2.29.2012

At Long Last! Allie's Indie Pub FAQ!

Have you been itching to get your brilliant opus into the hands of readers by any means necessary, including taping the pages to people's windshields, tying it to bricks and throwing it through your neighbor's windows, or standing outside Simon and Schuster's doors, demanding they read your manuscript under threat of self-immolation?
This is not a good way to get a book deal. Unless it's a posthumous biography.
Well, it turns out publishing has become a bit more accessible in the modern age, thanks to the advent of ereaders and self-publishing services like Smashwords, Kobo, Kindle Direct, and PubIt. And I'm here to answer some of the most common questions you might have when it comes to getting started. I guarantee that unlike the above mentioned methods, the secrets I'm about to share with you will keep you out of jail. Unless you plagiarize, or write a book so bad it starts a riot. If you have a question I have not answered, just leave it in a comment.

Note: This is intended to be a basic FAQ. If you need more advanced level instruction on any of these topics (like on formatting or how to design a good cover), Google is your friend. This is merely to send you on your way so you can investigate with a better understanding of what the process is like.

1. I've decided I want to self-publish. Now what? 

Before you do anything else, you want to edit that bad boy. Actually, I take that back. You want someone else to edit it. Trust me on this. If you can't afford a pro, pick your most literate colleagues. Do NOT pick somebody who is going to blow smoke up your ass because they're too afraid to hurt your feelings. It's far easier to take criticism from a single honest person than hordes of complete strangers on Amazon or GoodReads who are aces at caustic and/or passive-aggressive reviews that could obliterate your authorly reputation and writerly dreams within seconds. Not everyone is going to love your story, even if it's perfectly edited, but customer reviews should be more centered on the story, not sloppy editing. The internet is forever. Don't come to this process lightly. I've been there.

You also want to format your manuscript so it will be readable across a variety of ereader platforms. One word of advice on this topic: less is more. Don't go all crazy with fancy headers and fonts and off the hook internal graphics, unless you're a whiz at writing code. The best book on this topic is free, and it can be downloaded from Smashwords. I hate everything else about Smashwords, but this one thing that they got right. If you ace their formatting, it will be right for pretty much everybody. Even Kindle.

2. Which one should I pick? Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon?

Leaving aside my obvious bias against Smashwords, I will say this. If your goal is exposure in as many markets as possible, publish on all of them. If you publish on Smashwords and follow their guidelines for getting into their Premium Catalog, your book will be distributed to Barnes & Noble, Sony, Apple, Kobo,  Diesel, and a host of other little markets. However, you can also distribute to Barnes & Noble yourself through their PubIt service. Also, don't forget Kobo. They are the new kid in town and growing like gangbusters. There is also a process for uploading books onto Apple and Sony, however you do need an ISBN in order to do this, and the one good thing about Smashwords in this regard is that they can provide you with free ISBNs.

However, by uploading your own books to the different retailers, (rather than letting Smashwords distribute for you) you will be able to track your sales in real time and receive your royalties much faster. There is about a month-long delay (or longer...much much longer) on sales reporting through Smashwords, and even longer for royalty payments. Smashwords pays quarterly, and that blows.

There is also another option that is very new called Ganxy. This is a service that allows you to promote your books by creating "showcases" for each one, and displaying nifty purchase buttons for each retailer. Also, you can sell your books directly through them and create vouchers and bundles as well. In my opinion, they're a far better deal than Smashwords in terms of direct sales, but they are still new, so keep that in mind.

Note: Even though Smashwords has a distribute to Amazon option, you will always need to upload manually to Kindle Direct Publishing. Amazon doesn't like sharing the sandbox with anyone. However, once you have your manuscript and cover all ready, it's just a matter of simply uploading them to both platforms.

But maybe you really only want to pick one service, because this is just a trial thing for you, and you don't want to have to keep track of a bunch of places at once. Well, Amazon is where the majority of readers are going to be but for the simple fact that Amazon is God. Also, most folks who own e-readers also own Kindles. If you have no desire to distribute your book elsewhere, you can take advantage of the KDP Select program, which allows your book to be a part of the Amazon Prime lending library, where members can borrow your book for free and you'll still get royalties for it. I've had lackluster results with this myself, but a lot of people seem to be going in this direction, and it's always worth a test run. You have to give Amazon 90 days of exclusivity with your title, but if you're unhappy after that period, you can choose not to enroll it again.

