More Power to the Do-It-Yourselfers

quinnremoteSo I got an email last week from a friend. She asked about justification and hyphenation in ebooks, and my opinion about what should be the standard. Then in a PS, she added:

PS I now have a system for making Scrivener create an ebook for me that is rather fancy, but doesn’t require any hand work. There’s a post about it on my blog, if you care to look. A tiny bit of hand manipulation of the final epub + Kindlegen even gives me indented right margins for my epigraphs. I have learned so much from you and your posts – but I do have a different system which works for me with NO hand cleaning of the source code, and just a few tweaks to the templates. So I can say my Scrivener ebooks look good on the epub and mobi readers I’ve tried, and I’ll test them on everything I have access to before even uploading. You did say to tell you if people had a system that worked for them.”
https://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/scrivener-one-click-ebook-for-busy-writers/

It probably doesn’t make good business sense for me to encourage Do-It-Yourself ebook production. Except, I think DIY is wonderful and I not only encourage it, I highly approve of anyone who wants to give it a shot. In fact, I am of the opinion that anyone who wants to make a career out of self-publishing to at least try formatting an ebook. If you’re an independent writer, you’re ALSO a publisher. A publisher needs to know how things work. They need to know what the people they hire are doing and if they are doing a good job and earning their keep.

There are many, many resources available to the DIYer. Both Amazon and Smashwords have tons of information about how to make an ebook. It is possible to make a quality ebook using readily available tools such as MS Word or Scrivener. Here is a recommendation I made to Alicia:

I haven’t used Scrivener since I had a computer die on me, [two plus years ago] and I haven’t reloaded it. I imagine it’s improved quite a bit. Even so, were I using it, I’d skip using their [built-in] KindleGen, run an epub then convert that using the Kindle Previewer. I’d use the resulting MOBI file for proofing and adjusting, then run a fresh epub and load that to Amazon. That will greatly lessen chances of conversion goofs.

I’ve said it many times in many blog posts that the keys to a quality ebook are clean text going in and then careful testing/proofreading of the ebook before it is uploaded to a retailer. How exactly you go from the clean text stage to the proofread stage is up to you. I prefer html and css to build an ebook from the ground up because it’s efficient and I have a lot of control and I can do some very sophisticated styling without breaking the resulting ebook.

If you are comfortable using a word processor or Scrivener or even InDesign, here are the tips I gave Alicia:

[This is a problem] Using multiple, but not embedded fonts. I encourage people to stick with Times New Roman, not because it’s easy to read or because it will show up in ebooks, but because its character sets are stable and every conversion program knows how to “read” it. It’s foolproof as far as conversion is concerned. When people use multiple fonts that are not properly embedded, what will happen is that sometimes during the conversion the program decides to “help” out. I don’t know if you’ve ever read an ebook where all the sudden a word is super-sized or teeny-tiny or characters are replaced by black diamonds or boxes with question marks. That is a result of inappropriate fonts.

Justifying the text. Across the board, this will break a Kindle book.
[Justified text is the default in most Kindle devices, so even if your Word or Scrivener file is ragged right, the ebook will justify the text. If you justify the text, the program will code based on margins and print commands. They can lock. So what happens when it’s converted to an ebook is that the Kindle will not/can not override those locking codes, and users will not be able to adjust margins or line spacing. This is a bad thing.]

Micro-managing line spacing. This can cause big problems in Kindle books. Broken paragraphs, squished text, weird blank “pages” and so on. Set your spacing at “single” and leave it alone. Problem solved.

Hyphenating text. For the most part, Kindles ignore discretionary hyphens. Sometimes they don’t. So you end up with words in the middle of a sentence with a discretionary hyphen character (looks like a hyphen with a hook). It doesn’t break the ebook, but it does look sloppy and unprofessional. In html I [sometimes] use a soft hyphen character. Several of my clients are medical professionals and they use some extra long terms, so I manually insert soft hyphens. I don’t know if there is an equivalent in Scrivener.

Two more tips for you:

  • Remember that what you SEE in your word processor or Scrivener is not necessarily what you will get in your ebook. So don’t get all worked up about spacing and widows/orphans. Let your text flow, which is what it is supposed to do in the ebook.
  • Use styles. Use one style for the main body text (not tabs or hard returns or extra spaces) and another for headers and even a style for centering text. If you don’t know how to use styles, take 30 minutes and figure it out. It will save you time and headaches, and result in a much better quality ebook.

Finally, a word about Amazon’s Look Inside feature. This is a chronic headache for me because most people don’t realize they aren’t seeing the actual ebook. What Amazon is showing is a sample that is specially converted for the Look Inside. Sometimes they justify the text as the default, sometimes they default to ragged right. Sometimes they ignore margins. In other words, if you want to see what the ebook actually looks like, you have to download a sample. Why does Amazon do this? I don’t know. It’s a pain in the ass and I get tired of explaining to clients how it works, but that’s how it is. So my advice to you is if you want to see how your ebook looks “live” do NOT depend on the Look Inside. If you don’t have a Kindle, then download the Kindle Previewer and open up your book with that. You will get a much clearer picture.

