I went to an Orlando Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group meeting last night. It was our first get together in a few months because our organizer (Sarah Fisk) had to abdicate for job reasons and it took a while to replace her, although she has since moved back to Orlando and rejoined the group.
We held it at the food court of a local mall, an ideal place I thought because it easily accommodated our group without any expectation that we should be quiet or buy anything. Of the seven people at the table that night, one is a traditionally published author (Owl Goingback), one is a self published author (me), and the others are either writing speculative fiction books or have written some and are currently exploring their publication options.
Because we had a new organizer and a few new members, this was more of a chat session than our normal meetings, which focus on review and critique of members’ work. One topic that came up was self publishing. I suppose I was guilty of raising it because when publishing options came up, the implication seemed to be that the preferred option was traditional publishing. I wanted to point out that in the digital age there is another option and that it was my first option rather than a fallback position.
I was surprised that the other members seemed to either not consider this or thought of self publishing as the last, desperate act a writer would take and that books were only self published if they couldn’t meet the exacting standards necessary for traditional publication.
Obviously I don’t believe this to be true but the incredulous stares around the table made it clear just how pervasive this belief is, not just among readers, agents, and publishers, but among writers as well. Unfortunately this is not without cause.
Self publishing has some great advantages. For writers, these include retention of all rights to their work. They control everything from content to distribution. They control the cost of their books and they receive higher royalties as a percentage of sales.
For readers, self publishing means that there are more books in more subgenres than ever before. Books don’t need to fall into mainstream categories or follow whatever may be popular in their genre at the time in order to be published. A publisher’s impression of profitability does not enter into the equation. Self published books, especially ebooks, are almost always much cheaper than traditionally published books as well so readers have greater selection at lower cost. What could be better?
Well, there is the quality issue. The problem with anyone being able to publish is that anyone is able to publish anything. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to be coherent or readable or, in the case of nonfiction, even accurate. Now I won’t say this is an exclusive problem with self publishing because we have all seen traditionally published books that had these same flaws but if a major publisher’s logo was on the cover, a reader could be assured that it had at least gone through some editing process.
With self published books, there is no such guarantee and books can be released before they are ready. Some people, dishonest, scummy, and disreputable people who should be publicly flogged, tarred, feathered, and sent to their rooms without supper, have been known to scam this new openness by plagiarizing the work of others or intentionally throwing out dozens or even hundreds of short, poor quality books. There is currently no way to prevent this and it helps perpetuate the myth that all self published books are bad. I have seen other self published authors claim that readers can still tell quality books from reader reviews on sites such as Amazon. These certainly help and I don’t discount them but reviews and ‘likes’ are not necessarily a guarantee of quality either. Just as anyone can publish a book, anyone can write a review and writers can swap positive reviews and ‘likes’ with other authors as part of their promotion efforts, often with honest intent simply to help their peers.
There are a few disadvantages to self publishing for writers as well. They have to cover all of the up front costs themselves including editing, cover design, and formatting. Self published books are difficult to get into brick and mortar bookstores and the authors have to do all of their own marketing and promotion, which can be extremely difficult without the resources of an agent or traditional publisher to support them. Writers need to be willing to take on these challenges before they decide to self publish but their biggest hurdle may be the continuing stigma hovering over self published books.
I think there may be a fairly simple solution to this although it means readers will need to do a little research themselves. But since they are receiving the benefit of more options and lower costs, I don’t think this is asking too much. Actually my suggestion would apply to any author whose work you have not read before.
Before you decide to buy a book by an author unknown to you, read the sample pages first. If it still looks good, go to the author’s website. All legitimate self published authors should have one. There is probably even a link to it on the author’s page on Amazon or whatever online retailer sells their book. Look at the content. Keep in mind that self published authors may not be expert at web design but if the layout is logical and the content is good, chances are their books will be as well. If the book description looks like the type of book you would enjoy and the author’s website suggests that he or she is a competent writer, there is a good chance you’ve found something that will appeal to you. I know this is more work for readers but I think this inconvenience may be outweighed by the benefits readers receive in price and selection.
