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Thursday, April 07, 2011

How to Publish a Book in 8 Hours


What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 8

How To Publish a Book in 8 Hours

Yesterday it had been eight years since I published my last book, One Great Game.

Last night I published a book – an e-book – in eight hours. And therein lies a tale of gee-whiz, uh-huh, whadayawaitingfor and what-the-hell-I’m-going-for-it. Now I’m going to tell the story so you can go for it, too.

Like most writers who’ve been at it awhile, I have my frustrations with publishing. I didn’t grab the brass ring on my first go-round, nor my second. But drawing on my novelist superpowers, I kept at it. Because I became a magazine editor and a journalist, I was forced to encounter publishing reality on a daily basis. In other words, I learned to make sausage. Early on I vowed not to lose my connection to the purest kind of writing, which is also, duh, the least remunerative.

For the past year I’ve been reading everything I could find about the future of publishing, in particular anything to do with electronic publishing. My goal was and is to start my own e-Pub imprint. My reasons were grounded in glorious self-interest. I wanted to publish and be damned, as they used to say. For five years before the meltdown of 2008, I’d worked on a book that was to launch a six-part seafaring series having to do with the American Revolution, time travel, and the twelve-year-old boy who has to save our young democracy while wrestling with the whole slavery deal. I finished it just in time for my agent to take it out into the teeth of an economic gale, where The Log of Matthew Roving sank without a trace. (Although reports of its death were, it turned out, premature: you can check out the preliminary sketches for the project on my website, www.donwallacebooks.com.)

At the same time, my essays and short fiction weren’t going anywhere, or else advancing at a snail’s pace: one memoir in Harper’s every four years, one Op-Ed or essay in the New York Times every two years, and silence from everyone else. I didn’t like my odds of breaking through before having to switch to false teeth to chew my filet mignon.

Like most people my age, I like to think of myself as an original rock n’ roll surfer-rebel-voodoo chile. Time to prove I still had my mojo, I decided. Having worked inside magazines and started magazines, including a prototype for book-reading fools like me that was to have been published by Kirkus Reviews, I figured I knew as much as I needed to know.

I was wrong about that, actually. There was lots I didn’t know and still don’t. But I knew what the hedgehog knows: that my patch of grass was changing forever. The future was slipping away from the legacy print houses.

Yesterday’s adventure began with my finding a story on Twitter, which I only began using seriously a month ago. It linked me to Laura Miller’s article in Salon.com about e-Book publishing. (I’ll list her url and any others at the end of this piece: I don’t want to break up the flow here.) Miller put four links at the bottom of her story. One was this epic 13,000-word discussion of self-publishing between two guys I’d never heard of: Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. There went my day. Their Newbie’s Guide to Self-Publishing is the Common Sense of this publishing revolution. Between Miller and Eisler/Konrath I found myself at the website of a free e-Pub site called Smashwords.com. It was 3 p.m., I’d just come back from a sweaty walk, I had the taxes to do and dinner to cook. You can guess what happened next.

During my walk I’d tried to think big. Should I take my 500-page seafaring YA novel and throw it up there? How about my mystery novel about a women’s college basketball team whose coach is murdered? How about the first novel in my poi-noir “Hawaiian Hell” series. How about…

Something shorter. A novella or long story. As a test run, but one I could stand behind. Yeah, and being shorter maybe I’d have a chance to see it published before the week was out. I registered with Smashwords and read their calm and matter-of-fact explanation of how they worked. I searched through my WordPerfect files for a story or memoir. It had to meaty, it had to be good. I didn’t want to come out with anything half-baked.

A title leaped out at me: The Skins of Our Ancestors. I was surprised: I thought I’d lost it during a computer meltdown a few years back. I hit the Publish button. There were steps, beginning with one rule that must not be broken: read Smashword’s Style Guide and follow its 25-step process to the letter.

I’ve written a couple of technical manuals in my time. This one gets an A. (Even though some gremlin seems to have messed up a few paragraphs, I could piece together what they meant to say.)

