How to Publish a Book

Carl from America writes:

Hey, man, how’d you get all them dang ol’ robots and explosions in my electronic book? I wanna do that with my pappy’s farm stories ‘fore the harvest come.

Well, Carl, publishing your book of allegorical farm stories is actually pretty easy, if you know the true secret. But, can the true secret just be told to anyone, especially someone from America, a country that is not known for keeping secrets? My research says yes, yes it can. So, Carl, let’s take a look at the steps involved in publishing and maybe, just maybe, learn the true secret of publishing.

Step 0: Finish Your Book

Let’s assume you’ve already written your book, because like it or not, you can’t publish a book if you don’t have a book to publish (not the true secret). And when I say finish your book, I mean your book has been rewritten, revised, edited, and proofed. Alpha and Beta readers have all given feedback. You’ve pored over it for months or years, making it just as perfect as it can be.

If it’s December 1st and you just finished your 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, you don’t have a book to publish. Yet.

Step 1: Talk Yourself Out of Traditional Publishing

The first thing you’ll want to do is research publishing houses and literary agents. There are hundreds of websites on the world wide website collective that list where you can send your unsolicited manuscript. Visit enough and you’ll start seeing common requirements, like:

  • a cover letter hyping the book and yourself
  • a spoiler-filled synopsis of 1, 5, or N pages
  • an outline of the story
  • the first N chapters of the story, double-spaced, Times New Roman 12 or Courier, name and title at the top of every page, page numbers centered, no adjectives as the final word of any line, paper smelling vaguely of peaches, bound in human flesh
  • the entire goddamn manuscript printed and mailed via “media mail”
  • a self-addressed stamped envelope
  • a self-addressed stamped postcard
  • six to twelve months to allow for a response

You may be tempted to actually start producing the above materials, especially the synopsis, because really how hard can it be to write a synopsis of your own story? Answer: rather difficult. Writing a synopsis is like writing technical documentation — there’s no soul in it and at the end you want to die.

At this point in the process, just say to yourself:

What’s the point? They’re just going to say no anyway. I should just skip this part, go straight to self-publishing, and get on with the next book.

Congratulations! You’ve just learned the true secret, which is to lower your expectations.

Step 2: Choose Your Format(s)

If you’re old enough, you’d probably like nothing more than to hold your book in your hands and watch as your tears blot the pages. While there are many options for turning your Word doc into printed pages, you can save yourself some time by choosing between two on-demand publishing services: Createspace and Lulu.

Before Amazon stepped in and ate their lunch, Lulu was the only player around the time I published my first book of short stories. They revamped a few years ago, and though I haven’t used their services since Xronixle, they should be a pretty safe bet.

If you’re looking for the easiest path into the Amazon ecosystem, then Createspace is your best choice. Once you “publish” your book with them, it automatically becomes available for purchase at Amazon.com. And though the process is not perfect and still requires manual intervention, they also have push-button conversion to Kindle format.

As far as ebooks go, the question is not which digital format will I choose, but rather, will I publish any formats other than Kindle?

You see, there are plenty of digital marketplaces out there, from Nook to Kobo to Smashwords to ZipperStories to Fish&Metaphors. There was a time when I published to every marketplace that would have me, but after a while, I realized that Kindle copies were accounting for 98% of the digital pie. That may just be my experience, but keep in mind that not all digital platforms are equal, and you may end up doing extra work for each marketplace.

My Recommendation

Stick with Createspace and Kindle. If your book takes off like you know it will, you can expand into the other markets. For now, focus your energy (and reviews, customer discussions, photos, news, etc) on a single product page.

Step 3: The Cover

As famed literary critic Earnest Darby once said:

Your cover sucks.

If you’re anything like me, then you were blessed with a mediocre talent for story-telling and absolutely no talent for graphic design. Some things are better left to professionals, and since your cover is the first thing a potential reader is going to see, it needs to be engaging.

Note: There is a trend in self-publishing to invest as little money as possible into the process. Choosing on-demand printing makes sense, but when it comes to the cover, prepare to open your wallet.

By all means, go ahead and mock up a few covers of your own (it’s a lot of fun), but then turn those over to a pro and let them create the final product. Make friends with artists and graphic designers so you can get friend rates; if you just choose any rando on the internet, it may cost you between $50-$100 per hour.

My original mockups for Perion Synthetics, with artwork found randomly on the net and on atleastwedream.com

If you can’t afford a professional like Lauren Ellis (laurenellis.me) or Justin Pérez (justinperezdesign.com), then head over to DeviantArt or your digital art repository of choice and find some artwork you like. Slap your title and name over it, realize it looks terrible, and then try to pick up some extra shifts down at the plant so you can afford a professional.