Self-Publishers: Who Grants You Permission and Who Tells You No?

quinn-noI read something over on The Passive Voice that has been bugging the crap out of me.

6/ Someone To Say ‘No’ This is the big one. It’s counter-intuitive to most indie authors, and even to many authors who come from traditional publishing. One of the things I love about indie publishing is the freedom. It’s very liberating to not have anyone to shoot down your ideas, to be able to play with different formats of stories or different genres, to take a chance on an idea and see how it flies. That power restores our ability to take a chance on an idea that just won’t let go of our imagination.

But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong? As tedious as it can be to build consensus, there is merit in listening to other voices. Where will I find that voice? Everyone I consult in this market is being paid by me. I’m the client of my freelance editor, which reverses the balance of power between us. Just as in the traditional publishing market, I couldn’t tell my editor that I wouldn’t make change X to my book (or do it by Y date), my editor now can’t tell me to make change X. A freelance editor might believe she can’t tell a client indie author things that author won’t want to hear.

Power is held by the one who pays.

(Deborah Cooke–the original article is well worth reading)

I had a strong reaction when I read it. I like to think I’ve gained enough maturity to examine my own reactions before I start spouting off. Plus, I’m horrendously overworked these days and even commenting on blogs is an indulgence. So it’s been sitting inside my head, nagging at me as I wonder why this is wrong.

The answer came the other day while I was engaged in an email conversation with a client. One of the things I said to him was:

Promotion and marketing don’t sell books. Promo and marketing get your name out there. That’s it. What sells books is word of mouth. So you do your promo then act pleasantly surprised if your efforts do result in a few sales. Where your real energy goes is into the stories. You write, get better, write more, get even better, and eventually you figure out what your readers like and then you give it to them, plus some. Every single “overnight success” I know personally has been plugging away for years. You’ll know you’ve “made it” when you have readers arguing over whether you’re best thing since Skippy peanut butter or the worst literary fraud who ever existed.

Here’s the thing, back in the good ol’ bad days of traditional publishing, writers had one road to travel to publication. Submit their work to agents and editors until somebody, somewhere said “Yes.” A writer could spend months or years on the submission/rejection treadmill, and quite often they never did find the right person at the right time to say “Yes.” There are some (I used to be one) who feels that grind builds character and makes writers better writers. I don’t believe that anymore. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. I think the submission/rejection grind wrecked or outright destroyed far more writers than it ever helped–even those who got publishing contracts, and in some cases, especially those who got publishing contracts.

The reason I’ve changed my mind is because the prevailing myth is that the reason agents and editors reject writing is because it’s no good. It’s not just a myth, it’s an outright lie. The ONLY reason any work is rejected is because the agent or editor doesn’t think they can sell it. That’s it. The only reason. One person (or a committee) decides a particular piece of work is unsaleable, and rejects it.

Some agents and editors are better than others at reading the market and knowing what will sell. But the vast majority are just as dumb as the rest of us and so they’re just guessing. I’ve met a lot of publishing house editors and several agents. Some are quite talented at what they do. I’ve never met one who was infallible. Most of them are just like me: established tastes and strong opinions. Unfortunately taste and opinions do not make for good business sense. For example, I love Anne Tyler’s books and I’ve never been able to make it past chapter three in a Nora Roberts novel. Were I an agent or trad editor and something that reminded me of Anne Tyler crossed my desk, I’d dub it good or great, and I’d reject anything that smacked of Nora Roberts. I would tell myself I’m making my decision based on sound business principles, but the reality is, I’m just another goof who can’t see past my own biases.

Ms. Cooke asks: “But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong?

My answer is: “Nobody has a right to.”

Writers, editors, and agents have only their own prejudices, tastes and opinions to judge the worthiness of a work. The only people who actually know what will sell are readers.

I do some copy editing and a whole lot of proofreading, and some of the books I work on appeal to my tastes and others don’t. Some are beautifully written, others aren’t. Some are slickly professional, some are rough or even amateurish. It’s not my place to judge a work’s worthiness. In fact, no writer wants to ask me about the saleability of a work because I’m the last person anyone should ask. A former friend and I used to have a running joke: if I adored a story she wrote, chances were it would not sell, but if I hated it, even loathed it, it would not only sell, but probably pick up a few awards along the way. I know what I like and I’m very passionate about it and given time to think I can make pretty good arguments as to why I like or dislike any particular piece of writing. I haven’t a clue about why anybody else likes what they do. I can Monday morning quarterback with the best of them and sometimes I think I can figure out the appeal of best sellers, but it’s just guessing.

If a client asks my advice on how to improve the CRAFT of writing, I can go on for days. I’m pretty good at pinpointing where a writer is interfering with the reader. No writer should ever ask me if they should publish. How the hell should I know? More importantly, I don’t have the power or the right to tell anyone to not publish. As a reader, yes, I can decide if I want to shell out cash and then invest my time, or not. As an editor? Absolutely not.

