what an NCX file is, and how you can use it to create your book’s table of contents (an option he doesn’t recommend anyway). Skip that, and go straight to his instructions for creating a table of contents using Word’s bookmarks. Once you’ve uploaded the book and you’re at the distribution step, make sure not to include Amazon when choosing where Smashwords will distribute your book.
Amazon Kindle: To make your ebook available for Kindle through Amazon, the largest ebook retailer, you’ll need to upload your file directly using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. I found this free ebook very helpful in formatting and uploading.
Using Preorders: This page from Smashwords describes the importance of a preorder period in boosting your book’s sales and visibility. It’s sort of a trick, but the more preorders you get, the higher your sales will be on the first day the book is available, boosting it up the sales ranks and increasing its visibility. (With everyone probably now doing this, I’m not sure how effective the strategy is.)
Formatting: I found Joel Friedlander’s list of five common mistakes in print formatting quite helpful, particularly the bit about which pages should and shouldn’t have running heads and page numbers.
If you choose CreateSpace for your print on demand services, CS has a bare-bones article on formatting your Word document for submission. However, I would avoid the recommendations to use single line-spacing and to put extra space between paragraphs, at least for fiction. Certain types of nonfiction might be different. Fiction and literary nonfiction should have paragraph indents (I used 0.3″), line-spacing greater than single but less than 1.5 lines (I used exactly 13 pts of line-spacing, with 11 pt Garamond type), and no extra space between regular paragraphs.
India Drummond’s blog post and video on formatting your Word doc for print on CreateSpace gives step-by-step advice. It’s good as far as it goes, but it leaves out the important bit of how to exclude page numbers and headers on blank pages and first pages of chapters. To do that, you need to check the box for “different first page” in the header design menu and then use Word’s section break/next page command before every blank page and the first page of each chapter. Don’t use section break/odd page or section break/even page, because this will just confuse things. Also, if you are converting your Smashwords doc, make sure to remove “page break before” from your chapter heading style. (I made both those mistakes, combining “next odd page” commands with the automatic “page break before” command in the heading styles, and I ended up horribly confused.)
Matthew Lee Adams also has a post with a oodles of information on print book formatting using Word.
Distribution: Giacomo Giammatteo’s two-part post on CreateSpace vs. IngramSpark was invaluable. (Hint: he recommends you use both, and this seems to be the preferred practice of most indie authors.)
Should you own your own ISBNs? These are the unique codes that identify each version of each print book that gets published. Most self-published authors should own their own, says Joel Friedlander, as expensive as these are to purchase from Bowker (for U.S. authors).
This is a difficult one for me. Following my mantra of quick, easy, and cheap in publishing Desert Trilogy, it seems like sticking with Amazon’s CreateSpace and using their free ISBN would be the way to go. This could very well be the only book I ever self-publish, and I started out looking at the print version simply as a service for readers who don’t like ebooks. In this context, Bowker’s charge of $125 for one ISBN seems outrageous.
On the other hand, Giacomo Giammatteo points out many good reasons to use both CreateSpace and Spark (access to bookstores and faster international shipping being the main ones—Germans love our southwestern deserts, so I have to hope I could make a few sales over there). Also, if my efforts to sell Daring and Decorum to a trad publisher don’t pan out, I’ll probably self-publish it. Since it’s the first in a series of three or four (or more!) books, buying a package of 10 ISBNs for $295 makes some sense. Also, there’s my languishing bicyclists’ guide to Mid-Michigan, which could use up a few more of those ISBNs. But $295 is a long way from my “cheap” guideline. So I’m still up in the air here. I’m also in discussions with a distributor for Desert Trilogy, and the outcome of that will play a role in my decision.
Finally, there’s Jane Davis’s post on the wisdom of using a short-run printing company rather than POD services like CreateSpace and Spark. This option is probably best for authors who either have some capital to invest, or already have a track record of selling print books and thus can estimate the number of books they’re likely to sell.
I hope this post has been helpful. Do you know of other good sources of advice for first-time indie authors? Feel free to post them in the comments section below. And while you’re here, don’t forget to check out Desert Trilogy, now available for preorder as an ebook: three stories for only $0.99 ($2.99 once the book goes on sale November 15th).