So there are a ton of options here, and I probably threw enough at you that you're even more confused than you were before. If I had to boil it down to one thing, I'd say start with Amazon and (if you aren't doing the exclusive deal with them) then branch out from there with Ganxy, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.

3. What should I do about a cover?

You really need a cover that doesn't suck. That's the long and short of it. You can either make your own or have someone make it for you. I wrote a post about making one on your own here. There are a lot of sites that have standard cover designs you can buy on the cheap for like fifty bucks or less. If you're doing it yourself, you might be able to skate by on something less-than-stellar for a free or super cheapie download, but even then, there are a few guidelines you want to adhere to.
  • It should have just as much impact (if not more) as a thumbnail as it does in full size. People who shop via their ereaders, phones, and tablets often don't see more than a thumbnail when they're browsing. Your fonts should be clear and not too "scripty." If you have to squint in order to comprehend the text when the image is in full size, then it definitely won't do as a thumbnail. 
  • Because your cover dimensions should be on the larger size (I design mine on a 1600x2400 scale so that they look decent whether they're shrunken down or blown up), you should use high-res images. Stock photo sites like iStock have beautiful images, but they can get pricey. You can find a lot of royalty-free pictures, art, and stock photos from Creative Commons image searches, Free Digital Photos.net, stock.xchng, and Deviant Art. Make sure to read the permissions for any pictures you use and credit the person properly in the front matter of your book if it is specified that you must do so. Avoiding lawsuits is a good thing.
You might also be wondering what kind of software you can use to put a cover together. If you have a design program like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or even Picasa, you're good to go. There is a free open-source piece of software you can get that is very analogous to Photoshop, and that's GIMP. That's what I use, and I like it just fine. Photoshop Elements or even Picasa can also do the job, albeit their options are more limited.  If you use GIMP or Photoshop, there are a ton of additional brushes and fonts you can add to it in order to increase your options.

Remember, sometimes simpler is better. Study a lot of good book covers and you'll find that there isn't a ton of detail. Pick a central thematic element and design it around that. Usually, you just need one very well-composed picture or a well-textured background to design your text around. And remember, the more you practice this, the better you'll get at it. You may even start to find the process enjoyable. I don't do a lot of visual art, but I've really come to love cover design. If you're still feeling defeated by the idea of designing your own cover, there are a lot of people out there who are good with the programs who won't charge too much for a simple ebook design. I have two covers in my library that were designed by someone else. My graphic designer friend Jeff Fielder designed the one for Scarlet Letters, and another artist friend, Florence Sorensen, designed the cover for The Stargazers.

4. All right, I have the cover and my manuscript ready. What should I charge? 

There are two competing schools of thought on this. 

Price it too high and no one will buy.
Price it too low, and sales will be slow.
(yeah, I made that up on the fly)

Basically, I don't like to price any self-published ebook above $3.99. Used to be I would say $2.99, but in recent months, Amazon's sales algorithms have changed. They don't seem to rank lower price point books (i.e. books for a b uck) as high, even if they have decent sales. This has really hurt the bottom lines of a lot of indie authors, forcing them to mark up their prices so they can continue to rank on the sales charts. As of right now, though, I still price my novels at $2.99 and my short stories (anything under 20K words) at $.99. It's just what I'm comfortable asking for something that I put together myself, but you may find a sales point that works better for you.

But you want to know the best pricing strategy? None of the above. Why? Well, think of Amazon as a giant ADHD-stricken robot that becomes bored when you don't do anything different for awhile. No one knows the exact algorithms behind this, but it seems that anytime you change your price on any of these sites, there is a short but very discernible sales bump. It's possibly because the retailer makes your product more visible to prospective buyers in the immediate aftermath of a price change. 

If it's a "new" free title or a "new" $.99 title or $2.99, people who regularly browse those categories are more likely to see it. Therefore, it's beneficial to try and fluctuate your prices on a regular basis. I'm more comfortable with keeping my short stories at $.99, but I will run free promotions every few weeks (if it's a KDP Select title) in order to boost rankings and sales. When it's free, it gets a ton more downloads, climbs the ranks, and garners more reviews. Afterward, those reviews and increased sales rankings entice the people who are looking for something to actually BUY when it's $.99. You can also do this with higher priced items. A $2.99 title can be discounted for a couple weeks to $1.99 or $.99 (or free), and then bumped back up later on. You will likely see a sales bounce of some sort when this happens. 