Back on the submission/rejection grind, a lot of writers did get better. Not because their writing was rejected. It was because they kept writing. If you keep writing, you can’t help but improve because practice really does make perfect.

The trouble with the submission/rejection grind was that a lot of rejected manuscripts ended up in drawers or under the bed or tossed in the garbage. The only thing wrong with them was that some editor or agent (or even a lot of editors and agents) decided they didn’t know how to sell it to readers. Readers, if they knew about all those lost/forgotten/trashed stories, might disagree.

I’m of the mind these days that if you write it, let readers decide if it’s something they might like–and NO ONE ELSE. Not your critique partners, not an editor, not an agent, not a reviewer, and certainly not organizations like Authors United or Authors Guild. The latter can spout all they want about the evils of Amazon and how self-publishers are destroying literature and culture by flooding the market with cheap crap. Reality is, how many of you have ever walked into a book store and said, “Holy shit, there are way too many books! I’m outta here!” No? Yeah, me neither. Do publishers and writers have a discoverability problem? They sure do. Readers don’t, though. Readers know what they like and they know how to find it and they don’t need some “curator of culture” holding their hand. I, personally, don’t give a rip about how many books are published each year. It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. If I want something, I know how to find it. Everything else is ignored.

Nobody is entitled to reader attention. Everybody has to earn it–whether you’re just starting out, or you’re Douglas Preston of Authors United (who, if you type in his name on Amazon will bring up over 1000 results). If you earn it, you reap sales and accolades and maybe even a living. If you don’t, well, you can either give up or get better.

To my way of thinking, self-publishing the early works is a lot like the submission/rejection grind, EXCEPT for one very important distinction: Instead of seeking out that one person who is guessing your work is salable, you’re putting it out in front of a whole lot of people who actually KNOW if it’s salable or not. You won’t have to wait weeks, months or even years to find out either. You’ll find out in real time. Readers might tell you “No.” They might turn up their noses and ignore you completely. It’s a risk you take. The thing is, it’s YOUR risk. It’s your time, your energy, your vision, your money. If you believe in what you’re doing, then do it, damn it, and don’t waste time seeking permission. If you miss the mark, oh well, roll up your sleeves and try again.

Deborah Cooke said it herself: Power is held by the one who pays.

That I agree with 100%. Except, she means the self-publishing WRITER and I mean the READER.

On the practical side, you might benefit from expert advice, even if you pay for it. Not permission, not validation, not praise, not attaboys, not judgement–advice. There are as many reasons why a particular book doesn’t sell as there are books. It could be timing, it could be packaging, it could be subject matter, it could be the writing itself. It’s all guesswork. As an indie writer/publisher, you’ve got a lot of room to experiment and grow. You’ve got time for readers to find your work (a HUGE advantage over traditional publishing). If you think you could be doing better and should be doing better and can’t figure out on your own how to do better, then it will benefit you to seek advice. But don’t make the mistake of asking anyone–especially someone you’re paying– “Do you like it?” Because it’s pointless. Be specific. “What can I do to improve my writing?” “Is my packaging working?” “How come readers are giving up on my novel after only reading three chapters?” The thing about paying for advice is that you are free to take it, or not. If it rings true to you and you’re capable of following it, you’d be a fool not to. If it doesn’t make sense, then you’re out a few bucks. Big deal.

In the meantime, keep writing, keep publishing, keep putting yourself out there. Let the readers decide. They are the only ones who matter.

Who’s in Your Writing Community? Time to Show the Love (and WIN PRIZES!)

writestuff2I’m always ragging on you about writing better and producing better books, marketing your work and finding your audience and acquiring business sense. Ever wonder why I do it? (The obvious answer is that I’m a natural born nag–ask my family.) The real reason is that, YOU, all the subscribers and passersby and regular visitors, are part of my community. The strength of any community is determined by the willingness of its members to work, share and support each other in big ways AND small. The blog posts I write are one way for me to give back to the community which supports me so well.

How very nice, Jaye, but you said there are prizes.
I’m getting there.

One of the members of my community had become a very good friend. Jerrold Mundis. Aside from being a nice guy, he’s a hell of a writer. (If you happen to like antebellum and Civil War fiction, or stories about dogs, or need financial advice, read his books and you’ll think he’s a hell of a writer, too.) He’s also a writing coach and editor and money guru and former dog trainer and a long list of other interesting things. I recently formatted his book BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW! for a Storybundle called the Write Stuff Bundle. Lo and behold, other members of my writing community are in the bundle, too. (Don’t know what Storybundle is? Click here and check it out.)

Along with Jerry, the writers I consider part of my writing community are:

  • Chuck Wendig (profane and NSFW {mostly because of the laughing}), giving you a good kick in the backside to get you on the road to writing a novel.
  • Bob Mayer with a toolkit no writer should be without.
  • Laura Resnick with the inside scoop on the writing life.
  • Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, partners in life and business, sharing their hard-won wisdom.

The other writers–Vonda N. McIntyre (fantasy and science fiction); J. Daniel Sawyer (audiobooks); Douglas Smith (short fiction); Judith Tarr (writing about horses); Leah Cutter (on business)–are new to me, but I suspect after I read their books, they’ll be part of my community, too.

writestuff1You’re sounding like a fangirl, Jaye, or a stalker. How about them prizes?
Getting there. Back to Jerry first.

