Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be a guide to self-publishing, and it certainly is not meant to be a guide to making money with your self-published book. I’m writing this article mostly with an eye towards capturing the steps that I took when self-publishing my book Skeleton Crew so that next time I won’t have to do as much experimenting and can, I hope, hopefully steer clear of the potholes on this road. There may be far better strategies out there. Please don’t accept this as canon.
Before you start writing your Great American Novel™, select your editing software and learn it completely. I can’t stress this enough. If done correctly, you can encode a lot more information than just text into your document. Here are some examples:
• Paragraph style information lets you keep your font, tabs, and spacing in a single place. Suppose you decide to use Garamond Normal instead of Times New Roman for your body text, 11 point instead of 10, or a 0.4-inch indent instead of 0.5 inch. If you use styles, you can change the style specification instead of restyling the text throughout the entire document. This changes a three-hour task into a ten-second one.
• Paragraph style can work with page style information to make sure chapters start on odd pages (without having to manually change page breaks each time you edit) and have consistent vertical spacing from the top of page. You can also make sure that the first paragraph of a chapter is not indented, while the others are.
• Character style information lets you change the representation of a character’s thoughts from italics to bold-italics in just a couple clicks without having to search through your entire document. This is great, because inevitably, you will miss one and leave your book with inconsistent styling.
• Character style information can also be used to tell the editor not to spell-check dialogue that is intentionally incorrect. Suppose you have a character from the bayou, and all his spelling errors are filling your screen with red squigglies. Don’t add his slang to your dictionary! Mark his dialogue with a bayou character style that has no spell-check. If a character speaks another language, you can tell your editor what language rule-set to use for those sentences too.
• Each time a document is moved between tools, some or all of this meta-information will be lost and must be added back in manually. So choose wisely the first time, and save yourself some pain.
Some editors/formats to consider:
• MicroSoft Word – Word is the granddaddy of PC document editing. It is expensive, bloated with features you won’t need, aggravatingly quirky, and — starting with the 2010 version — so many important features have been hidden inside a dumbed-down interface that you’ll spend more time Googling for “Microsoft Word how to …” than actually formatting documents. I hate Word, but it is completely capable of formatting a book — if you can figure out how.
• LibreOffice – I love LibreOffice. It’s powerful and free. It works as expected, and I was able to learn it quickly. Your mileage may vary, but I think LibreOffice rocks.
• LaTeX – I’m very tempted to try LaTeX. It’s free and very powerful, but people say that it has a very steep learning curve.
• Google Documents – I love Google Docs. It’s free and an easy way to share documents between authors, reviewers, and editors. But for all its awesomeness, it is a little light on power. I don’t think you can create custom styles, so if you care how your book looks, eventually you will need to use some other tool. I write in LibreOffice and copy chapters into Google Docs to share with my editor. I have to manually enter all my changes back into my LibreOffice document, which sucks, but I don’t know a better way. I’m not fond of e-mailing my .odf around and having people add suggestions to it. Bleah. Unless I stopped editing while waiting for comments to come back, I don’t know how I’d resync everything.
• Scrivener – This is a neat, inexpensive, and innovative tool. I tried this out a couple years back and was moderately impressed. I can see how this would be a very inspirational tool. However, it was very light on power and did not have styles. Perhaps they have fixed this by now? I doubt it will be powerful enough to format a book, regardless, so expect to have to migrate to a new tool if you select Scrivener.
• Flare – I’m told that Flare is the Cadillac of page layout software. A buddy of mine uses this at work, but at fifteen hundred for a license, it’s way beyond my budget. Unless you, like my buddy, can use your work license at night to write, you’ll need to be rich or really professional to justify this one.
As stated, I use LibreOffice. When you start writing in LO, don’t get hung up on fonts and sizes. You can change all of that later. The important thing is to create the basic styles you will need and stick to them consistently as you create your text. Don’t worry about all the material at the beginning/end of the book for now, but here are some styles I use:
• Heading 1 (chapter heading)
• Part & ChapterUnderPart (styles for lines like “Part II” and “Chapter 13” — unnecessary if you only use chapters)
• Text Body (most body paragraphs)
• SceneDivider (to center the scene divider graphic)
• Unindented (first paragraph under a chapter heading or scene divider)
• InternalDialogue (character style for thoughts)
• Emphasis (bolded words character style)
• ChapterPage (page style)
• LeftPage (page style)
• RightPage (page style)
• Slang (character style without spellcheck)
I set the fonts and sizes to whatever looks nice. I don’t get hung up on them. But I’m careful to link them together:
• Heading 1 and Part start on a new RightPage
• Part is followed by ChapterUnderPart
• Heading 1 and ChapterUnderPart are followed by Unindented
• Unindented is followed by Text Body
• ChapterPage is followed by LeftPage
• LeftPage is followed by RightPage
• RightPage is followed by LeftPage
Then I can just type, and the editor will automatically change styles when I click enter.
