The History of “How It Ends”: Part 6 – The Mechanics of Self-Publishing

HIE_Serial_Omnibus_CoverIn Part 1 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about where the idea for the novel came from.

In Part 2 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about what drove the writing forward and the genesis of some of the character names.

In Part 3 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about the onerous task of editing the beast.

In Part 4 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about how I procrastinated about which direction I should go in trying to get the novel published.

In Part 5 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about how I finally got over my fear and procrastination and made the decision to self-publish.

This post is all about the mechanics of publishing a book on Amazon. It probably won’t be that interesting, but it’s all part and parcel of the process.

Formatting the File

Once the file was done, I had to prep it for being in a Kindle-readable format. There are several different ways you can do this. I choose the lazy way: I saved a copy of the file as an HTML file and used that. But it was only part laziness. Some of it frustration with with my computer.

CaptureThere is a program out there that converts files to Kindle-ready formats such as MOBI. It’s called Calibre. All you need to do is to take your Word document and save it as an HTML file. Then you add it to your e-book collection in Calibre. Once it’s in Calibre, you can select the file you added and convert it. You have a lot of options to choose from. Kindle, Sony ereader, etc. I had used it to convert the HTML file for The Girl In The Red Hoodie.

Why didn’t I use Calibre for Part One of How It Ends? That’s where the frustration kicked in. I didn’t use it because it stopped working. I tried to convert the HTML file to a MOBI file and Calibre coughed. I don’t think this was due to the program being a bad program, I think it had everything to do with the fact that my laptop is a piece of dog-poo that runs erratically and often shuts down in the middle of whatever I’m doing. So for the serialized pieces, I used the straight HTML file. (I’ve since installed the newer version of Calibre and it’s back in action again.)

Why didn’t I just take the time to reinstall Calibre when I first ran into the problem? Momentum. I did all of the publishing work at night after the kids went to bed. Took me a couple of hours to get it all set. If I had stopped or slowed down, all the momentum I had from making the final decision to self-publish would have been lost, and I would have walked away.

Using the straight HTML file worked just as well, but with the html file, you can’t really embed your own set of tags in the file. When you convert it from HTML to MOBI using Calibre, you have the option to give it an unlimited number of tags. This is one of the recommendations Abby got from the course she took on self-publishing. Use the tags as often as you can. Because they help drive people to your book, even if you can’t see the tags in the final product. That, and the fact that when you’re giving your book official tags during the publishing process, Amazon limits you to seven.

The Cover

Outside of the editing, putting together the cover might have been the biggest challenge. It takes so much thought given that it is the face of your book. If it looks like crap, no one will be interested, and therefor no one will buy it. Moreover, if it looks like crap, you look like crap, like you shortcut the process.

I spent a lot of time looking at science fiction covers, and book covers in general. I wanted to get a feel for how covers had been treated in the past and try to get mine at least in the ballpark of how they look. The big challenge with covers is that anything you pick up I a store has a cover done by a professional cover or graphic designer, someone who knows the tools of the trade and (in theory) the reasons why covers work or don’t work. People go to school for this stuff.

51dxvm+yc2LGiven that I did not go to design school, I had to make it up as I went. I also spent time looking at the covers of books I know were self-published. Some of them are terrible. You can tell that the author was doing it on their own. Some were really good. One set of covers that struck me as solid were the covers for the Blood and Absinthe series my friend Abby writes as Chloe Hart. It’s a pretty solid set of covers with just a single image on a plain gray background and the author and title in a font you can read. That’s what I wanted mine to look like. Except, you know, not vampires.

I bought the images I used for the covers from one of two sites, iStockphoto and Shutterstock. Depending on what was happening in that particular part of the serial I was about to publish, a photo from one or the other of these two sites usually fit the bill.

The next was to find a font that worked. This also proved to be a huge challenge. You can go to free font sites like dafont and browse literally hundreds of individual fonts. The real trick is whether they work for the cover. Even if it looks cool on the site, and even if you test it out on the site (there’s usually a text field where you can type in test text to see what it will look like rendered in that font), you just never know how it will look when you have it splashed across the cover of your book. I went through at least ten different font s before settling on one. And I do mean settling. None of them, as I was publishing the serial, really did the trick for me.