I told him I’d bought the Write Stuff Bundle and was reading it on my new iPhone. (Mostly to see if the display was good enough for my old eyes–it is–and to see what the iPhone does to formatting–not bad at all.) Jerry chastised me for buying the bundle because he wanted to give me a promo code as a gift. To which I said, oh well, too late. He asked me if I wanted to gift the bundle to anyone else.

That’s when I thought about YOU.

It would be easy enough for you to bop over to the Storybundle site and buy the Write Stuff Bundle. It’s pay what you want ($5 minimum), plus it has the additional benefit of allowing you to donate to a charity at the same time. But isn’t WINNING more fun?

Isn’t WINNING BIG even more fun?

Along with winning the story bundle with ELEVEN books by eleven writers sharing their wisdom and experience, I’m putting up an ebook format. That’s right, win the books, and win my time and experience to bring YOUR book out in digital.

It won’t be easy, though. (Always a catch, eh? ) In order to win eleven books and a digital format job from the person (me!) Lawrence Block calls his “Production Goddess”, you need to give back to the community. By that I mean for you to give the eleven writers in the Write Stuff Bundle the one thing that every writer (whether brand new or with decades of writing under their belts) needs: NOISE. Make them part of your writing community and share with others.

This is exactly what you need to do:

  1. Tweet this post with the hashtag #MyWritingCommunity. Or share it on Facebook.
  2. Visit the website of one (or two or all–I’ve linked to their websites) of the writers in the Write Stuff Bundle. Tweet or share on Facebook one of their posts. Remember, hashtag #MyWritingCommunity. While you’re there, if you find what they have to say interesting and valuable, sign up for their newsletter or subscribe to their blog. Check out their books, too. This is a diverse group, and you might discover a new fave or two.
  3. Send an email to jayewmanus@gmail.com with “My Writing Community” in the header. If you want to tell me what you’ve done to support the community that supports you, I’d love to hear about it.

In a week, using Double-blind, Super-secret, Assuredly Scientific methods, I will select a winner and post it here.

Sound like fun? Good! Now go show the love.

————————————————————————————

UPDATE: Through my Super Secret, Scientifically Accurate process (it involved a 22-month-old and a doll’s hat) I’ve drawn a winner! Congratulations, Shalisha! You should have your email by now and I truly hope the Write Stuff Bundle inspires you as much as it inspires me. For the rest of you, the Write Stuff Bundle is still available until June 4th.

Book Production: Start to Finish, How It’s Done

blog2I spend a lot of time explaining to people what is happening with their ebooks and print on demand books–mostly why their Word docs don’t make much difference to me. So instead of repeating myself, I’ll just write this post and send them a link.

Caveat: This is how I do things, the workflow I’ve developed. Not every book producer or formatter does things the same way–or for the same reasons.

IN THE BEGINNING

What I need from authors are their source file (Word doc or whatever word processor they use–doesn’t matter, I can handle just about anything*), their full-sized cover image (jpeg), and any images they want inserted. It’s better to NOT embed the images in the source document. Rather, send them as attachments, or if there are a lot then stick them in a zip folder and attach that. You can indicate image placement with a comment: [INSERT IMAGE dogandcat.jpg CAPTION Best friends for life.] It’s also best to send the complete document, including all front matter and back matter, in one file. That way nothing gets lost or misplaced (and I don’t get confused). Don’t bother inserting hyperlinks either. When you do that, I have to take the time to recover them. Best just to provide the url and place it next to the text you want linked. Example [LINK popupssuck.com Crappy websites.]

* No pdf files unless you are paying me to recover the text. And that can be very expensive.

Should I “format” my Word doc?
Don’t bother. You’ll see why it’s a waste of time a little further down the post. What you should concentrate on is your text, making sure it is properly copy edited, proofed and as clean as you can make it. If you have specific design requirements, write me a note. [JAYE, I WANT THE CHAPTER HEADS IN SANS SERIF WITH A GRAY LINE UNDER IT] Best to just stick to a basic manuscript format.

STEP ONE

I create a folder for the project, save the original document, then make a copy of it. I start a text file called “Notes”. I go through the copy, tagging chapter/section starts, section/scene breaks, and making notes of any special styling the book requires (quotes, poems, songs, lists, text messages, emails, letters, etc.). Here I record in my notes the front and back matter, number of chapters, sections, and anything else I need to know. Once the styling is tagged, I tag the special formatting such as italics and bolding. If the front and back matter were sent separately, I compile them into the main document.

STEP TWO

Copy/paste the entire document into a text editor. Here’s where I do serious clean up. All tabs, extra spaces, and illegal characters have to be dealt with. Because I like my files tidy, I straighten up the italics and bolding, too. And because I am also a writer/editor, I go through and make sure any manuscript punctuation is turned into proper printer punctuation. Now the file is clean and ready to format.