The first 90 percent of the work is to go write that first draft. Find reviewers who you trust, and run the chapters by them as you go via Google Docs so they can easily toss up comments without having to remember everything and e-mail it back to you. Good reviewers are invaluable, so treat them right!
If you can’t find a fan who happens to be a good reviewer, try to find a writer buddy who can review your stuff in exchange for reviewing theirs. An ideal reviewer buddy:
• Produces at about the same rate as you (it’s going to stink if you have to review ten of his or her chapters just to get a review on one of yours).
• Will give you honest opinions without worrying about your feelings (“It’s great” is the most useless review you can get).
• Is at roughly the same skill/professional level as you (J.K. Rowling doesn’t need your comments, and you probably don’t have time to review fanfic that uses “U” and “UR” as words).
• Writes in a genre you like and vice-versa (I’m not going to read dreary poetry just to get comments on my scifi).
Once the draft is done, the next 90 percent of the work is editing it. I wish I were exaggerating. It takes me about as much time to edit a book as it does to write it. Also, I strongly recommend hiring a professional for the task. You may have a buddy who is great at grammar, but that doesn’t make him an editor.
A great editor can do more than tell you that this sentence is crappy or that you changed to present tense; he or she can tell you if a character’s motivation is weak or if there is not enough variety in a character’s daily activities. Does your first chapter grab readers, or will they put your book down before you get to the good stuff?
At some point around here, you’ll probably want to completely rewrite Chapter One, and you may even need to change at what point in the tale you start telling the story. That chapter really needs to pop. Don’t fall in love with the one from your first draft. If you ended up explaining almost anything in chapter one, then you probably did it wrong, and it needs to be redone.
Next up, you should write your blurb. Don’t put this off until you are formatting the book for printing. Do it while you’re in the writing and editing mood. Again, if you’re explaining anything in your blurb, you’re doing it wrong.
“The Lion King is the tale of a young lion who is forced to leave his pride . . .”
Wrong. That’s an elevator pitch, not a blurb.
“‘Now this looks familiar,’ Scar chuckled as he drove his claws into Simba’s paws. Simba cried out in pain but barely managed to keep his grip on the edge of the cliff. ‘This reminds me of when I killed Mufasa.’”
Right. Start your blurb with the most exciting moment in your book, and add only enough explanation to make the reader wonder how it turns out. And while you’re at it, write an “about the author” piece, too. That’s easy, and you’ll need it eventually.
Now that you’ve got the big pieces, you need to decide what formats you want to publish in. Three great options include the following:
• Physical copies printed by an on-demand publisher like CreateSpace
• Mobile version like on Kindle (Nook is basically dead about now)
• DRM-free PDFs that you can sell via your website.
Very few people buy physical copies these days, but if you sell your writing at a convention, you’ll want to be able to buy a bunch to bring with you. And who doesn’t want a copy to commemorate such a huge achievement? Kindle versions are basically the best sellers today, and if you can get anyone to PayPal you money, then selling a PDF is essentially pure profit for the effort of sending an e-mail.
I won’t walk you through using CreateSpace’s website. It is really pretty simple. I’d go with the 5- x 8-inch paperback. It’s a tad larger than I’d like (a traditional paperback is more like 4.5- x 7-inch), but that’s the best option they have for now.
The hard parts are designing the cover and creating the PDF to upload. CreateSpace does have a cover creator tool. I haven’t used it, but I recommend that if you do, hire someone to help. It’s hoped you know someone who has some graphic design skills. Just because you can pick your images, fonts, colors, and text doesn’t mean you should. Graphic designers have a knack for this, and it will be worth the money you spend.
Be sure to leave some space on the back cover for the barcode, or CreateSpace could end up covering up something you feel is important. They don’t let you control where the barcode goes. They just pick the spot that looks most logical.
If you have someone design the cover image, use a resolution of 200 – 300 DPI, calculate the book thickness based on your page count, and add the bleeds that the CreateSpace website recommends. Do not trust graphic designers to do this right, as most of them (sorry for the generalization) suck at math. Create a template for them. Check it along the way and as well as when they are finished to ensure it comes out right. The front cover will be on the right side of the image, the back cover will be on the left, and the spine will be in the middle.
