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  • Writer's pictureMichael Mills

Self-publishing ebooks: What you need to know.

Continuing our 'Ready to Publish' series, Michael Gallagher and I looked into the journey from initial idea to publishing. In this particular case we are going to be talking about ebooks. The original post was back in June 2019 on Michael's website. Please feel free to check it out for the latest blogs and more incredibly insightful dives in to the world of writing and publishing.

So, you’ve decided to self-publish. I won’t pretend it’s a walk in the park, but the easiest way to self-publish is with Kindle Direct Publishing through Amazon. First you need to create an account. It’s a hassle, but you only need do it the once. If you followed my advice from June and kept to a minimal format, you’re now in a great place to format a copy as a Word .docx file for Kindle. A .doc file might work too; there is a work-around if it doesn’t. Kindle provides you with ample guides on how to do things and with tools to help you on your way. They’ve simplified the uploading process and, if you don’t have a cover yet, you can use their Cover Creator to make one. You don’t need an ISBN (International Standard Book Number—that 13-digit code that you see on books). Instead you’ll be assigned a free ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number).

Some timely tips might be useful here. If you include any photos or images in with your text, make sure they’re saved at 300dpi (dots per inch). This is the resolution required if you later wish to turn your ebook into a print-on-demand paperback. Also, you can provide your own cover if you prefer. If you do—and are from the UK—I would strongly advise you to consider making it 1500px by 2400px (pixels), again saved at 300dpi. Books in the US and Canada tend to have larger covers with a different width-to-height ratio (6” x 9” as opposed to the UK’s 5” x 8”). Either way, make sure it’s at least 1500px wide. Finally, be careful what you sign up for. Some of the schemes KDP offers prevent you from publishing elsewhere (though by this point you might consider that a blessing).

So you upload everything you need to and then what happens? Kindle converts it into an ebook (takes a little while), and then suggests any spelling mistakes it finds (which may not be spelling mistakes at all). At this point you can take a gander at what it looks like on a virtual Kindle device. Everything looks good? Now all you have to do is set your territorial rights (worldwide!), set the price, and publish! Woohoo! You typically wait about 24 hours for your book to be checked and go live.

Another possibility (and one that’s probably not on offer from any vanity publisher) is to self-publish with Smashwords, who distribute to Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBooks, and Kobo. They require an ultra-clean Word .doc file (a .docx file may not work—it introduces too many extra bits of weird coding), and they are very fussy about how you format your book. Download their Style Guide to learn more. Apple and Kobo require your book to have an ISBN, and Smashwords will provide you with one for free—but only if you meet the strict criteria for inclusion in their Premium Catalogue. You will need to provide your own cover (and a 1500px by 2400px one saved at 300dpi will be perfect), though they have a list of designers you can hire (or you can find one yourself) if such artwork is beyond you. Oh, and you’ll need a Paypal account to receive payments.

So, you set up your account, you head for “Publish” in the header, you fill in the fields as required, and then you upload your files. You’ll be placed in a queue for Meat Grinder, their converter, which will spit out your converted files one by one. Although there’ll be a version for Kindle, the important one here is the ePub. That’s the one your ISBN will be assigned to, if your book makes the grade. Download a copy (there’s no charge because you’re the author) to check the conversion yourself (which you can do on an open-source Calibre Portable that is designed specifically for ePubs and is free to download).

Whereas KDP does minimal checking on books (preferring to let their customers do it for them), Smashwords scrutinizes your conversion more thoroughly. Though your book will be live on their website, it can take several nail-biting days before you hear back from them. Hopefully everything’s OK. Very often it’s not. The main reasons books fail are twofold. First, you ignored the formatting guidelines in some respect (easily remedied). Second, the formatted Word document contains glitches (much harder to fix).

If you took my advice and kept to minimal formatting then formatted a copy of that, this is far less likely to occur—you are already following their “nuclear method” protocol. However glitches can still sneak in, particularly when you’re testing the hyperlinks from your table of contents to each of the chapters. Here’s the Catch 22. You need to test them to make sure they work. But if you test them they occasionally lodge invisible codes in the file that cause glitches. Solution? Always make another copy to test it, to keep your formatted one squeaky clean!

Hyperlinks within the text—or more specifically the bookmarks they link to—can cause another problem. Everything is fine if it’s a chapter or a section of the book. But let’s say you put a link from your Author’s Note in the back matter to a particular paragraph in Chapter 5. Unless you preface the bookmark name you give it (let’s call it “checkthisout”) with “ref_” (as in “ref_checkthisout”), it can end up appearing in the document guide that the eReader makes (as in “…Chapter 5, checkthisout, Chapter 6…”).

One small snag I have occasionally encountered is that Meat Grinder fails to justify the text; it ends up being left aligned with a ragged-right edge (which is the preferred formatting for uploading). Smashwords may not pick this up; it’s up to you to check your ePub file to make sure that all is dandy. The only solution for this is to reformat your Word file, this time justifying what needs to be justified, and upload it again. A pain, I know.

Is all this fuss really worthwhile? It certainly can be. Not only does Smashwords distribute to some powerful online players, they allow (if not downright encourage) you to give away free copies of your book, a really important point if you are trying to attract reviewers or are planning to run special offers. While Amazon may allow you to give review copies away, you will find it’s far less generous. On Smashwords, you can set up coupons to last for a day, a week, or a year (or any period of time, come to that) offering discounts of up to 100%. The majority of the staff are genuinely nice people, who will go out of their way to help you. And then there’s the fact they aren’t Amazon.

Michael Mills, an author who has gone the self-publishing route, replies: Michael Mills: Hello Michael. Once again I find myself not only offering suggestions but taking some very useful notes for my next book. Like I mentioned the previous month, formatting was a major headache for me and I wish I had known a lot of the things I know now, specifically about creating the cover for the UK’s 5” x 8”—or in fact knowing the difference between the US and Canadian standard and how that relates to the UK. I chose to have mine custom made by an artist friend, Levi, and we both had to figure out what the specifications were. A very tedious process.

Michael Gallagher: I can laugh about it now, but I remember going through the exact same nightmare regarding the cover the first time I published a book.

Michael Mills: I am very interested in trying Smashwords for my next book. I quite like the idea of their strict guidelines. I feel that will go a ways to forming good habits. One piece of software that I stumbled upon too late but, I will be using it to reformat my ebook is an open source and free software called “Sigil”. It takes you through a step by step WYSIWYG program to format, create and edit ePub. Of course there are tutorials on everyone’s favourite know-it-all site YouTube to guide you through the tougher areas. However, I found it very useful and intuitive.

Michael Gallagher: I too have an old copy of Sigil, and it’s a great bit of software if you are making your ebook yourself, e.g., for sale direct from your own website. Just to be clear, having your own ePub file is not necessary for either KPD or Smashwords, although Smashwords is currently beta-trialling a way to upload your ePub directly. Frankly, I’d only do it this way if it were my only option—they’re even more picky about formatting mistakes.

Michael Gallagher

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