(Mis)Adventures in Publishing Paperbacks

This is going to be a lengthy post. It’s primarily aimed at writers considering publishing their own paperbacks, who don’t know where to start. I thought about cutting it into two or three smaller posts, but that wouldn’t be so helpful if you have to wait weeks for the next part and have to scroll between posts to get all the information you might need. (You can, though, skip this introductory bit by scrolling down to the sub-headings—I won’t be cross.)

In late March 2018, I parted company with the small press publisher I’d been with since April 2013. Although I’d been wanting to go my own way for a while, it happened a little unexpectedly.

The publisher had taken care of the paperback editions of my books—it was one of the main reasons I’d signed with it in the first place—so I’d never had to worry about learning how to produce my own.

Before worrying now, I concentrated on publishing my own versions of my e-books, taking the opportunity to revise each book and using Canva for my covers. (Canva is a website where you can design your own banners, ads and book covers at little or no cost. It’s fine for e-book covers; not so much for the greater complexities and resolution required for paperbacks.)

By the end of April, that was done and I could turn my attention to the paperbacks. That was when it hit me that, although I knew enough to have a general idea of what I needed to do, I was completely clueless about the detail. There were various issues to consider.

For the benefit of anyone who might be considering publishing their own paperbacks, who is as bewildered as I was, I’ll summarise these issues under sub-headings for ease of reference. And this is the potted version—over the ensuing weeks, I was to negotiate learning curves so steep I could have done with grappling hooks. Some of these things took me days to work out.

By the way, I’m not claiming this is the only or best or recommended way to publish paperbacks. It’s merely what I did—your mileage may vary.

Who to publish with?
There’s a growing school of thought that CreateSpace, much loved by the indie community, is being deliberately wound down by Amazon in favour of its in-house kdp. kdp was, and I believe still is, in beta and did not, when I was making these deliberations, offer wide distribution (though it does now). Anyway, I decided to publish with kdp for distribution through Amazon only and Ingram Spark for wide distribution, i.e. everywhere else.

Having made that decision, I needed to move quickly. Ingram charges a fee ($49 last I looked) for each title uploaded, but was running a free promotion until the end of June. Since I had six paperbacks to publish, that would mean a saving of almost $300, provided I got my skates on.

ISBNs
International Standard Book Numbers—a unique identifying number for each edition of a book. Exceptionally, an e-book edition doesn’t normally require its own ISBN, although some retailers (such as Google Play) assign their own to any e-book published through them that doesn’t have one.

I believe that kdp, like CreateSpace, will assign an ISBN for paperbacks published on its platform, but that ISBN can’t be used elsewhere so it would have been necessary to pay for Ingram to assign one.

Since I was going to have to pay for ISBNs no matter what, and I didn’t particularly want two versions of the same book with different ISBNs, I decided I would obtain my own.

A little research informed me that ISBNs can only be acquired in your native country by the agency charged with (and gleefully charging for) being guardians of the sacred numbers. In the UK, that’s Nielsen. (In the US, the agency is called Bowker. Not sure about elsewhere.) I have heard that in Canada ISBNs can be acquired free by Canadian citizens. Lucky them. In the UK, you have to buy them and they come at a fairly hefty price.

They can be purchased in the UK singly or in batches of ten or a hundred. Hmm. I had six paperbacks to publish by the end of June. I have many more novels I want to write. I knew I would be looking into audiobooks when the paperbacks were done. I would definitely need more than ten.

I worked out the unit prices. The price for each ISBN drops significantly when purchased in bulk. On impulse, my focus more on the unit price than, as it should have been, on the total outlay, I ordered a batch of one hundred. One hundred? What was I thinking? Safe to say, I now own enough ISBNs to write and publish a couple of novels each year until I’m a hundred.

Book size.
The small press did a great job of publishing the paperback editions of my books. My only reservation was the size of the books. The publisher chose 9 inches by 6 inches, which I’m led to believe is a popular size for novels in the States. Well, it isn’t in the UK. Novels here tend to be around 7″ by 4-and-a-bit”, rising to 8″ by 5″. 9 x 6 is unusual, a fact brought home to me when a local independent bookshop agreed to stock my paperbacks. When I visited the shop a few weeks later, I couldn’t see my books anywhere. I eventually spotted them, lying on their sides on a top shelf where their visibility was, to put it mildly, limited. The owner told me that my books were too tall to fit onto the regular shelves, adding that at that size they looked like self-published books, even though they weren’t.

Needless to say, I hadn’t moved many copies by the time the bookshop closed down. To add insult to injury, I didn’t get paid for the few copies that had sold.