Do not make the cover yourself if you cannot art. Spend the money. Do not not spend the money. Mortgage your wife if you have to.

Step 4: Format for Print

Your book is done, the last of the edits have been made, and now it’s time to format that sucker for print. If you’re publishing with Createspace, here’s what you need to do:

Under Layout / Page Setup / Margins:

  • Top: 0.75"
  • Bottom: 0.75"
  • Inside: 0.75"
  • Outside: 0.5"
  • Gutter: 0.15"

Make sure Apply to is set to Whole Document.

Under Layout / Page Setup / Paper:

  • Paper size: Custom Size
  • Width: 6"
  • Height: 9"

Apply to Whole Document.

Under Layout / Page Setup / Layout:

  • Section start: Odd page
  • Different odd and even: checked
  • Different first page: checked
  • From edge: 0.35" for both header and footer

The Layout options exist so you can get headers, footers, and page numbering correct. You need to divide your story into sections in Word, especially between the front material and the “first page” of the book. Different odd and even allows you to have the book title and your name alternate positions in the header. Different first page gives you the option of omitting the header on the opening page of a new section (useful if starting a new “part” set halfway down the page).

Clean it up

Once you save these options, your story will repaginate and you’ll need to go back through and make sure you’re happy with the line and paragraph breaks. Word does its best to keep paragraphs together (google widow and orphan control), but if you’re a perfectionist, you may want to add in some word-breaks like they did in the olden days to make sure the text flows perfectly. Make sure you enable Track Changes before you start and then review each change before saving and exporting to PDF.

Head over to Createspace and follow their instructions for uploading your PDF. Expect to spend some time reviewing, fixing, and re-uploading until it looks perfect. Even after that, you’ll order a proof before it becomes available for purchase.

Step 5: Format for Kindle

It’s 2016, so obviously you’re well-versed in HTML. Even so, this is going to take some work. As complicated as the Word formatting was, HTML is just the opposite. The goal is to minimize as much as possible.

The easiest way to get started is to simply upload your Word doc to the KDP website and let them convert it for you. Download the HTML, open it in Brackets (or your HTML editor of choice), and learn how to search and replace.

Word leaves a lot of garbage in the initial conversion. Where possible, you’ll want to convert paragraph tags (with their complicated styles or classes) to simple <p> tags.

<p class="first">“In virtual reality, the ether is as dark as a raven’s feathers. It is the color of emptiness, of nothingness. But the smell, the smell is just the opposite. It is the smell of potential, of possibility. It’s the entire spectrum of scent compressed into a single wavelength. Ether is everything, the spring from which all is born and all returns. It is the beginning... and the end.”</p> 

<p>Echoes of a drunken conversation flitted past Kenneth Barnes in the dark emptiness of the construct. He vaguely remembered the face of Wade Something-or-other from Nixle Chronos sitting next to him at a bar, trying to sell him on the potential of augmented reality. It was actually Wade’s second pitch of the day, but it lacked the formality of the one he had given in the rented conference room at 823 Congress. There, he had stood in front of Kenneth and three other Vinestead employees and extolled the limitless wonder of bringing virtual reality out into the real world. He’d spoken with confidence and gusto, as any CTO would if he thought he was pitching to the advisory board for Seraphim Capital.</p>

To mirror the design of the print version, I use two types of paragraphs:

P
{
direction:ltr;
text-align:justify;
widows:2;
orphans:2;
margin-top:0;
margin-bottom:0;
padding-top:0;
padding-bottom:0;
text-indent:.25in;
}
P.first
{
text-indent:0;
}

Essentially, the only thing P.first does is eliminate the indent. Those two statements are the entirety of my CSS. Not much else is really needed unless you’re trying to get fancy. And you’re not trying to get fancy, are you?

The Hunt

You are the hunter, and conversion artifacts are your prey. Certain characters just don’t translate well, so here’s your loop:

  • Make edits to HTML file
  • Use kindlegen to convert it to Kindle format (on your computer)
  • Use Kindle Previewer to preview the content (on your computer)
  • Take note of the mistakes (things like ellipses, quotes, accented characters, etc that may need to be replaced with &larr; or whatever)
  • Repeat

During this process, you are going to click through your novel page by page several times. Don’t shortcut it. Just put in the time and work. There is nothing more jarring than an error in a digital book.

Remember: as a self-publisher, your readers are already looking down their noses at you. Don’t give them a reason to judge you by slacking on the digital conversion. You want them focused on the story, not your formatting.

