Electronic Publishing For Smartypants

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.



Writing & Self-Publishing: Lessons Learned

Flight Plan hits print-on-page September 30. Trees will once again die for my imperfect art. Yes, I know, I published an ebook edition in December 2013, but that was then, and this is now. This is paperback. I incorporated reader suggestions, revised details and re-edited. I doubt most people would notice the changes (other than the typo fixes) but I know they’re there. My second-born brainbaby will become be a Real Book at last. Pinocchio, eat your heart out.
What’s that? That’s the wrong way to go about self-publishing a book? All that revision work should have been done before publication?  Oh, and I should have put out print and ebook simultaneously, not to mention promoting the release for months beforehand, after building up a fanbase through social media? Well, yes. You’re right. Over the last 9 months, I’ve learned that I do pretty much everything wrong that possibly can be done wrong when it comes to self-publishing, according to The Experts.
For some inexplicable reason, this makes me feel proud, rather than ashamed of my failure. Live and learn, to me means Do it, and see what happens. My inner toddler and I, we’re on excellent terms. She is fearless. I am not. Sometimes, I am wise enough to let the toddler lead. I never would have learned how publishing works if I hadn’t gone ahead and done it, stumbling my way through the process and learning how to stand by falling. By e-publishing first,  only pixels were punished for my sins. 

Plus, let’s be honest, my books wouldn’t leap off the shelves even if I aced every aspect of their presentation. I am indescribably proud of my brainbabies, but I am not blind to their flaws. My stories were not designed for commercial or literary success. They aren’t instantly appealing. They’re not catchy, pithy, erotic, or action-packed. They’re possibly stories that only their mother will love. 

I may never sell another copy of either book. Having them run free in the world is still better than forcing them to live out their lives in the lonely splendor of my computer. They’re out there to be discovered. That’s something. It may be everything. It’s enough.

I am grateful to everyone who’s stuck with me through this amazing learning experience, and humbled by the encouragement I’ve received from those who discovered me through my work. I do hope to reach one or two more readers for my quirky optimistic take on a gritty, downbeat dystopian future. I’ll keep plugging away at writing and sharing in my own exploratory, erratic, eccentric, stubborn way. 

And hey, you know what? You know a Real Author. You have bragging rights. Tell friends, enemies and total strangers about my fabulous books and your favorite characters. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned: readers are the ones who make the magic. I can bring words to life, but readers are the reason they live and breathe.



Word Counts, and Why I Hate Them

I hate word counts. No, not the counts themselves. I like to know how much time I’m about to invest. When I’m looking at a physical book, I can tell at a glance. (Thick? Thin? Tons of photos? None at all?)  When “pages” don’t exist as a physical limit, then counting the words is the only way to measure what’s between the beginning and The End.  This trick doesn’t work well, mind you — poetry and graphic story-telling take far more time to ingest and digest than basic narrative, for example — but it’s better to have a rough idea than none at all.

So, word counts aren’t inherently evil.  They have their uses.  Measuring artistic achievement is not one of them.

If you’re a writer who uses your word count as an ego boost, if you take solace or find cheer in the number of sentences completed, if you regard output as the goal of your creative endeavors, then I implore you to please stop reading now. The exit is right there. If it works for you, then I won’t judge you. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of storytelling, it’s that no one trick, technique or system works for everyone. If counting words helps you keep your fingers on your keyboard and your mind in the creative groove, good for you. Count on.

I will plug my ears, avert my eyes, and grit my teeth. Word counts make me ranty.

For me, it sends the wrong message. How on earth has prose fiction wandered so far afield from the basic concept of wringing the most out of every single word that people feel that they need to produce words for words’ sake? Think about it. Did  e e cummings ever write a piece longer than 500 words? Some of his poems are worth hours of contemplation. The Sandman volumes by Neil Gaiman clock in under 5K words per story. Each one deserves an extended episode of existential pondering. Words are not the point. GOOD words are.