Smashwords only works in Word. I work in WordPerfect, which is a writer’s program but increasingly out of step. So my first step was to strip out any WordPerfect formatting, indents, italics, and so forth from the file that was The Skins of Our Ancestors. Even if you write in Word, though, you’ll have to do this, too. As Smashwords explains, they need your textfile to be utterly basic to be perfectly and easily converted so it works across the many e-reader platforms. Because my file began as WP5 and was saved as WP9 and WP10 before converting to Word, I knew it had to be incredibly dirty. So I chose the Nuclear Option, copying the text into a Microsoft Notepad file, which acts like hydrochloric acid. Then I copied that melted-down text into a new Word doc.

But I wasn’t through. There was still debris in my file, so I followed the Style Guide and cleaned the thing two more times. Then I had to learn to go into the Change Styles folder, make sure nothing was selected except a left indent option, and set that as my new Default. Again, the Style Guide was as intuitive a companion as I could’ve desired. I owe a major lobster to Smashmouth’s technical writer, Mark Coker.

All this reading and uploading and stripping took about two hours and a half. It was highly intensive, eyes-pressed-to-the-screen kind of work. But I was caffeinated and stoked. I could feel my words transforming themselves. Alchemy was in the air.

Smashwords requires two things of a writer: that you do it their way, and you read the damn Style manual. Their way means: no fancy fonts, no experimental spacing or text games. They do give advice on formatting text blocks, charts, images, etc, but all I could say after scanning those steps was, “Thank god I’m a fiction writer,” and “We’ll just stick to words, now, if you please.”

They do require you to do a basic cover, and in fact they give off a vibe that without a competent-looking one your book isn’t going to be placed in their Premium Services category, which is how you show up on Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Borders.
How to create a cover? I figured I’d just upload a picture and slap a title above it.

I’ve taken a lot of digital pictures since 2005, professionally and personally. I was glad I’d gotten into the habit of taking pictures without people in them. (It’s amazing how faces ruin a good landscape.) In this case, I found a shot I’d taken of the oceanfront in my hometown, Long Beach. Since my story was partially about my Long Beach roots, the shot had resonance.

As a magazine editor, I also knew the shot had room for cover lines. The best real estate on a magazine cover is upper right, and this shot had a clear channel all the way down the right.

But when I read in the style guide I’d need a single-image cover sized ideally at 500 pixels wide and 800 high, I knew I was in trouble. My laptop didn’t have any fancy design programs in it, although the Microsoft Office suite undoubtedly had tools. But I’m leery of these internal MS programs; they rarely work as advertised. Third-party programs are usually created by real people to solve read needs in real time, and sure enough, the Style Guide mentioned one, called Paint.net. I linked, downloaded the program, it opened without requiring me to reboot (I had so many files open at this point that would’ve probably sent me off to bed) and I figured out which button to click to put my image up as a background. (It’s called Layer.)

Then I accidentally closed the color palette function and never did find a way to open it. I hit the “T” for text in the toolbar (memories of making magazines late at night guided my fingers) and discovered I’d somehow selected pink. Oh well! To help make the pink pop I found a function that allowed black striping inside the letters. But the sunny ocean backdrop swallowed the title. I knew it would be rejected by Premium Services. And I needed Amazon, etc.

It was late, and I broke to dump some previously cooked chicken sausage into a pot with a can of tomatoes, then chopped some baby bok choy into it. While that was heating Mindy wandered downstairs and put on water for pasta and made a salad. I wandered back to the screen. There was a list of commands in a box on Paint.net, including one that said “Invert Image.” I hit it.

At the top of this blog I hope you’ll see my original photo, before I downloaded Paint.net. The “Invert Image” drained my photo of color and turned it into a negative image. It was noir, it was eerie, it was California’s bright shining myth turned inside-out. It was perfect for my story, which was about black-white relations during the Civil Rights crisis of the mid-1960s.