Step 6: Consider Another Career

With the print and Kindle versions ready to go live, it’s time to take a minute to consider whether you really want to go through with this. If it’s your first time publishing, this may only take the space of a heartbeat. If you’re a seasoned vet, you’re in store for a drunken weekend of wondering:

  • What if no one buys the book?
  • What if my Facebook friends hate me for spamming them?
  • What if no one likes the book?
  • What if James Taylor finds out I used his lyrics without permission?
  • What if no one buys the book?
  • What if all those people who promised to buy my book don’t buy my book?
  • What if Luba Shumeyko finds out I wrote a book about my obsession with her? #porvida
  • How much money am I going to lose on marketing?
  • What if my mom reads the sex scenes?
  • Am I really a writer?
  • Is this real life?

Your questions may vary. Stay strong, get drunk, and you’ll come out fine on the other end. You wrote a book, you soggy son of a bitch. That’s art where I come from, and all art is valid, even if it’s terrible or Hey, Soul Sister. Even if your metaphors suck and your imagery smells like a screeching guitar riff. If people don’t like it, they can write their own goddamn Picket Fences fanfiction.

Step 7: The Marketing Machine

Nothing makes me want to shove my face into the ceiling fan like thinking about marketing my book. Much like graphic design, I’m completely hopeless when it comes to getting my book in front of people.

My fourth novel is coming out early next year, and it’s pretty clear that I’m completely unprepared for the launch. I have a few ideas, but my mileage has varied from 0 to 1.

In the months leading up to release

  • Spam Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Medium / Etc with posts tangentially related to your book. If you write a book about synthetic humans, constantly retweet anything by Davecat and add your hashtag. Decrease the subtlety the closer you get to launch day.
  • Buy space on ebook announcement newsletters and websites. If you get the feeling that most of these sites feel like scams, rest easy, because they are. Strangely, they do generate traffic, so put your bank’s fraud detection department to the test and punch in those credit card numbers.
  • Send regular status updates to your newsletterYou do have a newsletter, right?
  • Tell your mom. That’s one sale right there.
  • Enable pre-orders for the Kindle edition. I haven’t gotten a chance to use this yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
  • Write a blog post about how to market your book and mention the book you’re trying to market over and over and over.
  • Line up Advanced Reviewers who will read the book ahead of time, purchase it on the day of release, and (honestly) review it within 1–2 days. (You will be sending potential readers to the product page; make sure there are reviews by Amazon verified purchasers.) DO NOT in any way, shape, or form reward/thank/compensate your advanced reviewers through Amazon. If you send them a gift card, their reviews will likely be pulled.
  • Run a giveaway promotion on Goodreads. Specifically ask the winners to write their review on Amazon (and Goodreads, but Amazon first).
  • Create a Facebook event that will remind everyone to buy your book on launch day (to inflate the sales numbers in a small window of time). Invite everyone you know and cross your fingers they pass the SPAM-buck to their friends too.

The day before launch

The plan is simple:

  • Freak the F out.

The day of launch

Stay active on Social Media. Make sure all of your promoted posts are running as planned. Post in your Event telling people to go buy. Make sure your newsletter ads actually went out. Ask for reshares. Ask for likes. Do everything you can to get your book noticed. Call in to local radio shows and pretend things from your books are real. Call your mom, make sure she bought your book.

Freak out a little more.

Black out for two weeks.

Step 8: Aftermath

Time to face the music. The book launch didn’t go exactly as planned. A lot of people bought your book, but statistically, no one did.

Your biggest job at this point is to convince yourself that none of it matters. You don’t write to make money; you’re an artist! You’re compelled to write, even if no one reads your books.

Revel in the initial surge in sales; ignore the leveling off.

Revel in the good reviews; ignore the bad ones (and all of Goodreads)

Have conversations with people who actually read the book and enjoyed it. Listen to them talk about characters and events you created. Listen to the feelings they experienced while reading, feelings that you put there.

You published your story so you could share something with other people. Even if your mom is your only reader, you still succeeded. Next time, you can try doubling your audience. And if you don’t, no big deal. Your NFLX investment made more money in the last year than any of your books did. Take solace in that.

Afterword

Obviously, this is my own personal experience translated into a sarcastic blog post for my American friend Carl. There are a lot of independent publishers who enjoy great success with their marketing, cover design, and yes, even traditional publishing. I envy their use of social media (see Ingrid Sundberg and Esther Dalseno on Instagram). I envy the community they’ve built around themselves. But I don’t dwell on it.

You see, marketing is the shitty side of publishing. Your book, good or bad, needs to get in front of people. If you can’t market, that’s not going to happen. And if that doesn’t happen, you may get discouraged and not write your next book.

And that would be a damn shame.

Hope this information helps, Carl. If not, too bad. I’m a self-proclaimed Science Fiction author, not a blog writer.

You wanted to know how to publish a book and avoid common mistakes.

Well, your first mistake was coming to me.