STEP THREE

I create a folder which contains all the sub folders I need along with base files for the opf (manifest) and toc.ncx (internal table of content and guide). Depending on what type of device the client uses, I will do either an EPUB version or a MOBI version first. Then I tackle the images. I size and insert the cover image, and any other image files the client provided. If the client wants custom graphics, I make those. Once the folder is set up and the images are in place, time to style the text.

STEP FOUR

I use css (cascading style sheets) and html to style the ebook in the text editor. By this point, I have a good idea about the tone of the book so I use that to come up with a “look” that fits the story and complements the cover. Once the book is styled, I split the book into smaller html files–one per chapter or section. Then I complete the opf file, making sure everything is in there, and finish the toc.ncx. The ebook is now ready to compile and convert. Once it’s converted into an EPUB file, I open it in an epub editor. I run quality checks to make sure everything is where it is supposed to be and I haven’t made any bonehead goofs. Any changes I make in the editor, I also make in the html files. Then I validate the file and if it’s for a MOBI/Kindle version, I convert it. Now it’s ready for proofreading.

STEP FIVE

If I am doing the proofreading, I load the ebook on my Kindle and go through it word by word. If I find a goof, I fix it in the original html file. If the client is doing their own proofreading, I encourage them to load the ebook on their device (or use a program such as the Kindle Previewer or Calibre) to see their book “live”. They can use a copy of their original document for mark up. All they have to do is highlight all changes. They can also leave me notes (highlight those, too!) if they want changes in the styling. The client sends the doc to me and I make the corrections/changes in the html files.

STEP SIX

I send a copy of the final version to the client for a quality check. If everything is a go, I build the additional versions the client needs. I don’t hold with the notion of one-size-fits-all for ebooks, so I make separate EPUB and MOBI ebooks. Depending on the client’s distribution plan, I might make several retailer-specific versions (different hyperlinks, different promotional material, etc.). The ebook is done.

STEP SEVEN

If the client needs a Word doc formatted for Smashwords and/or a print on demand book, I compile the clean/ proofread text into a new text file and remove all the html codes. Then I copy/paste that into a Word doc. If for Smashwords, I use a simple template. If for print on demand, it’s just a generic file that I will place into an InDesign document.

Notice what happened with that original Word (word processor) doc? Once it’s tagged, I have no more use for it. I might glance at it for reference if the styling is complicated and the client has specific needs, but except for its text, it has no role in the actual ebook build.

blog1

On the left is the Word doc that I have tagged; on the right is the html version. Same text, but notice how it doesn’t resemble the Word doc at all. :)

blog3Here is the same text looking like an ebook. Notice the lack of resemblance to either the original Word doc or the html file.

I know some of you have questions. I’ll try to answer.

What about the font?
If your ebook requires a special font, I’ll embed it. If not, I won’t declare a font at all and leave it up the ereading device and user to decide which font they want for their reading pleasure. You can make life easier for yourself by not worrying about fonts in your Word doc. Compose with whatever makes you happy. If you are using special characters such as letters with acute or grave marks, or foreign characters (Greek letters, for instance) I recommend sticking with Times New Roman. Its character subsets render properly (mostly) in ebooks. Other fonts and subsets can have serious translation problems.

What about margins and justification and and and…?
None of it matters. Think of your Word doc as a component and the only thing that matters is the text. Your ebook is not going to look like your Word doc. You don’t want it to look like your Word doc. Whatever formatting you do is going to be lost when I copy/paste the text into the text editor. As I said before, if you want something special, just write a note in the document and highlight it. I’ll find it.

Can I make changes myself in the finished ebook?
If you’re familiar with using an epub editor, sure. You can’t do anything with the MOBI version, but I can provide the pre-conversion epub file that you can tinker with and then convert. If you’re not handy with an epub editor, then contact me and I’ll make the changes for you. (I rarely charge for minor changes or cover updates.)

For the Do-it-yourselfers who are reading this, pay heed to the ongoing theme in this post. Clean text, clean text, clean text. Clean text (both in the writing and formatting) is what makes or breaks an ebook. Make sure it’s in tip-top shape going in, then proofread the actual ebook to catch any remaining goofs or formatting hiccups. (For those of you who are uploading Word docs to Amazon, you can proofread your Kindle ebook before you upload it for distribution. Download Mobipocket Creator then use it to convert your Word doc into a prc file. Then, convert that into a mobi file with the Kindle Previewer. You can either proof the book (both text and formatting) in the Previewer or load the mobi file onto your Kindle and proof it there.)

I’m sure I missed some questions. Feel free to ask away.

To Print (on demand) or Not Print (on demand); That is the Question

quinnzoo4I’ve been doing a lot of print-on-demand editions here of late. The majority of my clients are using CreateSpace, and a few use Lightning Source/Ingrams. I haven’t had anybody reporting huge print sales or widespread placement in bookstores (yet). I think bottom line for most (right now) is they like having the option, but moreso, there is immense satisfaction in having a tangible copy of their creation. Quite a few, I think, are looking toward the future. As indie publishers increase both their physical and financial presence, brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries will have no choice except to look to indie publishers to find the stock their customers demand. As demand increases, the technology is going to get better and it will get cheaper. (On a personal note, I’d love a future where EVERY book is print-on-demand, because I hate waste and I hate the idea of books being pulped.)

