(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]

 

Pen-name – help or hindrance?

[First posted on Goodreads January 2014]

Sam Kates is a pseudonym. When I first decided to self-publish a collection of short stories almost a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a question of whether to use a pen-name; only which pen-name to choose.

Life is full of unexpected contradictions. Here’s one that some writers may recognise. I deeply desire making a living from writing fiction – to be paid to do what I most enjoy, thus freeing me to do it more… It must be like the starry-eyed schoolboy who signs a professional football contract and suddenly finds himself sharing a changing room with his heroes. Yet that dream can become reality for a writer at almost any stage of his or her life. I’m way past the age where Liverpool would be interested in me (even – in my dreams – were I good enough), but at 49 I’m not too old to become successful as a writer. And yet, I have no desire to seek the limelight, to become even moderately famous – not as me, the real me anyway.

So here’s that contradiction (no, I hadn’t forgotten): I want to be a successful author of fiction, yet I don’t seek fame. Hmm… becoming successful in most fields of the arts requires the artist to become well-known. In the field of literature, this means the author’s name has to become familiar to readers. There are way too many indie authors out there – the more well-known a writer’s name becomes, the more visible he or she will be among the milling masses. To use a more business-like expression: it’s about building a brand. So, success without a modicum of fame? Ain’t going to happen.

Going with a pseudonym was, therefore, a non-brainer. There were other reasons, such as being the sort of reserved person hopeless at blowing his own trumpet (it’s a lot easier to promote Sam Kates than it would to be to promote me), but the overriding one was to impose a degree of separation between writing and my private life.

By and large, then, having a pen-name has been a help. Today, for the first time, it became a hindrance. The local newspaper had agreed to run a feature about my new apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing. The reporter who interviewed me e-mailed this afternoon to say that his senior editors would only publish the piece on condition that they used my real name. After a little soul-searching, I told him that I didn’t want to proceed under that condition. Some of you might be thinking, “Fool! You’ve just given up some free advertising!” and you’d be right. My publishers, when they find out, may be displeased, though I think (hope) they’ll understand. But I’m certain I’ve made the correct call.

Not that my real name is a great secret. Anyone who knows me knows I write under the name Sam Kates. Anyone with a little computer savvy who can be bothered could probably find my real name online within minutes. But given what I said above about why I used a pen-name in the first place, to start announcing my real name to the world (or at least this small part of it on the edge of the South Wales valleys) seems self-defeating and more than a little hypocritical. If that means I’m going to miss out on promotional opportunities, (with apologies to my publishers) so be it. I’ll just have to work harder at other methods of promotion and, more importantly, writing books that readers find entertaining.

Hindrance or not, Sam Kates is rolling up his sleeves…

Adventures in Self-Publishing

Long before I had my own website, I posted a couple of articles about self-publishing to a friend’s blog, under the pseudonym Johnny Luv – don’t ask. Since I’m starting this blog from scratch, thought I might as well reproduce those articles here – if you can’t engage in a spot of self-indulgence on your own website, then where can you?

Here’s the first, originally posted around October 2012:

Walking on Eggshells – Adventures in Self-Publishing

So, I wrote a bundle of short stories and a couple of novels. Some of the short stories were published in small press magazines. Many more were rejected. I accumulated a file of rejections for the novels from agents and publishers. They say that a writer needs a thick skin; well, mine wasn’t thick enough. I gave up.

Then the Kindle and the e-book self-publishing revolution came along. I didn’t even notice. Until I received a Kindle last Christmas. Even then, it took me months to appreciate the opportunities that were now open to a writer with a collection of scribblings sitting on the hard drive of his computer.

In August, I bundled ten short stories together into a collection that I named after one of the stories: Pond Life. Taking a deep breath, I published the collection for the Kindle on Amazon under a pseudonym. Once I’d worked out how to format the book, it was a doddle. It even has a professional cover designed by a kindly artist in return for a credit on the inside and a link to her website on my Facebook page.

Okay. My book was there, but then what was I supposed to do? I’ve read that there are in excess of a million self-published books on Amazon alone. There are numerous other self-publishing sites. How does an unknown become noticed in that sort of crowd?

I visited the Amazon discussion forums (or fora, if you’d prefer). There are a bewildering number, containing a bewildering number of threads, many of which contain tens of thousands of comments (posts). Daunting does not do it justice. I spent hour upon hour reading through threads, skimming thousands of posts, seeking advice on how to promote my book.

There’s a heck of a lot of advice out there. Not all of it good. But I managed to extract what I felt to be the worthy advice: join in discussions on the forums, have your own website, publish more books, join the Amazon programme that allows limited free book promotions.

Well, I joined the programme and have held one free promotional day thus far. Around sixty free copies of my book were downloaded, most in the States. That’s not many, but I learned a lot and should do better next time. I don’t yet have my own website, but have registered a domain name; it’s a start. And I’m rewriting the first novel (it was written over ten years ago and a rewrite is much needed) with the aim of publishing it in December. So that just leaves the forums. And that’s where the allusion to walking on eggshells comes in.