I should mention here that, during the publishing process, Amazon offers a free “Cover Creator.” This is a wep app that let’s you choose from a couple of preset templates. I looked at all if them and found they just didn’t got the tone.

Once I had the image and the font, I had to put them together. I used an old copy of PhotoShop to put them together. I know just enough PhotoShop to be dangerous, and with the first pass of the covers, I think it probably shows.

For the final omnibus edition, I took an idea I’d had for years and put it together. The idea was to have a close up of a robot’s face and a girl reflected in his eye. It was in the final minus edition that the cover came together the way I wanted it to. It looks like it was (might have been) designed by a professional. I’m finally pleased with one of them.

The Upload

Once I had the format done and the cover ready, it was time to upload.

The process for publishing your book on Amazon is actually a pretty straightforward process. Yes, you may hit a snag when you try to price something at $0.25, or when you have your heart set on eight tags and you realize you only get seven. But outside of that, it’s pretty easy.

There are two sections. The first is where you enter all of the attribute information about your book and upload the book file and cover image. The second is the pricing page. That’s it. Set it all up and press Publish. Then spend the next day checking Amazon every fifteen minutes to see if the book is available yet (it can take up to 24 hours for your book to appear.). That’s all there is to it.

Tomorrow: The final post in this series. What’s next after publication.

Advertisements

Where Does The Time Go?

I looked up today and realized it was Wednesday. I was both surprised and a little sad about this. I felt like the week was flying by, which it is, and yet it’s only Wednesday. Seems like Friday is So. Far. Away.

I’ve been ridiculously busy recently. And not with anything I’d consider a huge amount of fun. There have been some things that have been enjoyable, but mostly it’s not. It’s closer to sat that the usual stuff that gets in the way of everything is getting in the way. For that reason I haven’t had much chance to update this blog.

I did manage to get part four of How It Ends out in ebook form. That was big. That concludes my experiment with serializing a novel. I’ll have some thoughts on that at a later point in time, but for now, that’s done. Up next is to take all four parts and put them together in a single volume. I hate to call it an omnibus, but I guess that’s what it is. The text assembly for that is done, but I don’t have a cover yet. And since I’m creating all the covers myself, I guess the single volume won’t come out until I get around to put together the cover.

I’m also editing my hard boiled crime novel. I won’t lie, that one is a lot of fun. And so far, the continuity holes are much smaller than I had anticipated. My big hang-up now is that I don’t know if it’s any good. I’ll ask a few crime readers I know if they want to take a spin through it and let me know their thoughts once the editing is done. In the meantime, I’m trying to just enjoy the ride as I reread it and edit it.

There’s all kinds of Excel work I’m doing. Some of it’s for work, and some of it’s for fun. Among the fun things, I’m currently finishing up a utility that I plan to make available right here on this blog. It’s a Find/Replace utility that let’s you compile a bunch of different changes and run them all at once. But I have to finish it first. And it’s more than just coding. If it were just coding I’d have been done weeks ago. But if I make this available, I want the code to be as bulletproof as I can make it. I want it fully commented. I want somebody who pulls it down off this site to be able to read through it and learn from it. Or read through it and suggest better ways of approaching it. I’m close to done. What’s left is primarily the instructions for use, which I haven’t started yet, but I will.

Add to these three big items all the typical day to day shit and you’ll understand why I haven’t updated this blog as much as I’d like recently. There’s cooking and cleaning and commuting and kids activities. There’s bouts of sickness (one daughter had a fight with the stomach flu a few weeks ago and lost). There’s some down time with The Walking Dead, Justified, and my new addiction, COSMOS. There’s reading. Can’t not read. I’m chewing through Craig Johnson’s Longmire series right now, enjoying the hell out of them.