As always, if you have thoughts on this subject you would like to share, please leave a comment.
My self publishing adventure continues. In the last five days, there have been twenty more free downloads of my first book from Smashwords, for a total of 157 since I made it available on 10 September. I find this exciting and I hope some of the people who have downloaded it will read it and write a review.
My plan was to end the free promotion at the end of the month and I have done so. The price for The Warden Threat is now 99¢. I still have seen no sales from Amazon at this price. I will let you know how this affects the number of downloads on Smashwords. I expect it will dramatically. A free novel by an unknown author is a bargain but at 99¢, not so much. Many books, especially self published books, are available at that price. Free, mine stands out. At 99¢ it does not, even as a full length novel of over 80,000 words.
So why raise the price? My primary reason is not to make money. Few fiction authors actually seem to make money from their books and I don’t expect to be one of them, despite the fact that I would like to be. My primary reason for charging for it is to give it value in the eyes of readers. In our materialistic society, we often equate value with cost — no cost implies no value. As mistaken as I think this equation may be, it exists.
My plan forward is to continue as I have with limited promotion on social media at least through the end of the year and, of course, to continue writing. The third book in the Warden series should be available in 2012.
I’ll post an update periodically to keep you updated on how my adventures in self publishing ebooks are going. I invite you to share your experiences in the comments to this blog. You are also more than welcome to sample my writing either at this blog or on Amazon. If you do, please let me know what you think.
Why I Chose To Self Publish
My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode One
My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode Three – Building a Platform
My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode Four – Managing Expectations
My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode Five – Gaining a Following
Today’s post is about my own experience but hopefully it will be helpful to some of the people out there in cyberspace looking to publish their own ebooks.
One of the most frustrating things I had to do to self publish was to create ‘covers’ for my books. I am a man of limited artistic talent although I did take an art class once when I was younger to meet girls and no, I’m not saying how long ago that was. I got no dates but I did learn how to draw a banana in charcoal. If I ever write a book on bananas this will certainly come in handy but since I haven’t yet, I was at something of a loss with my book cover.
I did what most of us would do at a time like this. I searched the web and found all sorts of sites offering to sell me their software. I tried some free samples. They worked, more or less, but none was especially easy to use and none came with anything I thought was suitable artwork. I write speculative fiction so a stock photo of a pretty girl picking flowers, or sailboats or a landscape of green hills just won’t work.
It was time to go back to the web. I found sites offering to create a unique cover custom designed for my books for a surprisingly wide range of prices, from less than a hundred to over a thousand dollars. But I’m also a fairly cheap, I mean frugal man and this writing habit was already costing me money. I was reluctant to shell out much cash to support it unless it started paying me back. So what is a frugal writer who is only marginally adept at drawing a banana supposed to do?
I did more research. Research is free. I looked at my bookshelf first; the physical one with the paper books. There were some lovely covers there but most were far too complex for me to have any chance of using as a template — with one notable exception; Thud by Terry Pratchett. A copy is posted above. There are a couple of things about this I like but the first thing that attracted me was how simple it was. And since it was by my favorite author, I knew it had to be good. (That’s a Pratchett plug by the way. Remuneration from his publisher will be gladly accepted — preferably before the next mortgage payment is due.)
I also researched the covers of books on Amazon and one thing became clear right away. Covers that look good in a bookstore do not necessarily look good when they are shrunk down and displayed on a computer monitor. Those that did were much like the cover for Thud. They were simple and had bright colors and large letters. But I still couldn’t do the art. Yes, it was just a cartoon drawing but the best I might manage would still probably look like a banana.
I went back to the web. I searched for free stock photos, clipart and cartoons. There are some but none that really grabbed me. But while searching, I hit on something I wasn’t really looking for. Avatars. Those little images people use for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Apparently avatars are also used by online gamers and I found a few sites where you can make your own. And best of all, they were free.