Creating the PDF will not take another 90 percent of your time; it will just feel as if it has. Here are some specifics that I used for my 5- x 8-inch physical copy:
• 5- x 8-inch page, 0.2-inch header and footer
• Heading 1: Centered 14-point Maiandra GD, 2.1-inch above, 0.2-inch below
• Part: Centered 16- point Maiandra GD, 2.1-inch above, 0-inch below
• ChapterUnderPart: Centered 14-point Maiandra GD, 0-inch above, 0.2-inch below
• Text Body: 11.5-point Garamond Normal, 0.2-inch indent
• Author’s name centered at top of left pages in 9-point Maiandra GD
• Book name centered at top of right pages in 9-point Maiandra GD
• Page numbers in 9-point Maiandra GD left and right justified on left and right pages, respectively
• SceneDivider: centered
• Unindented: based on Text Body but without the 0.2-inch indent
• InternalDialogue: bold italics
• Emphasis: bold italics
• ChapterPage: No header, no footer, inherits from RightPage
• LeftPage: margins 0.35-inch, 0.85-inch, 0.35-inch, 0.35-inch
• RightPage: margins 0.85-inch, 0.35-inch, 0.35-inch, 0.35-inch
An image for a scene separator is not necessary. You could use “* * *” or “# # #” if you like, but I prefer a horizontal line, a “§,” and another horizontal line. You can fashion this sort of thing out of a table, but it won’t convert into a Kindle document, so create an image for it.
If you have large images you plan to include (such as a map of the world), don’t add them until the end. Keep the document as image-free as you can until then. When you are ready to add your images, make sure they are at least 200 DPI, and try to insert them as a character. If you must flow text around the image or use full-page images, you should consider paying a professional to handle this for you. Both of these situations are a major pain and are easily messed up. If you do it yourself, recheck the images after each time you generate a PDF.
Export the image as a PDF with PDF/A-1a selected and export automatically inserted blank pages. Due to a bug in the current version of LO, full-page images that immediately follow an automatically inserted blank page can get duplicated. If this happens, you may have to insert some manual page breaks. Bleah. If you insert manual page breaks, be sure to check them each time you create a PDF.
One major problem with sending a PDF to CreateSpace is that the “black” generated by desktop applications like Word and LibreOffice may not be the “pure black” expected by their on-demand publishing code. I have received a proof copy where the text was not black, it was only dark grey (imagine a 95-percent halftone).
Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a free way to fix this problem, but I do have one that won’t break the bank. If you go to Adobe’s website, you can license the use of Acrobat Pro DC for 27 dollars a month. That should give you plenty of time to iterate over a few proof copies and make sure it is going to come out right.
Load the PDF created by LO and use the color adjuster tool on the entire document’s text to +20% dot gain. That should fix the dark grey text and make it black. Upload this PDF, and review again. Buy a proof copy, and check it closely!
If you want to sell a PDF version on your website, add the front and back cover images to the PDF at this time, and generate a new PDF file. Anchor the images to the page, and set the image dimensions to 5-inch x 8-inch. Make sure your cover images have that precise ratio, or you will be changing their aspect ratio — and that looks bad.
For the Kindle version, I saved the document under another name and modified the chapter styles so that they all used the HTML page style. Make sure the entire document uses the HTML page style, and merge up all header stuff (title, dedication, special thanks, etc.) onto a single page. On this header material, I used a single blank line to add space between items and two blank lines between types of content. Settings like space above and space after will be lost when you convert to an epub.
I also had to tweak some of my chapter headings, as epub files really want each chapter to start with the chapter name and for them to have all the same style (i.e. Header 1 and not Part + ChapterAfterPart). When the content looked okay, I changed the HTML page style to be 11-inch x 99-inch to make sure each chapter fit on a page. The plug-in I use likes to break up files based on page breaks, and that looks bad in a Kindle book.
Next, I exported the document to .epub format with the free Writer to Pub plug-in I installed in LibreOffice. Then I used the free Kindle Previewer to convert .epub to .mobi and view the results. I iterated again until I was content with the look.
The Kindle store will accept files in a few different formats. Use the .mobi file generated by the Kindle previewer for best results. I have no idea why the conversion process would be any different, but it is.
The rest of the Kindle submission process was pretty easy.
Congratulations, you’re now self-published. Go out and peddle that book!
Visit Gre7g at gre7g.com.