Live and learn. When it came to publishing my own paperbacks, I was determined they would be at a size more in keeping with the size of novels found in British bookshops. I opted for 8″ by 5″; there are plenty of other options.

Formatting
I had set up accounts with Ingram Spark and Nielsen (you don’t need a separate account with kdp, provided you already have e-books published through Amazon), and was awash with ISBNs. Next, to begin formatting a manuscript.

I began with the shortest work I was going to turn into a paperback: my first novel, 64,000 words long. I turned to the formatting guidance I’d downloaded from Ingram.

My heart sank. (During the weeks this entire process took, my heart was to bob up and down more than an adrift dinghy.) It seemed, at first (second and third, too) glance like utter gibberish.

Feeling I may have bitten off more than I could chew, I hunted down kdp’s formatting guidance. This I found a little more user-friendly. (For anyone who’s interested, it can be found here. It’s been updated since I last used it and looks to be more comprehensive now.)

I use Word, and came to learn more about it during the next few weeks than I had learned in the previous ten years. Mirror margins; unusual line spacing (1.15 is perfect); section breaks; justification; headers and footers, and (aargh!) page numbering; kerning (a word I’d not even heard of before); tracking; font sizes and types and licences (who knew you needed a licence to use certain fonts?—not me); embedding fonts; converting to print-ready pdf.

After days, probably a week or more, of running up blind alleys and cursing and threatening to throw my laptop out of the window, I produced a pdf that kdp’s automated system seemed to like.

It was then I returned to Ingram’s specifications, better equipped to understand them, and realised their requirements were not the same as kdp’s, were more stringent and I would need a differently formatted file to upload to Ingram. Bugger!

After more fiddling and fussing, more trial and error, more turning the air blue, I settled on a template for all my paperbacks that satisfies the requirements of both kdp and Ingram. (Tip: follow Ingram’s guidelines—they work for kdp, but that doesn’t hold true the other way around.) The dimensions are noted for future use in a notebook I keep handy because you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll have forgotten how to do it next time I need to format for paperback.

Covers
Probably the steepest learning curve of all, and one where I’ve yet to attain the summit and start down the other side. For my e-books, I’ve either purchased premade covers, designed basic covers myself (using Canva) or, for a more professional look, my brother has helped me out by designing them for me in Photoshop. However, I wanted to go the whole hog and become completely self-sufficient. This meant not having to rely on the goodwill of my brother (who is always willing to help, but is himself a busy man) and not having to buy covers elsewhere.

Clearly, I needed to acquire a photo manipulation program and learn how to use it. (This is someone who has never used Photoshop or anything similar, ever.)

Photoshop was a non-starter—it seemed I would have to pay an annual subscription to use it. No, thanks. I wanted something I could pay for once and would do the job. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t receive fancy upgrades; chances are, I wouldn’t know how to use the new features anyway.

Over to my brother, who recommended a reasonably priced (around £50) program—Affinity—that should do what I needed it to and, more importantly for me, only required that one-off payment.

Then I began to try to work out manually the required size of the covers; more particularly, the spine widths—different requirements, again, for kdp and Ingram. Oh, boy. I still have the workings; they look like the jottings of some maths genius devising a formula for proving homological conjectures in commutative algebra*.

I began to despair—I was running out of enthusiasm and hadn’t even opened my new program—and vented to bruv, who again came to the rescue. “Why don’t you download a cover template?” he enquired. A what? There are templates? Of course there are. Both Amazon and Ingram provide templates. You merely insert the dimensions of the book and number of pages—Ingram also needs the ISBN to produce a template.

So I was up and running. All I needed to do now was learn how to use the new program. Again, oh, boy. Probably another post’s worth in itself. Suffice it to say here, I managed to produce six covers in time to meet the end-of-June deadline. I’ve included photos of them—they are the kdp proof copies, thus the stupid ‘not for resale’ band around them. They’re not the greatest (due solely to my limitations, not Affinity’s) and a few of them are in dire need of improvement. Trouble is, Ingram also charges for making changes to covers and manuscripts so I’m going to wait until it next runs a free promotion before swapping the covers for improved versions.

Barcodes
At one point, I was stressing about how to produce the barcode that appears on the back of paperback books. There was no need to worry—the Ingram cover template includes the necessary barcode; kdp adds it following submission of the final cover.

