Now that I’ve described my views on how ebooks are changing the world of traditional, Gutenberg-style publishing,1 what does it take to become a self-published author in the new digital ebook market? We’re going to take as a given that you’ve already written a book, fiction or non-fiction, and you have some idea of the kinds of readers it will attract and what they will expect.2
The first challenge is to obtain some basic editing, and that starts with unbiased feedback. This can be as simple as joining a writers’ group3 or maintaining an “I’ll read your book if you’ll read mine” relationship with a fellow writer whose skills and taste you trust. Don’t depend on sending your book to family and non-professional friends.4 They’ll try to be nice, and what you want is a critical reading by a professional who tells you where he or she stumbled, got the wrong idea, got lost, or got mad at the author—and ideally they can help you fix the problem. Criticism is good. The critical reader, like a skilled editor, is your “eyes behind,” watching your back as you navigate the story.
In addition to critical feedback, it can be immensely helpful to learn to edit your own work. This takes iron will and concentration. First, you have to let the story get cold—become a “good forgetter” after the heat of writing—and then approach it dispassionately. You must look only at the words on the page and what they will mean to a neutral reader coming upon them for the first time, rather than the visions that ran through your head as you were writing those words. The self-editing process involves a bit of benign schizophrenia, because you have to keep asking yourself: “How would I (the reader) know this if I (the author) haven’t explained it yet?”
After the book is structured and you think you’re finished, you probably still need professional help with the editing in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphing, and all the technical details of manuscript preparation. If you’re already a trained copy editor, then get the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and begin dispassionately whacking commas and adjusting capitalization and spelling choices. Otherwise, be prepared to pay someone else for this service.
Paying a Professional Editor
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the digital publishing revolution is still in its infancy. Most of the freelance editors at work today either hire out to traditional publishers or market themselves to hopeful writers who can’t find an agent or publisher. The usual pitch in the latter case is that a publishing house will only consider a fully edited manuscript. This is simply not true. While obvious sloppiness is a turnoff, acquisition editors really aren’t looking for perfect grammar and punctuation and won’t expect the author to be following the publishing house’s own peculiarities of style. Acquisition editors expect to commission the final editing process once they’ve contracted for the book. The publisher’s first consideration is market potential, and a freelance editor can’t build that in or guarantee a publisher will find it.
But in the digital self-publishing market, readers will expect your book to be as carefully crafted as one from a big publisher. So editing is important. I think of the editing job in two ways: copy editing and structural editing.
Copy editors work with things that are obviously wrong in terms of standard English: punctuation, typos, capitalization, word usage, awkward sentences, consistency and continuity (“This shirt was a sweater on page 98”) and other obvious errors. A copy editor might also offer observations about areas of confusion—such as to who’s speaking which lines of dialog—but will change it only if the fix is obvious (add “Jane said” here and “Clyde said” there). But if the book is going off the track, like not showing how or why they got to Rome after dining in Paris, or whole passages of dialog are banal and obvious and don't move the reader forward, or the ending is really no good—then you need something stronger.
A structural editor looks at the book as an artistic whole. This is what a traditional publisher’s acquisitions editor does, generally working with an author whose book the house has already decided has a potential market and should be published. The structural editor guides the author through a rewrite, rather than taking the manuscript in hand and fixing things automatically, like a copy editor. “You tell us Jane’s a kleptomaniac and has no control over her urges, but it would be helpful if you actually showed her in the act and examined her feelings through internal dialog.” Or, “We already know Jane’s a kleptomaniac, so the fourth trip to the store starting on page 57 is really unnecessary.” “I find the character of Benjamin inconsistent: he says nasty things at the party, but we don’t know why. Then everyone says what a good guy he is. We need some insight here.” “Your ending would be stronger if, instead of Carmen just walking away when Camille kills the dog, Carmen took some action that the reader can identify with.” The structural editor will suggest improvements in line with your original or perceived intentions, but won’t rewrite the book for you.5
Right now, it’s hard for self-publishing authors to describe and then find the kind of editing help they’re looking for. I believe, however, that as the digital revolution takes off, more and more good editors and sensitive agents—perhaps unable to find work in traditional publishing—will offer their skills on line and through talent brokers. If there’s a marketplace of authors seeking specific kinds of help, there will arise a mechanism to provide it. And once again, word of mouth from satisfied customers will be the best marketing.
Other Things You Need for Publishing Yourself
Usually your book will require some kind of special coding before you upload it on the digital distributor’s system. Some distributors will take and convert a Microsoft Word file, but Word creates so much hidden coding and formatting that results can be unpredictable. A manuscript in portable document format (PDF) is a bit more stable, but the coding may still confuse the upload. I’ve found that the only format that works consistently across the three platforms I sell on (Kindle, Nook, iBooks) is the epub standard.
ePubs are based on the same HTML coding that goes into creating your author’s website. The chapters are essentially HTML or XHTML files coordinated by specially structured files that define the contents of the book and their order of presentation. You can create all this by working from models and using a basic text editor. A good source for learning about the standard and obtaining the model files is JediSaber’s ebooks tutorial.
There are professional services that will code your manuscript as an ebook, and software like Calibre ebook management will automatically code an epub from most word processing formats. However, being a bit technical and picky about the details, I prefer to work on coding the manuscript myself.
As a publisher, you will need to obtain an international standard book number (ISBN) for the digital version.6 Not all distributors require an ISBN, but enough do that it’s worth the investment. In the U.S., ISBNs are provided by Bowker, the provider of bibliographic information who used to publish the annual Books in Print catalog. Other services can obtain an ISBN for you, but the source is still Bowker. You’ll pay about $100 for each book number, depending on the level of collateral services and support you need.
