Some of you seem to really enjoy these posts on self-publishing and the living nightmare that is the production phase! Please. Come. Read my hair-pulling, head-to-wall-bashing, chew-through-own-bottom-lip-for-the-joy-of-it experience.
Hi! When’s the release date for GREEK KEY?
I don’t know, exactly. It goes live around Halloween.
You don’t know, exactly? That seems unprofessional.
Do you know how self-publishing works?
Yes. You upload your files and hit “publish”.
Hah! Fooled you, Bert! That’s not how it works at all. First, you decide where you’re going to publish, because while the default setting is “Amazon”, many of your readers may object to purchasing your books through a monolithic supplier, even though Amazon has added the option to remove digital rights management and I make sure the DRM is disabled. Others may want to buy through Barnes & Noble, or iTunes, or simply borrow the book through one of the nigh-infinite library and lending sites out there.
Okay, fine. You’ve decided where you’re going to publish. Then what?
Then you decide whether you’re going to upload to each site individually, or use a third-party distribution site. I use a third-party site, Smashwords, to distribute my copy for me to every vendor except Amazon.
Wow, the Smashwords website is awful.
I think they throw all of their energy at their backend.
I know what I said. Shut up. Their focus is on getting words to line up properly, and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Look at the number of ereaders and digital devices out there, many of which are proprietary. Text doesn’t magically appear on each of these as a perfectly formatted book. It needs to be processed so the end result is a clean format that can be displayed by each device. Smashwords uses an engine they call “Meatgrinder”, which takes raw text and processes it to meet the ebook standards of each vendor. If conditions are ideal and these standards are met, then the text will display properly on all digital devices. This is why I use Smashwords, by the way–I’d go berserk if I tried to do this myself.
But you get emails/tweets/comments complaining about errors in digital text!
Yup. And most of these errors are out of my hands. I do my best to submit clean copy with minimum errors to Amazon and Smashwords, and they do their best to make sure the copy displays properly. But it’s a new industry and we’re all still finding our way, and errors will pop up.
“We’re all still finding our way” sounds like another unprofessional dodge.
Okay, let’s look at this another way. See those ebooks I sell in my store? I should have complete control over those, right? Direct from my computer to my store to the digital display device of your choice. When I put together a new book, I create three versions: .pdf, .epub, and .mobi, which are the most popular formats for ereaders. I do text layout in Adobe InDesign, then export the files to one of these three versions. But the conversion process is sloppy at best for everything except .pdf–even though I check the proofs before they go live, there are hidden errors everywhere.
Give me an example.
A few weeks ago, I thought I was putting a sample section of GK up on Gumroad, and it turned out I was posting the entire book.
That was dumb of you.
I didn’t know! I used the same process I always do: I selected the text I wanted, created a new document, pasted the text, and created new .pdf, .epub, and .mobi files. I tested these, then bundled them together in a .zip, and put it up for free download.
But GK is the first book I’ve written that has footnotes. A wonderful person contacted me and let me know that if you click on a footnote in the .epub document, it links to all of the other footnotes in the book. Which unlocks the entire book!
I took down those files and replaced it with a single .pdf, and now I’m getting emails where people are outright screaming at me for not making .epub and .mobi files available.
It’s cool. My office has several hundred million people in it, and mathematically it stands to reason that some of them are jerks. But hopefully this has answered some of your questions about why ebook formatting in self-publishing can be problematic. For myself, I have a limited number of devices available for testing different versions (I don’t even know if that footnote error exists in all .epub files or just in older devices!). I can’t catch everything.
You could hire a third party to format the books for you.
I might do that in the future, but I don’t have the financial resources to do it now.
There are plugins and apps that could do it for you, and many of them are free!
I already use these in InDesign to produce the .epub and .mobi files. And there are new ones coming out all of the time that might improve the quality of the final product. However, you have to read the fine print to make sure they’re applicable to your project. For example:
This is a screencap from a company called Blurb, which offers great free and low-cost plugins for Adobe InDesign. About three clicks in, I learned that this product wouldn’t be applicable for GK, because footnotes (fucking footnotes!). Also, many readers want a Table of Contents for easy navigation.
Why do you use InDesign if it’s such a hassle?
Because it’s the industry standard for publishing; because I don’t have the time or money to invest in a new program; because there will always be inherent problems in all publishing software platforms so I might as well stick with
the devil I know the program that has a ton of online resources that I can consult when the inevitable problems pop up. But mostly because it’s the industry standard for publishing. Those .epub and .mobi files aside, my copy is so clean you could eat off of it!
Let’s go back to the original question about GK’s release date.
Hopefully I’ve given you some idea what a mess self-publishing can be. So, say you’ve got your clean copy ready. It’s as nice and tidy as it’s going to get. If you want to do preorders, Amazon and Smashwords require a four- to six-week lead time.
That seems reasonable!
Yes, but I’ve only been doing this since 2013, so I’m still relatively new to self-publishing. I’m trying to put out two books per year: six months to write; two months in a digital drawer to forget about the first draft; two months to edit; a month to format (for those of you who are good at math, there’s obviously some overlap between books). I try to plan my schedule as best I can, but thus far I haven’t gotten structured enough to allow for that much lead time. I’m getting better at it, though; GK is the first book that will have print and digital versions available on the release date. I’m trying to integrate lead time for preorders in the future.
Okay, no preorders. But why can’t you just click “publish” on Halloween and have it go live?
Again, it’s the third-party distributors. Each of them has a buffer period from when you hit “publish” to when it goes live. Sometimes this is due to checking the files, and sometimes this is due to the time required to populate different vendor lists with new products. This is out of my hands.
What I can do is set everything up on October 26th, hit “publish”, and cross my fingers that it’s all live on Halloween.
This whole thing sounds needlessly complicated.
It is, thanks for noticing!