Either way, you shouldn't get too comfortable with ANY price point. If you want to make money, you have to be diligent and shrewd, and you have to be willing to take some hits and give some stuff away.

5. Why should I make any of my work free? And even if I did, how do I go about it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble? 

Let's face it. Your work is your best advertisement. Sure, you can spend money on ads and do a lot of footwork spreading the word about your book. Those things will cost you a lot of money and time, which are two things a lot of us don't have these days. This is why letting your work speak for you is probably the most efficient way getting exposure. I priced a handful of my short stories free last fall. Since then, I've garnered a lot of reviews and thousands of downloads, and I've built a fanbase with only the effort it took to actually write the stories. Since then, many of those people have come back to buy my paid work, and my paid sales have increased every month since I started offering free titles. Also, my current publisher, Hobbes End, discovered me through the offering of these free titles. So free is good. Trust me.

But how do you make a book free across all platforms? Remember when I said that there was an advantage to letting Smashwords distribute your work for you? This is it. Well, sort of (I'll get to that in a second) Smashwords is the only online retailer that allows authors to put their work up with a $0 price tag. By doing that, when it distributes to the other retailers, it will also have a $0 price tag. Then you can notify Amazon through the product page that there is a lower price available. Before long, they may just price match it. And when they do, the downloads will come rolling in.

If you want to revert to the original price after awhile, you have to reverse the process. Raise the price through Smashwords, wait for that new price to proliferate to the other retailers (this can take a few weeks, so be patient), and then notify KDP Customer Service that your book is no longer free elsewhere, and you want them to raise the price again. Within a couple days, in most cases, the price will be back where it was.

However, there is a caveat. Doing these price adjustments through Smashwords can take a long time. Sometimes they don't communicate very well with other retailers, which means that you will be stuck with a free price point much longer than you might want to be. Also, Amazon might not even price match your book at all, and with the advent of KDP Select, their likelihood of price matching indie books at all has diminished greatly. I have considered the method all but dead in the water, but it's still worth attempting for books or stories that you want to remain free indefinitely. The mysteries of the Amazon Pricing Gods are a... mystery.

6. I'm not getting any reviews or downloads! My rankings are in the toilet! And oh crap, someone just refunded their purchase! What's going on?! 

Welcome to the emotionally draining world of epublishing, where it's easy to develop a compulsion to hit the "refresh" button on your sales page at least twice an hour. Perpetual zeroes or paltry single digit monthly sales will likely in your future when you start this whole thing. It's nothing to be ashamed of. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there just like you with titles available at these stores. Often, poor initial sales are just an indicator that you're having trouble standing out, and it's hard to stand out when you don't have any reviews or when you have a product page that doesn't have a whole lot of activity on it. Other times, your book could have a formatting error or some proofing issues that you didn't catch the first time around. If you've checked over your book one more time and all is well, then you can start thinking of other options

As I discussed in the previous question, free titles are a good way to get yourself some readers, but it's not the only way. There are a lot of sites out there devoted to reading and reviewing indie books. A simple Google search will yield some nice results. Most of these people have made a living (or a fruitful hobby at least) by devoting their time to reading people's books and writing reviews for them. Also, networking with various writing groups at Facebook or joining GoodReads is a good way to get some helpful mentions/likes/tags of your product. You know how they say success is all in who you know? Well, it's true. You have to network your ass off if you want to do well at this. Not spamming people to death is also a good idea. Don't annoy people. Help review other people's books, make yourself known as a cool, helpful, generous person. Start a blog (not necessarily about your books, but about other stuff) If you're up to paying a chunk of change for a "professional" review, Kirkus has an Indie wing worth checking out that could possibly give your book some real street cred.

As for refunds, they will happen from time to time. Sometimes people purchase books by accident. This happens a lot during the holidays when grandma is learning how to use her shiny new Kindle Fire and its all-too-easy "click to buy" feature. Sometimes, though, people are not so into your book, and that's okay. Try not to take it too hard. Because you don't know exactly what the nature of the refund is, it's best not to think the worst.

7. What kind of stuff should I put in my book? You know, other than the book? 

The beauty of epublishing is that the world is kind of your oyster. Want to put in a foreword or some author's notes? Go for it! How about an alternate ending or some other fun trivia or bonus material in the end? Or a poem you wrote, or some original artwork? How about a preview for one of your other titles? Yes, yes, and yes. You are your own publisher. This means you have complete control over the package you put out there.