You might notice that, in the list above, running is missing. Yeah, it absolutely is. I’ve gone for two runs in the month of March. I’m done with the cold and the dark. I just can’t get up and get out in the mornings anymore. I slogged through it since November, and I hit the wall in February. Spring starts tomorrow. We’re getting 1-2 inches of snow tonight. I’m hoping to bust out of this rut this weekend. I think I’m finally gonna spring for the Magellan Echo with the heart rate monitor chest strap. That’s some good motivation right there. Plus there’s a 10k I’m interested in at the end of April.

So that’s where I’ve been. I’ll try to get some better posts out soon, hopefully something that will interest you guys more than just me complaining about how little time I have. It’s all about keeping the content fresh. But that’s another topic for a different day.

When To Use Quotation Marks In Fiction

Of all of the punctuation available to writers in fiction, there’s really only one I’m on the fence about.

Quotation marks.

That’s pretty much it.

I like the period, question mark, comma (in moderation), and a limited use of the exclamation mark. I like the apostrophe, I dig both the possessive and a really good contraction.

There are a couple I’m ambivalent about, primarily because I almost never find a use for them. These are things like the colon and the semi-colon. They’re nifty looking, and I have absolutely no idea when it’s proper to use them. Perhaps I should qualify that: I have no idea when to use them in fiction. In non-fiction (I do a decent amount of technical writing at work) I use them quite a bit.

(See what I did there?)

Some punctuation, like the parenthesis, I love because it totally captures how my mind works. My inner monologue has a lot of asides and side-hand comments and tangents.

But quotation marks? Well, that’s a tough one.

When I first started writing fiction, there was the standard use of the quotation mark. Somebody said something, I marked it off by with quotation mark. Pretty standard American stuff. I found that using the apostrophe to indicate dialogue threw me off when I read it. Cannot tell a lie, it’s among the reasons it took me a couple of attempts to get through The Lord of the Rings.

I never really took to the Irish way of indicating dialogue, with a dash. I’ve never researched it, can’t tell you where that started or why they do it that way, but Irish writers have a tendency to indicate the beginning of dialogue with a dash and then the dialogue happens, and then somewhere it just sort of ends. I’ve never seen it outside an Irish writer, but I’m not terribly well read despite my English lit degree, so maybe it exists elsewhere.

What does strike me, though, is no use of quotation marks. The first time I encountered it was when I read The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I found it incredibly hard to follow and I feel it made my enjoyment of the book suffer. (I didn’t enjoy the book anyway, but that’s a different issue.) Then next time I encountered this was in The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Holy mother of god, what a book. The lack of quotation marks made such an impression on me, the way the stark visual of the page reflected the stark bleakness of the story. I was hooked.

Which then brings me to my conundrum: to use quotation marks or not to use quotation marks?

When I wrote How It Ends, I wrote in a standard way, using quotes and commas and periods and the like. I read The Road while editing How It Ends and it changed the way I approached my fiction. That’s a whole separate topic, but I don’t want to digress too much. While editing, I ended up stripping out a huge amount of punctuation. This led me to rewrite portions of the book in a different way, since the punctuation that might normally have guided a reader through the book was suddenly gone. It’s like hiking on a trail through the woods and having the blazes removed. You better make sure that trail is in good order and easy to find and follow, or you’ll be sending out rescue crews to find lost hikers.

Eventually I put the punctuation back, but the removal of the punctuation altered the course and flow of the book, hopefully (and I feel) for the better.

So do I like the use of quotation marks in fiction? Or do I dislike them?

For me, the answer is: both. If the story is the right kind of story in which to have the quotation marks removed, then by all means, get ’em outa there. I have a story like that that I may one day polish and publish. (Maybe. It’s a really dark one.) But unless the story is the right kind of story, and the prose you write is strong enough to stand up without crutches, then I think you’re safest using quotation marks to indicate your dialogue.

Formatting Dialogue

One of the blogs I follow is Read To Write Stories, by Michael Noll. It’s a blog dedicated to delivering ideas about how to write, and offering writing prompts and exercises to get the creative juices flowing.