So that’s what I did. I went to a few of them. (You can do your own search to find the ones you like best.) Most are pretty limited and you can’t do a lot of tailoring of the images you create. Some were also fairly difficult to use but I managed to make some JPG files that could be used as raw material. The image on the home page of this blog came from one of those.
I took the JPG files and opened them in a program on my computer called Paint. It came with my Microsoft Windows software so I didn’t need to buy anything new. There are also free programs like Gimp that can edit JPG pictures but I used Paint. I won’t say it was easy to tailor the images to what I thought would work for my covers and it wasn’t quick but it was possible. I cropped, touched up, altered, recolored and resized.
So I finally had some JPG art that I thought might work. Now I had to turn them into ebook covers. This is when inspiration hit. I already had a program on my computer that might be able to do this and, best of all, I knew how to use it. I just didn’t know how to use it to make book covers. I had used Microsoft PowerPoint for years to make slides for briefings and reports; not as part of my real job as a writer but as part of my paying job. It took me a while but I think I finally figured it out. It’s really rather simple, especially if you are familiar with PowerPoint.
The first thing you need to do, and the thing that eluded me the longest, is to change the orientation of the slide. On my version of PowerPoint you do this by gong to the “File” tab and selecting “Page Setup” from the dropdown. A window opens up with radio buttons. Change the “Slides” selection from “Landscape” to “Portrait” and this will give you a template ideal for an ebook cover. Delete any text boxes that automatically come up so you have a blank page to work with.
I’m not going to go through how to use PowerPoint. I’m sure Mircosoft has guidance out there on how to do this but I will list what I did. These are in no particular order and you can do them in any sequence you want.
After I finally figured out how to change the orientation of the slide, I selected a background color and pattern. There are a lot of combinations to choose from.
Then I inserted my JPG file images. You can also use the clipart that comes with the program to add things like vines or frames or other doodads. I decided not to after playing with some of them because it detracted from the clean and simple look I wanted that would show up well as a small icon next to the “order now” button.
I positioned the images, set the transparency color (the one you want to be invisible), and brought them forward or back behind others as needed. You just right click the image for this option.
The last thing was the text. Again I wanted it simple; just title and author. I tried a few options for the text but using WordArt provided the best result in my opinion. PowerPoint gives you the same kind of options for WordArt as you have for any other kind of picture you insert.
Once I had a cover I thought looked good, I simply saved it as a JPG file. It is already the correct size for an ebook cover so you don’t have to do anything else unless you want to do some minor tweaks using Paint or a similar program. I had to do this if my transparency color made some things invisible that shouldn’t have been.
That’s it. The covers I came up with are the ones you see on my Warden Novels tab. They have what I was looking for; bright colors, simple design, and large text. If you have a moment, let me know what you think of them. Or if you have a better way of doing this for free please let me know that too.
When I told my friends and relatives I had finally embarked on my life long goal to write fiction and had actually published something, they said, “Great! Where can I get it?” When I told them, their responses were much different. You see, my books are self published and there is still a stigma about self published books. Many believe self publishing is what you do when your stuff isn’t good enough for a “real” agent or publisher. My books were also ebooks and everyone knows “real” books are made of paper. My friends didn’t even have ebook readers and had no plans of getting one. I myself didn’t have one until this year so I couldn’t really say much.
When I tried to explain that I chose to self publish rather than seek a traditional agent and publisher, I was met with skepticism. “Yeah, right.” (This is the only case I know of in which two positives make a negative.) “You chose to do this?”
But I did. When I decided to begin writing seriously rather than just as a hobby, I initially intended to shop my work to agents and try to get my books published in print. I had compiled a list of agents, what they said they were looking for, and their submission guidelines. I had draft query letters prepared using the best guidance I could find from established agents. I did my homework and I was ready to go. I wanted two books completed before I approached an agent so I could prove I could deliver but when the time came, I had changed my mind.
Maybe it’s a mistake but rather than send out queries for my first book, The Warden Threat, to traditional agents and publishers, I chose to self publish. Why would I make self publishing my first option rather than a last resort? I know many other writers are struggling with the same decision so I thought I’d share the five main reasons for mine (in no particular order).
