Today’s installment of Inside Karen’s Head is about ebook production. I refuse to call it “For Dummies,” and not because I’m afraid of copyright infringement. I don’t like the phrase’s implicit judgment that people who want to learn are stupid. Ignorance is not stupidity. Stupid people don’t seek out knowledge. /mini-rant.
I don’t sell much, but I have collected a lot of experience on the make-and-sell side of ebook publishing. I’ve decided to throw some knowledge up here before I forget it all. I have a memory like a steel sieve, and months pass between completing projects. Details disappear. Notes disappear. Memory fades. My computer implodes. The internet is the one thing I can’t quite manage to lose or destroy.
This isn’t a how-to. Other people have done those, much more concisely than I will ever do. Exercise your Google-fu if you need specific assistance. I’m providing an overview and a healthy dose of my opinions about the three systems I’ve used. My main point: you don’t have to be a techhead to self-publish. You do need to be patient with yourself and develop your ability to meticulously follow instructions. That’s not a snark comment. It’s hard to follow step-by-step directions. It’s even harder to write good ones.
My process, such as it is, is set in a solid foundation of miserly laziness and errant curiosity. I’m too much of a cheapskate to pay for someone or some program to convert my manuscript for me. Thus, I learned to format and upload my own manuscript files directly to sales channels. I’m too slothful to keep track of more than two channels, so I picked Smashwords as a Davidly alternative to the Goliath of Kindle Direct Publishing. And then, because I like to fuss and play and learn, I’ve also learned to format ebooks directly using a conversion program .
Let’s look at that last one first. Calibre is a free computer program marketed as a way to “manage your ebook library.” This means, “I bought a Kindle book, but I want to read it on my Nook.” It converts things from one format to another. From Calibre’s excellent instruction manual, I learned an interesting trivia tidbit: all ebook formats are basically HTML files like a web page, only dressed up in a lot of fancy clothes. Who knew, right? Calibre lets you create a new wardrobe, so to speak.
You import a document file saved as HTML and then…well, it is a bit techie, I guess. I poked around until I got a consistent output I liked, and now I follow a rote routine. The instructions are clear, there is a help feature, are plenty of online tutorials, and every little option in the program is tagged with immensely useful help icons that list directions and suggest actions. I’ve rarely seen such a complex program so well designed.
Second, let’s talk about Kindle Direct Publishing. This is the 600 lb gorilla of ebook publishing. Theoretically you can upload doc, rtf, docx, or PDFs straight to to their formatter, and it’s fairly forgiving about accepting whatever you upload. THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING. The burden is on the author to make sure the results are readable. Your beautiful manuscript may become a thoroughly mangled ebook. KDP does not care. I use Word for Mac. Don’t judge. (You did read the words laziness and cheapskate, right? It was free.) I’ve been using Word for decades. I could switch to Pages or OpenOffice, which are also free, but they are just as twitchy in their own ways as Word, and I’m used to the the devil I know. I would have to learn new things that aren’t interesting and forget all my Word-related tricks. Nope.
But I digress. My point is this: my edition of Word for Mac and KDP do not play well together. Mac PDFs are ridiculous huge and give KDP fits. It ignores my docx files and turns my doc files into gibberish. Soooo…..I use Calibre to turn my docs into .mobi files and upload those to KDP instead. So far, that’s worked fine. I strongly suggest checking your KDP results on every version of Kindle you can test. Enlist friends to help. Your work is judged by its appearance. Make sure your hair is combed and your fly is zipped. So to speak. The formatting and set-up instructions on KDP are recursive, obscure, and so maddening that I suspect deliberate gaslighting. Luckily for authorial sanity, advice and step-by-step instructions are available from the Amazon author community and a half million blogs. Search engines are the author’s lifeline.
Third, I’ll mention Smashwords.com. They’re an online ebook distributor. Authors open accounts, set up a profile page and upload manuscript files to be converted by Smashwords into as many output formats as the author likes. I use them for every retailer outlet except Amazon. When discussing their ebook converter, the word idiosyncratic springs to mind. Also, obsolete, irritating and inflexible. You can upload a few different word processor-friendly formats like rtf or doc, but the converter is called the “Meatgrinder” for a reason. My opinion? They aren’t keeping up with advances in ebook production technology– any formatter that won’t even look at docx files is behind the times.
I’ve had no success uploading any Word file that’s been revised more than once. If you follow their extensive step-by-step instructions precisely, you’ll be fine, but I cannot fathom spending the time to strip my files of ALL formatting and reformatting from scratch merely to please their archaic system. I cheat and upload epubs I make with Calibre. Their troubleshooting and support are timely and effective. Mileage may vary, of course
Once you get your file past the automated formatter, Smashwords then offers your work for downloading directly on the site, but far more importantly, it handles all aspects of distribution to a ton of outlets like Scribd & Oyster. Uploading is free, profits from direct sales & distribution are priced on percentage. I like it for the additional exposure, and as venue for getting my free short works to readers. I don’t think it’s generating sales, though, and I doubt I will use it in the future for anything that I want to sell strictly as an ebook.
Lastly, I know several writers who swear by Scrivener, which is a hybrid animal of a Writing Program. Word processor. Outline generator. Mind map maker. Formatter. I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter, so its many organizational bells & whistles aren’t worth the cost for me. It’s reputed to make the ebook conversion process easy (so say those I know who use it and swear by it.) I think its screen is cluttered with daunting, distracting, extraneous crap, but again, that’s me. If you don’t want to muck about with the minutiae of formatting, I’m told Scrivener is a good option there as well, producing clean copies of all kinds of upload-ready formats.
Choose your toys and play wisely with them, so that your writing can be enjoyed by others. That’s the point, in the long run.