The Amazon Discussion Forums are essentially divided into two parts: those where writers can promote their work and those where they can’t. And woe betide a writer who self-promotes in the wrong forum. The outcome can be carnage. Some readers keep NRA lists (Never Read Authors). It has been known for authors to have their books subjected to scathing reviews from reviewers disgruntled at what an author has posted on the forums. Even mentioning that you are a writer in the wrong place can lead to withering attacks.

Not that all authors behave professionally. There are threads devoted to the antics of what are labelled BBA (Badly Behaving Authors). Sometimes this label is deserved.

So do I regret jumping headlong into the shark-infested self-publishing sea? Not for one moment. It’s been fun and exciting and I’ve ‘met’ some friendly and talented people in cyberspace. I’ve had a short story featured on another author’s website. I’ve had the same story published in an anthology that, as I write this, is in the top 100 Science-fiction Anthologies. Someone even wants to interview me for her blog. It may not be much, but it’s a start and I’m hungry for more.

Now to get that first novel published…

[Update, July 2018: The Amazon Discussion Forums bit the dust in October 2017. I miss them – not the ones inhabited by frothing-at-the-mouth, self-appointed custodians of the internet, ready to pounce upon anyone who – gasp! – admits they’re a writer, but the ones where like-minded people, readers and writers, could come together and discuss books and anything else that took their fancy.

The breathless reference to over a million self-published books on Amazon gives me a wry smile – last I looked, there were in excess of five million Kindle books available; not all of them self-published, of course, but I’m willing to bet the proportion is significantly high, in excess of three-quarters. And I wondered how to gain visibility back then…]

Here’s the second article, originally posted around April 2013:

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Second and Final Part

So I did it: went against the accepted wisdom that goes something like, “Whatever you do, never publish the first novel you write. Ever.” Not that I think I know better – I sometimes think I know less than very little – but I revisited that first novel after a ten-year break and found that there was something there that readers might like. Sure, it has its shortcomings, but I felt I had nothing to lose.

It was fortunate that I was able to lay my hands on a copy. After accumulating all those rejection slips from London agents and publishers, I had deleted the novel from my computer in a fit of pique. I’d printed a copy, but we moved house five years ago and things have gone missing. But, luckily for me, not the novel. The long process of retyping it onto the computer gave me the opportunity to revise and tighten the prose, and I ended up with a 64,000-word story. Quite short for a novel, but about the right length, I felt, for a debut. At least readers wouldn’t have much time to become bored. I gave it a title: The Village of Lost Souls.

Christmas was approaching by the time I finished the rewrite and final proofreads. Deciding that life is too short to read it through again – there has to come a point when you say, ‘Enough’s enough; publish and be damned!’ – I took another deep breath and pressed the ‘publish’ button. Then I sat back and waited. (Actually, that’s not quite true. I had to do all the usual self-promoting stuff discussed in my earlier post on this topic. Then I sat back and waited.)

I had to wait almost three weeks for the first feedback. I expected reviews that were middle-of-the-road, neither loving nor hating; if I could average a three-star rating, I would be happy. The first review stunned me; the reviewer said, “I absolutely loved this book. Loved it!” More reviews in a similar vein followed. The lowest rating so far is three stars. I still can’t quite believe the strength of emotion the story evokes. I set out to write a ghost story; I seem to have ended up with something more.

But for all its positive reviews, the book is floundering under the sheer volume of competition. It barely sells. My efforts at self-promotion are, frankly, feeble. I’m not very good at it and never will be. I have no idea how to reach the readership that I have to believe is out there waiting to discover my books.

Maybe now I won’t have to find out how. Something amazing happened totally out of the blue about two weeks ago: I was contacted by a publisher. A small, independent publisher based in Florida, that had read both my books, felt they deserved to sell a lot more than they currently are selling and offered to publish and market them. My excitement was tempered by wariness. I’ve read so many sorry tales of aspiring authors being taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous, so-called publishers who make money by charging the writer exorbitant fees for editing, cover-design and marketing, then price the books at such ridiculously-high prices that nobody buys them, forcing the writer to pay through the nose to buy back the book’s rights.

I awaited the contract with a knot in my stomach – if it contained such terms, I would be compelled to reject it: my big chance, perhaps my only chance, gone. To my astonishment, it didn’t. For a complete unknown like me, it seemed perfectly reasonable (apart from one clause that the publisher readily agreed to amend to something I was happy with). So I signed.

Hence the reason I’ve called this the “…Final Part.” I can drop the ‘self’ from ‘self-published author’. Still pinching myself…

[Update, July 2018: I clearly recall the excitement I felt at being approached by a publisher, like a child first learning about Christmas. Sadly, it didn’t work out quite as either of us had planned and we parted company in March this year. Thus, my titling this piece ‘Final Part’ turned out to be premature – I’m self-publishing again and all the happier for it.

The last few months have seen me negotiating learning curves so steep they’re vertical, with overhangs, and given me enough material for umpteen posts about the publishing process. If self-publishing concerns you, pop back from time to time – there will be the occasional article you might find of interest. And don’t be afraid to leave a comment. It’ll be good to see you.]