Today’s post was all about dialogue, and how to make dialogue in your fiction move faster. As an example, he offers a story called Paper Tiger, by Liz Warren-Pederson. The way Warren-Pederson structures her dialogue is by having large blocks of it in a single paragraph. Take the following opening paragraph as an example:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Given how the author has set up the voice of the narrator, this works pretty well. And yes, it moves along at a zippy pace.

But does it move too fast?

Micheal Noll’s post it made me think about was the structure of dialogue in my own writing, and that of other writers whose narrator’s are telling the story. The book I’m currently writing is a first person narrative in the hard-boiled crime fiction genre. Given how fond I’m an of Robert B Parker’s Spencer series, my choice of subject matter is probably not surprising. Yet even as a write my novel, I’m trying to avoid a certain pitfall Parker often fell into. Take the following excerpt from Hugger Mugger:

Good morning,” I said, to let them know there were no hard feelings about them interrupting me.

“Spenser?” the man said.

“That’s me,” I said.

“I’m Walter Clive,” he said. “This is my daughter Penny.”

“Sit down,” I said. “I have coffee made.”

“That would be nice.”

I went to the Mr. Coffee on the filing cabinet and poured us some coffee, took milk and sugar instructions, and passed the coffee around.

When we were settled in with our coffee, Clive said, “Do you follow horse racing, sir?”

“No.”

“Have you ever heard of a horse named Hugger Mugger?”

“No.”

“He’s still a baby,” Clive said, “but there are people who will tell you that he’s going to be the next Secretariat.”

“I’ve heard of Secretariat,” I said.

“Good.”

“I was at Claiborne Farms once and actually met Secretariat,” I said. “He gave a large lap.”

In fourteen lines of dialogue, there are nine what I would call “he saids”, where the author inserts a “he said” or “she said” or “I said” to anchor you to who is speaking. This is a lot. It didn’t occur to me just how many this really was until I was talking to my mother about Spenser books. She likes to listen to the audio version, but she couldn’t do it with Spenser books because of all the “he saids”. Whereas, as a reader, I think we have a tendency to pass right over then, registering them in the barest way possible so that they don’t slow down the dialogue.

Now compare this to a book I just finished rereading this morning, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway:

“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”

“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it.”

“I stand it now.”

“That would be different. It’s my fault, Jake. It’s the way I’m made.”

“Couldn’t we go off in the country for a while?”

“It wouldn’t be any good. I’ll go if you like. But I couldn’t live quietly in the country. Not with my own true.”

“I know.”

“Isn’t it rotten?” There isn’t any use my telling you I love you.”

“You know I love you.”

“Let’s not talk. Talking’s all bilge. I’m going away from you and then Michael’s coming back.”

“Why are you going away?”

“Better for you. Better for me.”

“When are you going?”

“Soon as I can.”

“Where?”

“San Sebastian.”

“Can’t we go together?”

“No. That would be a hell of an idea after we’d just talked it out.”

“We never agreed.”

“Oh, you know as well as I do. Don’t be obstinate, darling.”

“Oh, sure,’ I said. ‘I know you’re right. I’m just low, and when I’m low I talk like a fool.”

I sat up, leaned over, found my shoes beside the bed and put them on. I stood up.

“Don’t look like that darling?”

“How do you want me to look?”

“How do you want me to look?”

“Oh, don’t be a fool. I’m going away to-morrow.”

“To-morrow?”

“Yes. Didn’t I say so? I am.”

“Let’s have a drink, then. The count will be back.”

Did you count them? That’s twenty-eight lines of dialogue, and only one “he said”. And while the structure is completely different then Warren-Pederson’s story, I find this dialogue moves just as quickly.

So which is the right one? I suppose that depends on personal preference. My gut tells me that Warren-Pederson’s structure would be simply exhausting for anything longer than a short story. Reading a novel in that format would leave me panting. Plus, in a structure such as this, the writer must absolutely include on a 1:1 ration a “he said” for each line of dialogue. One the other hand, Hemingway’s structure left me panting as mush as “Paper Tiger”, where I found myself grateful for the blocks of descriptive text at the end of each dialogue jag so that I could catch my breath. And Parker’s copious inclusion of all the “he saids” borders on distracting the reader and throwing them out of the story.