On the practical side, is it a good idea for YOU to issue a print-on-demand version of YOUR book?

  1. Is it difficult?
    Not at all. You give two pdf files to your printer. (Two most popular right now: CreateSpace, an Amazon company; and Lightning Source/Ingrams.). One pdf is for the interior; the other is for the cover flat. Spend an hour reading the FAQs and specs at your printer’s website, and you’ll have all the information you need for your project. Both CS and LS offer templates for cover creation. They’re easy to use. Once you have your files, you upload them, go through the review process, take care of any little issues that might arise, order a proof copy, make sure it’s just right, then publish. It takes a little longer than does digital publishing, but it’s no more difficult.
  2. Is it expensive?
    It can be. You could spend thousands if you choose. You can also do it yourself and spend nothing at all, except time. If you use CreateSpace, you can layout your interior file in Word and generate your pdf from that. (Lightning Source will not accept those). There are book design templates available. Joel Friedlander (thebookdesigner.com) offers a wide range of templates specifically for Word. They are inexpensive yet beautiful. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do it yourself, you can hire a professional. For most fiction projects the price will range from around $.25 to $1.00 per finished page.
  3. Do I need an ISBN?
    If you use CreateSpace they will give you an ISBN at no cost or low cost (but it’s not free, so read the terms and conditions). Lightning Source requires you purchase your own. In the US ISBNs are provided by Bowkers. They are expensive. (My biggest gripe with Bowkers is that they’ve recognized that the more clueless an author is, the bigger a cash cow he/she becomes–DO YOUR RESEARCH!)
  4. Can I use my ebook cover?
    A well-done ebook cover can be modified for a print cover. Your cover designer is probably adept at that type of work. If you did your own cover or want to do it yourself, as I mentioned above, both CS and LS offer templates.

    Ebook Cover

    Ebook Cover

    Same cover modified for print.

    Same cover modified for print.

  5. What about distribution?
    This ranges from no muss/no fuss to pounding the pavement one bookstore at a time. Being an Amazon company, Createspace will automatically list your POD edition on Amazon. They also have expanded distribution. Lightning Source uses Ingrams and there are some costs involved. You are free to order copies in any quantity you desire and sell direct. Unlike vanity presses, the books belong to you. You set the price, you control the distribution channels.

The thing to remember is that print-on-demand is in its infancy–in technology, in acceptance, and in price. Even if it’s not a huge revenue stream for most writers right now, that could easily change in the very near future. With production costs as low as they are–especially if you are a Do-It-Yourselfer–there is no real reason to NOT create print-on-demand editions of your books.

What about you, readers? Do you have POD editions? Do you think the effort and added expense is worth it?

Do You Need Professional Help to Self-Publish?

A few weeks ago I got this email:

Hi Jaye, [a regular client] said you can help me. I got the rights back to my novel [title] published by [Big 5 house]. I had it scanned and converted it to Word. This was back in October and I’ve been working on it off and on, but it’s getting worse instead of better. I’m ready to just forget the whole thing. Is there anyway you can help…

quinngiveupOf course I could help. It’s what I do. He sent the scan, and 48 hours later I sent him back a Word doc in manuscript format with the text restored well enough for him to proofread. It cost him less than $90.

I’m not telling you this to boast about my mad skills. Restoring text from a scan is just something I happen to be very good at–and I’m fast. The reason I’m good at it is because I’ve restored millions of words and I have applied myself to learning how to do it quickly and efficiently. I’m a pro.

I also happen to be good at making ebooks. I’ve done hundreds. I’ve worked and worked to learn how to do it well and how to do it efficiently. I’m pretty good at laying out print-on-demand books, too. I’m even doing covers.

Book production has become second-nature to me. It’s what I do, day in and day out. Most of what I do is very easy for me. I still run into challenges–hell, I look for challenges–but overall I know what I’m doing and I know how to get the job done with minimal fuss and muss.

Writers, on the other hand, write. Formatting an ebook or making a cover or laying out a print-on-demand version look pretty straightforward on the surface. Why not DIY? It sure saves a lot of money. Right? Right?

Sometimes.

Sometimes getting professional results will be beyond you. Not because you’re too dumb to figure it out, but because you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t have the hours and hours and hours to figure it out. You’d rather be writing. Sometimes your time is more valuable than money. So let’s answer the question:

Should You Hire a Professional?