On the inverted image I happened to type in the first words in lower-case and immediately knew this was the way to go. Ditto for my line-break choices. Suddenly the pink looked real good. Subtle. For pink.

Mindy and I ate dinner with the preoccupied expressions and disjointed conversation common to writers on deadline. She went upstairs to finish her email blast, I went to my screen. Let the publishing begin!

I worked on into the night. A copyright page was required, in a certain style. An author page on Smashmouth’s site needed creating; I was prompted to get a PayPal account, another download which again didn’t require me to reboot. I was reeling a bit as I went through the extensive required formatting and proofreading pre-pub tests. It was 11:30 as I registered and edited and checked indents over and over.

Finally, I uploaded the clean document and pushed Publish.

And was rejected.

But the Style Guide was right with me. If my MS Word 2010 file ended in a “docx” then I had to re-save it in another , probably older Word file that ended with “doc.” Naturally Word doesn’t tell you what those file endings are when you’re doing a Save As, but I guessed Word 2003-2007 because somewhere in the guide the author, Mark Coker, had mentioned that this was his favorite conversion program.

Always pay attention to your tekkie. The file was accepted, uploaded to Smashmouth, and the “Meatgrinder” process, as they call it, began. I was number 323 in the queue and could just walk away, brush my teeth, and go to bed.

In the morning, my eight years of publishing drought had ended. There was more to do in terms of proofing and other tying up of loose ends, including downloading Kindle’s mobi and Adobe’s Reader programs to make sure that The Skins of Our Ancestors would meet their standards. But the book was done. All that remained was to set a price.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is a 24-page story. It’s dense and a bit of a risk. It was meant to anchor a whole book on my upbringing in a Southern/Northern family in Southern California during the racially turbulent ‘60s. I decided it was worth more than free, more than a 99-cent download from iTunes. The Newbie guys, Barry and Joe, had talked about the importance of pricing an e-Book low enough for it to be an impulse purchase. But this was a major chunk of my life and my output. Yeah, that’s worth $2.99.

My royalty breakouts will vary. From Smashmouth.com it’s possible to get a pure 70 percent. Retailers like Amazon and B&N and others take a bigger share, around 50 percent. But these are terms much, much better than legacy publishing offers authors on e-Books (around 14.5 percent after all their surcharges are applied).

In the coming days and months and years, we’ll see how it all plays out. But right now, the magic number is eight. As in eight hours from e-Book newbie to author.

My plans now? The e-Pub imprint I’ve dreamed of is already a reality, and I’ll have more news on that soon. But this experience has me wanting more, now. I know that’s a danger with self-publishing; let’s call it THE danger. If you start ladling slop into your stream of books and publications, you’ll do yourself no favors.

Still, I’m not going to stop now. I think a story a month sounds right. Some will be free, some will be 99-cents. All will be from my archive of unpublished work—nothing just riffed off, like this blog. I think it’s important to reserve a kind of writing for e-Book publication, writing that promises more than the shoot-from-the-hip stuff that fills the web today. Call it premium, or estate reserve, or private label.

Or call it literature.

I also think this may be the route I take with my six-novel series, The Log of Matthew Roving. So maybe that’s what I’ll be putting up six months from now, around September time, the traditional fall season in publishing. I’ll need that much lead time, given that the 500 page novel is 25 times longer than The Skins of Our Ancestors and will require a lot of formatting and re-formatting…

Thank you, Smashwords.

The Skins of Our Ancestors is at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/51969

Thanks to Jane Friedman, whose Twitter RT started the ball rolling.

Thanks to Michael Maren for telling me to write this blog. To Laura Miller. Here’s her Salon piece, with great links at the bottom:

http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2011/03/29/writer_sell_thyself/index.html

Finally, here’s to Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. You really have to read Joe’s blog with the 13,000 word Q&A:

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/03/ebooks-and-self-publishing-dialog.html

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