I feel that, for my own writing, there is a happy medium to be found in the number of “he saids” included in the story. Somewhere between one and nine…

Versioning Your Ebooks

While reading a Robert B Parker ebook last year, I noticed this in the front matter:

20131118-204339.jpg

“V3.0_r2”. To my systems eye, this means version 3, release 2.

It struck me as a little odd to have a version/release number at first. But then I thought of it like a printing history rather than something more traditionally associated with version history. Something like software perhaps. Or Star Wars movies.

(I got a whole post somewhere in my head about how Lucas didn’t treat his movies like movies, but more like software releases. Maybe someday it will get out of my head and onto the page.)

I’m not sure yet that adding version numbering to your ebooks matters. For example, if I learned that this particular book was now in release 3, or version 4, what would I do with that info? Would I email or call the publisher, angrily demanding the latest version?

Probably not.

So what does this mean to you (or at least, to me) as a self-publisher? I think for now it means take it or leave it. In my books, I chose to add it. Again, not sure what I’ll do with it. I suppose if I decided that there was some major textual screw-up that needed fixing, I might increment the version and off those who purchased the faulty previous version an upgrade.

Except, how would I confirm their purchase?

Plus, of you’re putting out a new revision of a self-published ebook, Amazon lets you label something as edition 1 or edition 2. It’s right there in the “wizard” Amazon uses to guide you through the publishing process.

Like I said above, I can’t see how this matters to anyone but the person putting the ebook together. In my case, that’s me. So at least I’ll always know which version I’ve released online.

Bad Formatting

I’ve read a bunch of books now on my Kindle. I didn’t know if I’d get used a e-book reader. Apparently I have. I like how I have a huge range of books to choose from, whatever I need to fit whatever my mood may be. And I have it all in a single device.

This is not to say that I don’t still love a good book book, because I do. But the Kindle, ah, the Kindle! So lightweight, so full of books, so many of them free (you can find all the good classics on Amazon for free). And many of them correctly formatted.

However…

One of the things you find once in a while is a badly formatted book. What do I mean? I mean that, as you’re cruising along, enjoying your purchase, suddenly you come to a bock of text that is tabbed wrong or inconsistently justified with the rest of the text. Then, BAM! you’re thrown out of the story and all you can focus on is how the  formatting is off.

(Or maybe it’s just me. But when I come across bad formatting, it drives me bonkers.)

Over the last year or two, I’ve been making my way slowly through Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan. It’s a sort of syrupy story, a kind of New England confectionery fiction. It reminds me of the kind of comfort food reading people turn to when they want to escape the real world, but not to a different world of intense peril. Sure, there’s conflict, there’s drama, but never so high-stakes that you actually ever worry about the characters. But at $0.99, it’s not a bad story.

The story behind Mill River Recluse is pretty interesting. You can read how it became so successful in this article in the Wall Street Journal online. This article is one of the reasons I bought the book. I wanted to see what self e-publishing looked like.

The goal here is not to bash Ms. Chan. For from it. She took matters into her own hands, self-pubbed, and found success. All of us self-pubbers should be so fortunate. However, one of the things I noticed in “Mill River Recluse” was that the formatting is inconsistent. So, since I noticed it, I thought I’d write a bit about it.

Primarily, the bad formatting centers around the tabs and indents. To illustrate an example, I’ll use this block of text from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal In Bohemia (sorry, I had to do this as a jpeg):

GoodFormatting

This is how you would normally expect to see the formatting. This is how the formatting is for most of the time in “Mill River Recluse”. But sometimes, it comes out like this:

BadFormatting

So what’s the lesson here? The lesson I think is that, if you plan to self e-publish your work, then, once you have finished, proofed it, and formatted it, load it up into your Kindle and go through PAGE BY PAGE. Yeah, I know, a page by page review of formatting sounds like a sucky way to spend a Saturday. But not everything we do as writers is a joy. Carefully reviewing and re-reviewing the formatting will give your work a look of professionalism, which is an extra edge we all need. The added bonus is that you’ll keep your readers from getting tossed out of the story when they hit a block of bad formatting.