1: I’m unknown as a fiction writer. My paying job had nothing to do with fiction, at least intentionally, although some of the reports I had done did contain things that were fairly speculative. But the point is, in the world of fiction writing I had no name recognition, no following, and no brand. I assumed it would be very difficult and frustrating trying to get an agent to even look at my work. Agents turn down 99% of the submissions they receive, and all the time the author is waiting to hear back from them is time their book is not available to readers.
2: Self publishing is easy. With the rise of ebooks, there are several places that will allow authors to turn their manuscript into an ebook and publish it. The process is fairly easy and free. I chose Smashwords and Amazon because they seemed to be the industry leaders. Smashwords is the simplest. All you need is a Word document, suitably formatted, and a cover image. Smashwords creates ebooks in multiple formats for you, assigns an ISBN and distributes your book to multiple ebook retailers. Amazon required conversion of the Word file to HTML and then to a PRC format using free Amazon software. Both processes were well within my capabilities. The hardest part for me was coming up with covers but I eventually created some that I thought were simple and eye-catching using no special or expensive software.
3: The popularity of ebooks is growing. Amazon now reportedly sells more ebooks than it does paper books and the popularity of ebooks is still growing. I don’t see paper books going away (I hope they don’t), and I would love to see my books eventually become available in paper because it means more people will be able to read them, but I feel that ebooks are the future and it is good to get in on the ground floor. I see this as analogous to what happened in the music world with the rise of MP3 players. At one time I bought vinyl albums, tapes, and CDs. Probably more than I should have. But I have since converted my CDs to MP3 files and now normally only buy new albums as MP3 digital downloads.
4: With self publishing, authors can choose what compromises to make and what ones not to. I think authors, good authors anyway, write because they have things to say. Traditional publishing is a business and publishers have books they want to sell. There can be an inherent conflict in these two goals and I have heard that authors are sometimes asked to make changes to increase sales at the cost of their intended message. With self publishing, no one will tell you, “You can’t say that.” As your own publisher, you can decide if your story the way you want to tell it is more important than additional sales.
5: Self published ebooks can be the best bargain available for readers. Let’s face it. Times are tough for a lot of us and we have to stretch our budgets. As far as my reading habit or obsession went, I stretched mine by increasing the number of books I borrowed from the public library. I still buy hard copy books from my favorite authors as soon as they are released. I just preordered the latest book by Terry Pratchett for example. But for authors I never heard of, well, I might buy a paperback if it sounds good and the library doesn’t have a copy. But now there is a third option. Ebooks are cheap, normally less than the paperback version, if there is one, and many, especially the works of self published authors, can cost less than a buck. I wouldn’t expect readers to be willing to pay eight dollars for a paperback version of one of my books if they never heard of me and I’d feel guilty asking them to. But $2.99, $1.99, or even just 99 cents is probably affordable and worth the risk. I’m comfortable asking prices like that for my works. I think they are worth much more although my opinion is hardly objective. But until or unless I obtain a following, I doubt I will ever ask for more. My personal goal with my writing is not to make a lot of money. I don’t expect to. Most authors don’t. I just want my books to be read. Making them cheap seems a good way to do that.
I am not advocating self publishing for anyone. I have no idea if it will gain readers for my books. This is my first try and I haven’t been at it long. The start of my self publishing effort began the end of May 2011 with the creation of this blog. I published a “beta version” of my first two novels as an anthology in July and got some good feedback from beta readers. After a little more editing and polishing, I updated the anthology and released the first two books separately this month (September 2011). I will provide updates from time to time on this blog and probably on Facebook and Twitter on how well (or poorly) my books are faring. You are more than welcome to check back to find out.
Please let me know if any of this has been useful to you. I’d love to hear back from readers and writers about how they see ebooks and self publishing. Have you bought self published ebooks? If you have, what did you think? Do they provide good value for the money?