Just don't do something stupid like quote song lyrics or lift passages from famous books and things like that, unless you like tempting the copyright police into making you their bitch. At any rate, if the material is yours or if you have express permission to use it, or if it's something that won't have you pointing the finger at me and saying, "But Allison M. Dickson SAID I could!" by all means, put it in the book. It might even help you sell extra copies. When I put the alternate ending for my short story "Aria" in my collection Dead Wives Tales, I was able to use the standalone free version of "Aria" to boost sales of the collection. Tying your work together like that is a surefire way to get people interested in coming back for more.

8. What do you put on the title page of your ebooks? 

The simplest way to answer that is to look at a free sample for any of my books on sale right now. Or any other book for that matter. As long as it has some sort of retailer's license agreement on there and your copyright info, you're pretty much golden in the legal department. Other than that, a list of your previous works and links to your website/social networks isn't a bad idea.

9. Do I need to buy an ISBN number? 

The ISBN is basically the numerical fingerprint for your book, and there are a number of ways you can acquire one. Amazon automatically assigns an ASIN, which is its own proprietary identification number, but you can also include your ISBN on your Amazon listing. You can purchase your own ISBN's through Smashwords for $10 each, which allows you to choose your publisher's name. That means, you could publish it under "Allison M. Dickson Press" if you like (though please don't). However, you can get free ISBNs through Smashwords if you allow them to be listed as the publisher for your work. Note that you will need an ISBN if you want to distribute your books to the Apple and Sony stores.

10. What are some other ways to get the word out? 


"Vampires poop rocks. Seriously, check out this Scarlet Letters book..."
Some people swear by being active on social media, but I happen to think (at least for the purpose of selling books) that the effects on sales are pretty neutral. Sure, get yourself a Twitter and Facebook page. Join GoodReads. Start a blog if you haven't started one already. They're a good way to be accessible to your readers and do that whole networking thing I was telling you about. But keep in mind that social networking is quite time consuming, and it has a way of sucking time away from your writing. Me, I was already a social media junkie when I started doing this, so I didn't really have to establish much of anything at all. But when it comes to using it for marketing purposes, try not to be endlessly annoying and spammy about your books, or people will hate you. In a sense, be the kind of person you'd want to buy a book from. Last time I checked, no one likes buying things from obnoxious a-holes who only talk about themselves.

Other things you can do include reading and reviewing for people who might read and review you. Also see about maybe paying for a couple of well-placed ads on some popular blogs or websites related to the kind of stuff you write. Do some giveaways on popular message boards/Facebook Groups. See where your readers like to hang out and see how you can make yourself visible (WITHOUT spamming or being obnoxious).

But the best thing you can do is keep writing and keep publishing. A wider catalog will get you more exposure, and readers like seeing that an author has some variety to choose from. The more stories you have available, the more chances you have of one of them catching on.

11. Should I release my short stories as singles or in a collection?

Yes. Again, it's about exposure. Why limit yourself? Offer your short stories as both singles and full collections. It appeals to both kinds of customers. You have those who want to buy what they want to buy, and you have those who maybe read one story, and then want to scoop up everything else at a single go. It's also a better value for them, because say you have single short stories available for a buck each. You can offer a whole collection of, say, 8-10 stories for $3.99 or even $4.99 for a larger collection. Not to mention, you get a higher royalty on the collection sale. Doing this has the net effect of expanding your available library and bumping up your sales. You can also put in some exclusive goodies that might make your collection more appealing. I did a holiday bundle that had twelve of my paid short stories and two large novel excerpts, and I priced it at $4.99. It sold really well.

12. Can I do all this while still trying to get a book deal from a traditional publisher?

Sure, why not? A lot of people have a backlist of titles available for purchase online while trying to sell their other work to the traditional market. People talk about the downfall of traditional publishing and the inevitable death of bookstores, but in my opinion, while both markets are still alive and kicking, there is no reason at all you couldn't be pursuing publication elsewhere while selling independently. It's up to you whether you still want to try to query out work that you currently have available for sale. Some publishers are wary about that, while others are interested in looking for successful indie titles and bringing them to a wider market. It really depends on the kind of book. Heck, you could wind up being courted by a publisher or an agent without even trying, if one of them happens to find your work. There are publishing people out there scouting the indies, and one of them might find you.

Those are all the questions I have right now. If you have any others, throw them my way, and I'd be happy to take a stab at them!