Two Recommendations

The Girl In The Red Hoodie was (still is, though stay tuned) was my first self-epublished book for Kindle. As with all first attempts at something, it had issues.

The story itself was done about two years ago. I hadn’t really proofed it for copy yet, but I had proofed it for content. I made some changes here and there, tried to get the language into some semblance of continuity throughout, and generally tried to get the story onto paper the same way it was in my head. A friend of mine read through it, made a recommendation or two, which I then folded in.

Done.

Then it sat. The last of the revisions were finished near the beginning of this year. And then what did I do? I procrastinated. (Did I mention that I was a gigantic procrastinator?) I found every reason under the sun NOT to go back to the story. Work was always at the top of the list, given that I’m in the middle of some pretty large system implementations (the day-job calleth). There were family excuses. Birthdays and kids’ activities, and other stuff that didn’t really take up THAT much time. But they were great for excuses as to why I had yet to publish.

And then something snapped. Not sure what. One night it just became time. Time to work up a cover, time to format the book for Kindle, time to put it out there and see what happened. I didn’t have huge expectations. Still don’t. It’s just a short story, a little bite sized gulp of serial killer nastiness. I figured it might sell a few here and there, and those would be mostly to friends and family.

In the back of my head, I could also hear the one thing my friend had told me in December: “Every day you DON’T publish is day you DON’T make money. Every day you DO have something published is a day you COULD be making sales.”

Okay. It was time.

I think the big thing that was holding me back was the fear of that final mouse click. Would I put it out there and would it fail? Would it get crappy reviews? Once out there, would I ever be able to pull it back? Would I screw it up while trying to publish it?

The answer to all these questions was a big shrug of the shoulders. Who knows? Nobody. But until I got off the sofa and tried, I’d never know for sure.

I realized that fear was probably the biggest thing holding me back. It was time to take a big deep breath and jump into the deep end of the pool.
So what happened?

Well, after publishing it I made a couple of sales, including by some people I didn’t know. Okay, so, the fact that it sold some meant it didn’t fail. After all, it didn’t cost me anything to publish it except my time and about $15 for the underlying image I bought for the cover. I can’t say I’ve broken even to cover the cost of the cover image, but the Federal Tax return covered that for me.

Did I get crappy reviews? Nope. I haven’t gotten a single one to date, so no problem there.

Can I pull it back if need be? Sure. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program will let you take the book offline whenever you want. So no danger there.

Did I screw it up while publishing? Well….a little.

In my hurry to get it out on Amazon for Kindle, I may have missed one or two (or more) tiny grammatical and spelling mistakes. Oh yeah, that proof for copy. Forgot that step. And for me, an English lit major, it was more than a little embarrassing for my mother, who bought and read it, to email me saying, “great story, but there were some typos in it, do you want me to send you a list?”. With a hung head I said “yes”.

About three weeks after publishing The Girl In The Red Hoodie, I revised the source document and then resaved the (new) final copy as a Kindle formatted document. I re-uploaded the file and now it’s as good as new. Actually, it’s better than new, since the original “new” version had typos.
What’s the moral of this story? I guess it’s twofold:

  1. Don’t procrastinate. Keep working forward, even if it’s tiny tiny tiny steps forward. But keep some momentum going or else you’ll stutter and stall.
  2. Don’t rush. Do things right. This includes proofreading your work or having somebody else who’s exceptional at it go through it. Cause it’s a reflection on YOU, the self-publisher, if you publish an e-book with crappy formatting or textual errors.

Was that too soapbox-y? I hope not. Cause part of the point of me sharing my experience with you is telling you where I screwed up so that you don’t make the same mistakes.

Til next time…

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