By Dan Moren
May 1, 2020 6:00 AM PT
From cover to cover: Adventures in self-publishing
Back in the mid-’90s, my friend Jason 1 and I started up an online magazine devoted to fantasy and science-fiction. We originally set out distributing it on local bulletin boards as a self-contained app generated by a program called DOCMaker, but as the popularity of the web rose, we eventually transitioned there.
For many years, that was the most experience I had with self-publishing, until a couple weeks ago, when I decided to embark upon a new experiment: putting out ebook versions of a couple short stories in the same Galactic Cold War universe as my three novels.
One of the things about being a traditionally published author is that your publisher takes care of the actual production of a book: you hand over a Word doc, they turn it into something that people will actually end up reading. As a result, this experiment meant that I needed to learn some new skills, and find some tools to help me along the way.
No relation. ↩
Duck and cover
Visual art has never been one of my strengths—there’s a reason I deal in words, friend. But whoever said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover has never dealt with the reality of sales: one of my former agents was convinced that the only things that really sell books are the first line and the cover.
So, if I was going to put out an ebook, it needed to have a good cover: not just some sort of slapped-on placeholder with the title and my name on it. Something eye-catching that also linked it into the visual identity of my series. The suggestion—from that same friend, Jason, who now has a sideline in creating independent tabletop RPGs—was to take advantage of some stock art.
When we think of stock art, we probably think of things like cartoonish clip art or ridiculous photos of women eating salad. But that, folks, is your parents’ stock art: Shutterstock, the vendor I went to, has a huge catalog of beautiful pieces of art by incredibly talented photographers and illustrators. So I bought an affordable 5-pack of licenses for $50, and picked out a couple of images that I thought evoked the feelings of the stories.
Armed with illustrations far beyond my ability, I turned to my trusty image editor, Flying Meat’s Acorn to help transform them into book covers. While I’ve dabbled in Photoshop, I’ve never been particularly good at it—it’s simply too complex for most of the things I need to do. But I’ve been using Acorn for years 1, ever since my early days at the MacUser blog, though mainly for trivial tasks like cropping and resizing. This was a step above.
Mainly I wanted to spend some time crafting title and byline text that looked like the covers of my books and, after taking a very time-consuming approach for my first several attempts, I figured there must be an easier way to design styled text.
That led me to Acorn’s impressive Path Text feature, which lets you simply draw a shape and have the text follow its edge. (Basic stuff for some, I’m sure, but for me it was an Archimedes-in-the-bathtub moment.) I pulled accent colors from the images to make the text pop, and then created some duplicate text for the shadow effect and voila! (Okay, that makes it sound quick, but it took me a few days and repeated stabs until I got something that looked right.)
Despite my years of usage, I came away with a new appreciation for Acorn: for a $30 app, it is an incredibly powerful piece of software, and it puts out a great-looking book cover.
Book ‘em, me-o
Of course, the cover is literally just the beginning. It’s what lies within that is the reason for this whole endeavor.
The good news is that I’m no stranger to generating ebooks: when I send drafts to my beta readers, it’s generally in the ebook format of their choice.
There are a few options in this arena. If you’re looking to make ebooks on the cheap, Apple’s own free Pages can not only generate ePub files, but publish directly to Apple Books. On the other end of the spectrum, the $200 Vellum lets you design and tweak to your heart’s content, and includes a handy preview mode.
At $50, Literature and Latte’s Scrivener falls in between the two. It’s not strictly for making ebooks—that’s merely a feature of the app, which I use for the whole process of writing the books themselves, but Scrivener’s robust export tools mean that I can generate everything from a DOC file to an ePub. Previously, it used to even make Kindle books with the help of a command line tool from Amazon, but that tool has been deprecated, as I discovered during my foray into production.
I ended up using Scrivener’s built-in novel template, pasting in the text from the original documents in which I’d written it, and then customizing the various front/after matter sections, such as the “Also By” page, the about the author page, and the afterword that I wrote for each of the short stories. That template worked well, and required only minimal massaging in order to adapt it to a shorter form work.
Good as Scrivener is, it took me several attempts to get everything formatted the way I wanted, which does illustrate one downside of the process: every time you make a change, no matter how minor, you have to export the file, open it in a reader app like Books, and then eventually, when you discover that, say, the indentation is off, delete it from Books and restart the whole process. Vellum’s fancy preview mode would certainly be a big help there.