It also pays to copyright your work. In the U.S., you do this through the Library of Congress and its Copyright Office. You can apply on line ($35) or with a paper application ($50). The process is easy, and the government website will answer all your questions, especially as to what can and cannot be copyrighted. One thing to note is that there are no “copyright police.” Obtaining copyright simply establishes your ownership of the work beyond the simple act of creation, which is covered by common-law copyright. But you have to defend that right if someone copies or infringes on your work.7 This involves legal action and can be expensive. Pick your battles.
The digital platforms all want you to upload cover art as a way to differentiate and promote your book. If you don’t know any artists who will read your book, paint an inspired picture from some detail, and sell it to you at a reasonable price, there’s still a good way to get art. I favor Getty Images® as a source of relatively inexpensive photos and artwork. You can buy exclusive rights to the image for a lot of money (generally known as “rights managed”) or you can buy the right to reproduce the work (“royalty free”) under certain conditions. With a strong, thematic image in hand, you can then design a simple cover—book title, subtitle, your name—in Photoshop and save the file in the format(s) the distributor is looking for. Be sure to pay for any art you use and apply the appropriate copyright notice when displaying it, usually on the copyright page of your book.
Promoting Your Work
Once you have a book available on the digital platforms of your choice, you’re back to every author’s first chore: getting known outside your ZIP code. There are many ways to do this—all still in development, as the digital revolution devours traditional publishing.
First, you will want to develop and maintain an author’s website. The site is an exercise in shameless promotion: all about you, what you’ve done, why you’re an interesting person, skilled writer, and expert in the field into which you’re trying to sell your work.8 You can have a site professionally created and maintained, but updating it by working through others can become frustrating and expensive. The alternative is to get some good web editing software, buy a domain name, contract for webhosting services, and learn enough HTML coding, picture management, and other skills to work the site yourself. (And yes, there’s a Dummies book for learning all this.)
When you produce and distribute a new book, be sure to create a special page on your site that features the book itself. Then, when you announce the book in various media, you want to link directly to this page, so that interested readers don’t have to search for it among all the other nice things available on your site.
Many authors keep a blog, so that they can generate continuing interest in their views, their area of special interest, their careers, and also their new works. The blog can be on the author’s site or hosted by a service like Google’s BlogSpot.
Many authors use social media sites like Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter to introduce themselves, discuss their work, and announce new projects and book titles. This is a delicate business, because the first purpose of these sites is social, not business. It pays to be an active participant, “liking” friends’ posts that reflect your taste and core values, and commenting intelligently on them so that potential readers will understand what a wonderful and thoughtful person you are. Once you’ve established yourself as a person, you can sparingly introduce and discuss your books and link to your website and special book pages. But if you’re too heavy-handed and commercial, people will avoid and even “defriend” you.
There are also paid advertising opportunities, like Google’s AdWords and Facebook Ads, that can target readers who might be interested in your book. In my mind, the jury is still out on how effective this will be for a new author with not much name recognition. If you keep a large mailing list of postal friends and acquaintances, you can also commission and print postcards about the new book and send them to your list.
Marketing is going to be key to getting your book known and start generating word of mouth, which is the best advertising. But this is not a new problem for authors: It’s been a long time since traditional publishers paid for expensive promotions and book tours for all but their bestselling authors. And, in the case of self-published ebooks, time is on your side. The ebook will stay in print, available to your growing circle of fans, virtually forever.9 You’re not running ahead of some publisher’s deadline for when the inventory of paper must be pulped and copies remaindered at the bookstore.
Time to build your name and following means everything to a new or returning midlist author.
1. See eBook Publishing in Various Art Forms.
2. Yes, even as a self-published author you need to consider the market in order to know how to promote your book. If you didn’t want people to read it, why go to all this trouble in the first place?
3. You have to be wary of writers’ groups, however. Writing is personal, and you will meet many people with firm opinions about structure and technique who will try to impose standards that may be wrong for your own style, voice, and content. You will also meet a lot of frustrated people whose only joy left in life is verbal assault and battery in the guise of being helpful.
4. Your mother loved your first book, didn’t she, even though it was written in crayon? She will love everything you do. This is not helpful.
5. The acquisition editor’s call for rewrites is one reason—along with the outmoded practice of buying an outline and sample chapters before the book is complete—why publisher’s book contracts usually divide the advance between “on signing” and “on delivery of an acceptable manuscript,” sometimes with a third split to “on publication.”
6. The book itself carries the ISBN, which is used across all distribution platforms. If the book previously or subsequently appears in paper or aural format, those versions will need separate ISBNs.
7. The current ereader services I’ve dealt with will usually enable a “rights managed” function to protect your book against unauthorized transfer and copying. And most platforms make it difficult for you to access the reading device’s memory, extract the book content, and send it to your 3,000 best friends in an email. (Although, with some, you can “loan” the book to another reader through a security function.) Frankly, in terms of stealing ebooks wholesale, I worry more about Google’s apparent efforts to digitize every book ever written and make them available through its own search services.
8. Needless to say—but I’ll say it anyway—you want to create an attractive persona for a wide audience. That means avoiding discussion of your radical political opinions—unless they are central to your work and readership—as well as your nasty personal habits, gossip about and disparagement of your family and friends, and any detail of your life you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. Websites are terribly public places and attract all kinds of notice: to your benefit but also to your harm.
9. Or as long as that particular distribution platform remains popular and relevant.