I hate this recent trend that characterizes volume production as a sign of artistic achievement. I loathe it. What is — at best — a raw test of text size is now regularly presented as a precision measurement of productive worthiness. I hate the way word counts have become an obligatory social media mention for authors, as if quantity alone could be a compass guide to progress towards completion, a bragging right, and a point of pride all rolled into one.

“Oh, just write!” That’s what so many guides and experts say. “Don’t over-think it. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t edit as you write, your creative juices will dry up. You can fix errors in the next draft. Get to the finish line. Go-go-go!”

The common wisdom holds that more writers crash on the shoals of self-doubt than drown in a sea of words. Let the font of inspiration flow, and filter it later. There’s a huge problem with this analogy. Creativity isn’t a fountain or a river or a sea. The whole reason for honing wordcraft with intense discipline and dedication is that ideas won’t hit in a steady current. Creativity is a weather system. You want to be ready to capture plenty of water in your cisterns when a gullywasher hits, but without control, you’ll have ooze in the basement and the house will smell like sewage.

There is a difference between “let the story flow” and “clog the page with words.” There is a happy medium.  Focusing on quantity over quality leads to another current trend I like to call Long-string Redundancy. If a description is worth giving, it will be repeated, often with twice as many adjectives as needed, because they all sound good, and word count rules.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not a word-count producer. I can go weeks without generating a single worthwhile page of storyline. I will tackle it every day, I will work at it…and I will throw 99% of it in my discards file, over and over. Clunky descriptions, bad dialogue tags, awkward transitions –they’re all like screaming death traps on the page. I cannot move past them. Every session starts with unraveling and reweaving prior progress.

So, for days at a time, no counts worth admitting. It gets aggravating. It’s painful. I know the mantra, “One Should never compare Self to Others,”  but let’s face it, that’s bullshit advice because it’s human and we all do it. Yes, you do. Liar.

Despite my Inability to Produce, I’ve written 10,000 words of publication-worthy prose in the last month. (Okay, actually, someone told me it was fucking brilliant, but that’s another story.) 3 weeks at zero. Smash. 7K. A week at zilch. Bam. 3K. Plus blog posts, editing, and correspondence, a part-time job and volunteering work.

Blarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. That’s the gibbering sound I make while mentally running around in circles pulling out my figurative hair, because word counts DONT MATTER.

Do you know the song called “I Don’t Like Mondays?” It’s by the Boomtown Rats, aka Bob Geldof’s backup band, and once you’ve heard the earworm melody and the unhinged lyrics that go with it, you never forget them. It came out in 1979, which is practically the Stone Age.

The song is a catchy pop masterpiece based on a horrific event. If you aren’t familiar with it, go absorb some story here. Yes, there is a Wikipedia entry, but I like Mental Floss. There’s even a link to the Youtube video at the top of the article, so you can infect/reinfect yourself with the earworm.

It’s all about going crazy, about mental switches flipping to overload, and wanting to commit violence just to liven things up. “Tell me why I don’t like Mondays,” the song demands, and then admits, “I want to shoot the whole thing down.”

That’s how much I hate the use of word counts as a measure of writing success. When I see them posted, usually with exclamation points and emoji attached, then  “Tell me why I don’t like word counts” runs through my brain.


Maybe I’m the only writer in the world who feels this way, but I doubt it.

I’m relieved that I developed my writing style before this trend started, because it would’ve crushed my confidence. If I didn’t already know that I could finish a 100K novel and edit it to a decent standard in less than a year, then my lack of forward progress during the early stages might have dissuaded me from trying. They made me crazy now. They would’ve been lethal then. I hate knowing that there are probably good writers out there who have the potential to become great, but who think they’re bad simply because they aren’t prolific.

This is my manifesto and my reminder to myself and the world: do not judge yourself or anyone else by output alone. Here’s a reminder that quality cannot be weighed in a scale or counted on a ruler.