Pricing
The final conundrum, and one which I’m not convinced I’ve solved. I was ready to publish my paperbacks, but had no idea how much to charge for them. And Ingram’s guidance rabbited on about retailer discounts and returns and other stuff I didn’t understand. I ended up asking about pricing in the Writers’ Café on kboards and was pointed to the blog post of a knowledgeable and well-respected member of the kboards community. I can do no better than share the link to her post: here.

I was running out of time to publish the books before the Ingram free promotion deadline, so I hastened to the blog, read her advice and decided to follow it.

It seems to me that what the prevailing wisdom boils down to is this. We indies don’t enjoy the economies of scale of print runs of ten thousand copies at a time—our books are printed on demand, which is a significantly higher cost per unit. We don’t have the distribution networks and goodwill that see traditionally published books on sale in all the major bookshops. No matter what we do, the chances of having our books stocked by any bricks and mortar bookshops are minuscule. If we don’t price our paperbacks correctly, we are unlikely to make much, if any, profit from selling them; it’s even possible to end up operating at a loss.

Essentially, we cannot compete on price with the big boys when it comes to selling paperbacks and so shouldn’t try to. (It’s been a while since I looked into pricing and I’m not sure I fully understood all the ins and outs when I did. If there are errors in the above summation, they are mine alone.)

My paperbacks are priced between $13.95 and $15.95 (that’s £9.99 – £11.99). I might not sell many at these prices, but at least I’ll make a few pounds profit on any that do sell. Heck, what would be the point otherwise?

Marketing
If you’ve read any of the posts about my efforts at marketing, you’ll know that I’m hopeless. A complete muppet. But I’m trying to improve. How I’m going to attempt to market my paperbacks, I have no clue right now. It’s something I need to think about and research. But it can wait: I don’t want to spend a penny marketing them until I’ve been able to upload the improved covers. A topic for a future ‘Marketing for Muppets’ post, I think.

[ * there is such a thing—Google it, like I did]

 

Shiny Object Syndrome

This piece is about writing, but I suppose could apply to most creative endeavours. It’s about that moment when you’re elbows-deep in your current work and are struck by an idea for a new project. The idea seems far more enticing than the work-in-progress (WIP). The idea offers endless possibilities for a breathless novel that will lead to a series and a movie deal, enable you to give up the day job and pursue your dream of becoming a full-time writer. In short, the idea is shiny.

What does the writer afflicted with Shiny Object Syndrome do upon being struck by the new idea? He (or, as always, she, but let’s take that as read) doesn’t make a note to return to it after completing the WIP. Nope, he abandons the WIP and embarks instead upon the project sparked by the shiny new idea.

Of course, what usually happens is that when the new idea has become the WIP, when the writer has dug beneath the shiny surface, exposing its guts, so to speak, he finds that the idea has lost its lustre. In fact, he realises that once he has started to work out how the nuts and bolts will fit together, the shiny new idea looks much like the abandoned WIP.

Not wanting to give up on the new idea so soon after embracing it, he ploughs on. Until the next new idea strikes. And, boy, is it shiny…

What he ends up with are a handful of novel openings, perhaps a few that have progressed beyond the first couple of chapters, but nothing complete. Nothing to edit and polish. Nothing to publish.

I have a few barely-started novels of my own hanging about my hard drive, dating back twenty or more years when I struggled to see a project through before beginning a new one. Yep, my name is Sam and I once suffered from Shiny Object Syndrome.

If you are a writer accumulating a bundle of unfinished works of your own and feel you might also be a sufferer, what can you do about it?

Well, I’m no expert so all I can do is tell you how I overcame the problem. I began by starting a notebook into which I jotted a note – maybe only a line or a two; no more than a paragraph – of any shiny idea that occurred while I was already engaged on another project. This doesn’t need to be a notebook; it can be a Word document, or equivalent; perhaps a diary or series of index cards or some sort of voice recording. Whatever works for you.

I find that the mere act of noting the idea down helps, as if translating it from a sparky bundle of electrical impulses to inked symbols on a page removes much of the shine. But not all of it.

Then comes sheer will power. I made it an unbreakable rule that I wouldn’t abandon any WIP in favour of a new idea, no matter how dazzling the shiny object appears. Unless you are a being forged of titanium self-discipline, it’s not that easy to stick to the rule. Shiny objects are still shiny.

The final piece of the cure for me was the feeling I derived from typing ‘The End’ on the first draft of my first novel. It’s a strange mix of loss and euphoria, but the dominant sensation is one of deep satisfaction. That’s not a feeling the writer who jumps from unfinished project to unfinished project will ever experience. That in itself is enough to keep me working on the WIP, no matter how shiny the new object looks.

Most of the time, anyway.