  • Do you have an ereader? (a Nook, a Kindle, an Android tablet, an iPad, etc.) Do you read ebooks? If the answer is no to either, I suggest hiring a professional. Unless you have a good idea how ebooks work, you will not be able to create a professional product.
  • Is your project complicated? Most formatting pros won’t tell you this, but I will: Conversion programs have gotten much, much, much better at turning word processing program files into ebooks. If your project is simple, which most fiction is, you can create a professional ebook using Word (and other word processors). You do need to take care and pay attention to details. It helps if you have a good guide to walk you through it. I recommend Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide. If you want to go a little more sophisticated, try Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting. You can do it yourself. On the other hand, if your book contains complicated formatting (lists, tables, boxes, nested styles, etc.) hire a pro. Complicated formatting is not for the dabbler.
  • Do you have the time? I get a lot of emails from writers who can’t make their DIY ebooks work properly. Quite often the problem is a simple one. A line of code. Or a messed up ToC or a distorted cover. Sometimes the problem is more severe and my recommendation is for the writer to go back to step one and completely strip, then restyle their book. What I hear back is a variation on: “But I’ve been trying to do this for weeks! And you say I have to start over?” Think about it. How much money are you saving if it’s taking you a month or six weeks to do what a pro can do in a day? Book production requires time spent NOT writing and NOT marketing and NOT promoting. Publishing is a business and knowing when to delegate responsibilities and hire sub-contractors is part of doing business.
  • Do you know what you don’t know? Ebooks are getting better, production-wise. It’s rare these days for me to buy one that’s a total mess (even from the trad publishers). Except for one thing: Either margins and line-spacing that cannot be adjusted for my reading comfort. I know what causes it. The formatter used either Word or InDesign and locked the styles either by justifying the text or messing around with page margins. (This irritation is so common in trad pubbed ebooks that I have to really, really, really want the story and it has to be really, really cheap before I will click to buy.) It boggles my brain that the formatter does not know the ebook is broken. It tells me they do not know enough to load the book on a device and run it through its paces. Ebooks are fairly simple, but there is stuff going on beneath the surface that every formatter (DIY or pro) should know. Do you know the difference between MOBI and EPUB? Do you know the difference between manuscript punctuation and printer punctuation? Do you know how to work with styles? Do you know about bloat? How to validate an EPUB file? If you don’t have the time or inclination to learn these things, hire a pro. [If reading my little list gives you an ‘oh shit’ moment, you might want to hire a pro.]
  • Are you willing to do the work at a professional level? If you want to sell your ebook or trade paperback, then your customers deserve a professional product. DIY self-publishers can produce professional products. The question you have to ask yourself is, can you? Book production is work and it can be frustrating and there’s a ton of conflicting information on the internet when you go looking for answers to sticky problems. If you prefer to put your energy and time elsewhere, there is no shame in that. There is shame, though, in putting a price tag on a sub-par product.

So Where Do You Find a Pro?

I’m not going to recommend anyone (not even myself) because it’s your book and your budget and your schedule. There’s a healthy industry of book production specialists springing up on the internet. Do a Google search for ebook formatting services. Do avoid anything connected to Author Solutions and other vanity publishers. Stay away from “automated” services, too. The only thing they do is convert your Word file–Garbage In-Garbage Out. Kindle Boards is a good place to look, too. Ask other writers. People who are happy with their service providers are usually more than happy to recommend them.

For this post only, if you are a book production specialist, leave a comment with your contact info. I will check you out and if you’re legit, I’ll post your info.

 

The RULES of Writing and Other Nonsense

Now for something completely different

AsQuinnMention “rules” to a writer and one of two reactions generally occur. Either the writer’s eyes light up with plaintive hopefulness that finally they are about to hear the One Great Secret that will make writing easy. Or, the writer responds like a cornered wolf ready to rip your face off.

Despite that, I am bravely putting on my editor hat and we’re going to discuss some rules for writing. (No face-ripping, please.)

RULES. I have only one hard and fast rule for writing: Don’t bore the reader. As long as you are engaging the reader, then your writing is working.

What about “good” writing and “bad” writing? The written word is a form of communication. If it communicates to a reader what the writer means to say, then it’s good writing. If it fails to communicate, then it’s bad. Any other criteria for judgement is entirely subjective and a matter of taste.

That said, there are a few “rules” every writer should know. Only let’s not call them “rules.” “Rules” seem to run counter to creativity (which I could argue exhaustively, but some other time), plus sometimes open me up to face-ripping, so to make this more palatable, let’s call them “Tools” instead.

TOOLS EVERY WRITER SHOULD MASTER

  1. Spelling.
  2. Grammar.
  3. Punctuation.
  4. Story/Narrative form/structure.

When I say “master” that’s precisely what I mean. You practice and learn and pound the principles into your noggin until you know them inside and out. Unless and until you have mastery of those four tools you are no more a professional writer than a guy who can’t tell the difference between oak and pine is a professional carpenter.

A lack of mastery of those tools tags you as an amateur, but mastery will not necessarily make you a great storyteller. Once spelling, grammar, punctuation, and form and structure are second nature to you, however, you will be ready to use the most powerful tool of all:

THE READER’S IMAGINATION

Storytelling is much like a magic show. The magician dazzles with misdirection, sleight of hand, patter and showmanship. Those skills allow the magician to control the audience and keep their attention focused right where the magician wants it. The writer does the same thing. Great writers understand and exploit readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief and ability to enlarge the characters and stories in their imaginations. Less-than-great writers don’t trust the readers to “get it” and don’t trust in the power of their own words. They try to do the reader’s job, and in doing so, their prose is boring.