I mentioned that Amazon’s command-line tool had been deprecated—it’s been replaced by a new app, Kindle Previewer, that has some advantages over the old version. For one, rather than simply converting to Amazon’s MOBI (or newer KPF) format, it lets you open a file (ePub, DOC, HTML, and more), and see how it would look on a Kindle. Think of it a bit like Xcode’s iOS simulator, but for Kindles. It’s handy, seeing as how the Kindle is a bit of black box and you want to make sure your file looks as good as it possible can without having to sideload it to a Kindle to check every single time.
And just to check and make sure that the ePubs I generated were correct in every way, I ran them through epubcheck, a free tool that validates the file structure. By default it’s a command line tool, though there are several free GUI versions available as well. I used the free pagina EPUB-Checker, which assured me that Scrivener’s ebook files were up to snuff.
The whole store-y
Ah, those blissful days of ignorance before I had to navigate self-publishing platforms. Turns out: there are a lot of them. I settled on using five of the most popular ebook platforms: Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play Books.
The first problem is that submitting to each of these platforms individually is a pain. There are sites that aggregate much of this, perhaps most notably Smashwords, but there are some limitations to its approach. For one, it distributes the same ebook file to all of the platforms, so you’re out of luck if you want any differences between versions of your books—for example, store-specific links (i.e. you want the Apple Books version of your ebook to include links to Apple Books versions of other books). More to the point, Smashwords doesn’t include Amazon, and there’s no denying just how big Amazon is. (In my stats for the first couple weeks of availability, it accounted for almost half of downloads.)
So I ended up submitting directly to each site, which it had its upsides and downsides. One good point, to take away for the future: all of the stores support uploading ePubs, mostly because that’s the format that all but Amazon use to distribute books. Amazon will convert from ePub to its own proprietary format, but I used the aforementioned Kindle Previewer to do the conversion beforehand, to make sure everything looked right.
Each platform has its idiosyncrasies, such as release dates. Some, such as Kobo, let you actually schedule the date your title will show up in the system. In most others, you can set the “on sale” date, but the books will show up in the system as soon as they propagate, which—in my case—let the cat out of the bag a bit early, as people stumbled across them.
Amazon is the only one that doesn’t allow you to make your ebook free by default: it has to go for at least 99 cents in the U.S., and a commensurate price in other countries. However, you can submit price-matching requests with links from other platforms; the problem there is you have to do it separately for each individual country in which the book is available, which is a real pain.
And while Apple lets you manage your titles via a web-based version of iTunes Connect (similar to the system it uses for apps), it took me a while to figure out that actually uploading the book files themselves requires use of Apple’s iTunes Producer app or, as mentioned previously, Pages.
Each platform also differs in terms of the stats they provide, with Amazon, Kobo, and Apple being the best of the batch. Barnes & Noble, for some reason, delays its ebook sales numbers by two days, which is perplexing since one would assume it must have real time information about the transfer of bits somewhere. Google requires you to download a spreadsheet in order to see your downloads, which is just bizarre from a company so dedicated to analytics.
In addition to all of those stores, of course, I also made the files available on my blog 2, though it wasn’t until a day or so after I put them up that I realized I had no way to track how many downloads were happening there. I eventually settled on the free version of Never5’s Download Monitor extension for WordPress, which does that and a whole lot more.
Teaching an old dog new tricks
I took a few things away from this whole experience. First up, hoo boy, am I glad I have a publisher to handle all of this. It is a lot of work, and most thankless back-breaking detail-oriented work, at that. I’ve got a whole new appreciation for both the professionals who do that job for publishers as well as authors who self-publish their work.
Secondly—and perhaps even more importantly—I’ve learned that I can do this. It requires moving out of my comfort zone in terms of skills, and finding some new tools, but generally I found that if I forged ahead, I could usually figure out what I was trying to accomplish, albeit with a few missteps here and there. Who knows if I’ll self-publish any of my work in the future—but at least I know I have the option, and with a little hard work and attention to details, the end result can come out looking pretty great.
Updated on 5/1/2020 to add a paragraph about epubcheck validation tools.
In the interests of disclosure, Acorn developer Gus Mueller is a friend whom I’ve also known for years. Also he makes a good-looking pizza. ↩
As a minor update to that post, the ebook was downloaded around 3000 times in the first two weeks, which I consider a roaring success for my first experiment. ↩
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