Example: A door and a dog.

Now “dog” is a wonderfully evocative word and just about everyone knows what a dog is, and in many cases all you need to say is “dog” and the readers know what you’re talking about. But you want to paint a picture. You want to tell a story.

The writer who doesn’t trust his words or readers might write something like this:

I saw a big, black, shaggy dog in the yard. He guarded the door. He was scary. He stood 28 inches at the shoulder, and his head was square, and his fur looked rough, like nobody ever brushed him or petted him or called him, “Good boy.” A dog bit me once, when I was seven years old, and the scar is faded, but I still remember the incident vividly. The real scar is on my soul. My heart started pounding and my palms grew sweaty. I was terrified. The dog turned his head. His eyes were yellow. They were filled with hate and viciousness. I thought about running and thought about the dog catching me if I did run.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with the above paragraph. The problem is that it’s static in that it leaves nothing for the reader to do but watch. (The writer already filled in all the details and told the reader how to think and feel about it.) It also defuses the tension by burying the real problem. It’s overloaded with information that all sounds important. But what is the reader supposed to worry about? The mean, but unloved dog? The narrator’s boyhood trauma? Dog bites? When everything is important, then nothing is important. There is no suspense.

A writer who trusts his prose and the reader will keep the focus where it belongs.

She was inside and I was outside. All that separated us was a door. And a dog. Right now that dog glared at me as if it owed me money and I’d come to collect.

As a writer I trust the reader to fill in the blanks about mean, scary dogs and their own childhood traumas, while focusing on the narrator’s real problem about how to get to the desired prize on the other side of the door.

The right details build a word world for the reader to inhabit. Too many extraneous details turns into reportage, fact after fact after fact with no indication as to what is important and what’s not, leaving the poor reader with no room for his imagination to work.

When I’m editing, along with clarity and consistency, I’m looking for any place where the writer is interfering with the reader. Most writers, in my experience, can’t see how powerful, how good, their stories are, and so they tend to pile on the words to make sure the readers really and truly get it. Cutting the extraneous words is the cure. Here is my list of the major offenders:

  • Stage directions. Your characters are not puppets and you do not have to jerk every string. Example: “He reached across the coffee table and picked up the remote control in his right hand. He pointed the remote at the television set that sat against the south wall. With his right thumb he pushed the power button. The TV went dark. Silence filled the room.” Unless all that reaching and pointing is vital to your story and indicative of something really, really important going on, cut it. “He turned off the TV,” will suffice.
  • Control your dialogue tags. Writers get bored with “said” and I get that. Readers get bored and/or confused with “barked, hissed, ejaculated, interjected, interrupted, crooned, whispered, smiled, laughed, etc.” Dialogue tags have a purpose: Indicate who is speaking. The dialogue IS the action. There is rarely a good reason to pile on a bunch of adjectives and adverbs to tell the reader how it’s done.
  • Explainery. “He kicked the garden gnome over. Then he stomped on the cute little button nose, smashing it into the empty brain case. He hated garden gnomes.” Well, duh. The first two sentences show the reader all they need to know about the character’s opinion regarding garden gnomes. The last line is just you, the writer, not thinking the readers are smart enough to get it. As a reader nothing bores me faster than the writer wandering on stage and explaining to me what just happened.
  • Telegraphing.
    “He decided to leave. He walked out the door.”
    “He was so angry. ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ he said.”
    “By this time tomorrow, not one would be left alive.”
    In the first two examples, no need to tell me what you’re going to do or how you feel. Just do it. In the third example, I would stop reading. What’s the point? I already know what’s going to happen.
  • Action out of order.
    “They ran when the building collapsed.”
    “She slapped his face. How dare he call her a slut?”
    Rearrange those sentences. Cause then effect. Action then reaction. Stimulus then response. Putting your action in order prevents what I call “stutter stops” where the reader has a micro-second of wondering, Huh? Why did…? Oh, I see. Enough of those and your reader will start trying to rearrange your sentences for you and then they aren’t paying attention to the story.
  • Throat clearing. We all do it. We start sentences with “obviously” or “as you know” or “it’s been my experience” or some other bit of nonsense whose only purpose is the writer stalling while he gets his thoughts in order. Cut those, brutally and without regrets. Your readers will thank you.
  • Editorializing or justifying or apologizing. I see this a lot with timid writers. Their words are powerful, they sense the power, and it scares them. So they backtrack and try to soften the blow or to make a case as to why they said what they said. It’s much like explainery, except the writer isn’t explaining what a character did, they are explaining themselves. This is a tough one for writers to handle on their own. My best advice is to be aware that if you find yourself worrying that readers will think you, the writer, is a bad person for saying such things, then chances are you are justifying or apologizing. You may need another person, an editor, to point it out to you.

There are other ways writers get in the way of their own stories and interfere with the reader’s enjoyment. Covering them all would take a book. But if you start with these, I guarantee your writing will improve and you’ll get rid of much of the fluff and filler bogging down your story.