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Monday, September 12, 2011

ePublishing for the uninitiated

Wise words from a resourceful author

I was intrigued by a post from Christchurch blogger Joan Curry (see link to the right), and contacted her for more details, which she readily provided, along with permission to reproduce her remarks.

The post is worth reading in its entirety for the laugh it will give you at the end, but the paragraph that really grabbed my attention was this:

"I have spent the last week revising and reformatting the writing manual I wrote two decades ago, so that I could publish it as an ebook. The manual was out of date, and a bit creaky here and there. It mentioned pens and paper and tape-recorders and sticky tape, and barely acknowledged the existence of the personal computer. There was advice that was no longer relevant, and there were also, shame on me, typos. So I read the formatting guidelines from and set about bringing the manual into the 21st century."

So I wrote a comment to her post, asking for more info, and Joan kindly replied in an email:

"Smashwords offers a publishing forum, and it's free. Let me just say that I wrote that manual 20 years ago, from course notes that I developed when teaching basic creative writing to adult students at the Canty WEA. That manual was a simple thing - about 140 pages, it was photocopied and spiral-bound, and sold for $20 post free to people (not bookshops) throughout the country. I did very nicely out of it, after paying photocopying costs and income tax.  I let it lapse (still have three or four copies but have done no marketing for years) but the rise and rise of the ebook seems to offer new opportunities.

 "Hence Smashwords (and plenty of other such sites) - a free forum as I say. They provide a style formatting guide - free - which my son downloaded to his brand new Kindle and left with me for a weekend. I read it through twice - a very comfortable, easy-reading experience I have to say, never having read on a Kindle before - and took copious notes. Then started on re-formatting, then uploaded.

 "Smashwords take the book, check it immediately for formatting errors (because ebooks can be read on anything from mobile phones to PCs and dodgy formatting can scramble text), then put it in the "pending review" basket for humans to look at. (I think for things like dodgy content, pictures that don't transfer properly and so on). If all's well, the book goes into the premium catalogue, from where it can be distributed to all booksellers that retail ebooks - Barns and Noble, Amazon etc. Even if it doesn't make the premium catalogue the book can still be bought by anyone who clicks "buy" on the page where the book is displayed, and pays, upon which the book is downloaded to their Kindle, PC, Kobo, iPhone or whatever.

 "The writer is in control of everything, including the price. Ebooks are cheap - really, really cheap (prices have to end in .99 to comply with Barnes and Noble requirements) - but the market is world-wide.

"That manual doesn't owe me anything. It hasn't cost me anything to go the ebook way. I have put a price of US$2.99 on it, set a sampling percentage of 20% (they can read that much before they buy) which is not much more than they could do in a bookshop anyway. I look forward to seeing what happens. And I lie in bed at night wondering what else I could make an ebook out of, out of the stuff I've got lying around! What's to lose? 

"If you want to take a look, just for fun, go to and search for Joan Curry. That will take you to my page. It's actually very exciting - the concept I mean."

SO -- indeed I searched, and read with growing interest.  Then I searched for another self ePublished author, Shayne Parkinson, who is doing very well indeed with her historical series of novels set in New Zealand, also originally produced on smashwords.  Shayne has her eBooks featured on Kindle, though Joan does not seem to have gone that route yet.  So how did Shayne do it?

The questions proliferate.  The jacket design, for instance, always an important selling device.  Who produces that?  And how is it linked to the text?

And how do smashwords make any money?

As Joan Curry says, it's actually very exciting.

The concept, I mean.


Jacqueline Simonds said...

In no particular order,here are some answers to your questions:

Smashwords takes a percentage of sales - that's how they make money. And believe me when I tell you they make money off the VOLUME. Very rarely do books gone through Smashwords make much money.

Smashwords does not have a relationship with Amazon (although for a while, they were promising something was coming). You must enroll directly with Amazon and upload your book into the Kindle format.

Smashwords uses a formatting engine they call "Meatgrinder." They aren't kidding. It produces somewhat readable text, but nothing like actual typesetting. I consider Smashwords to be sort of iffy, quality-wise.

Covers must be created by someone. Smashwords, I think, offers a template for a cover. It's dreadfully boring. The author will still want to pay someone to produce a catchy cover.

Books that have beeb typeset can easily be turned into ePub (the format for Nook, Kobo, Sony reader and Apple) and Kindle Mobi. But it does take a few extra steps. While it's possible to go directly from manuscript to e-book, the results will look pretty much like a term paper.

There's still no magic bullet. It's still harder than it looks.

Joan Druett said...

Many thanks for your input, Jacqueline. Fascinating insight from a book publishing professional. How does Beaglebay books handle a query from an author who is anxious to go the ePublishing route, with perhaps a sideline in paper books, if eSales look promising? And are there standard charges, or do they vary with the project?

Shayne Parkinson said...

Joan, thanks for mentioning me. A few comments:

It's possible for individual authors to upload their own books to Amazon, and I know of some New Zealanders and Aussies who've done so. I've chosen to go to Amazon via Smashwords. Smashwords have had many delays in their agreement for automated uploads to Amazon (technical issues, I believe), but they offer manual uploads to Amazon for those of their authors with existing sales in the thousands, and I've taken advantage of that.

Smashwords also makes my books available via other retailers. The most successful for me has been Barnes & Noble, whose own self-publishing arm is only available to people in the US. My books are all currently in the top 500 there, something I'm delighted about! They've been on Amazon a much shorter time, but I'm extremely pleased with their progress so far.

As Jacqueline says, Smashwords takes a small cut from each book sold. The company only began making a profit late last year, but are now doing well enough to have hired more staff and buy bigger (much-needed) computer servers. I suspect that a sustantial proportion of their income comes from the relatively small number of authors with large sales. Their most successful author made over $100,000 via Smashwords sales last year. I'm not near that level, but they do include me as one of their better sellers. My volumes are well into the tens of thousands (just to be clear, I'm talking about the books I charge for, not the free one), and I'm cautiously hopeful that this will keep increasing, especially when I finally get the next book out!

Covers: some people do their own, some commission covers at a wide range of prices from a wide range of artists. Smashwords has several members who offer a cover design service, as well as a formatting service. I haven't used either, but have heard of many people who've had good experiences with that.

Anonymous said...

I created the cover myself - I didn't find it difficult to do. And I believe that the various formats were created at the upload - about 8 of them - while I watched on screen as each was completed. Very quick.

Joan Druett said...

Many thanks for your thoughts and input. That Joan Curry is also an artist would have helped with the cover (which I think very attractive, by the way). Shayne, did you use historic photographs?

Certainly a fascinating discussion, very relevant to the course of publishing today.

Shayne Parkinson said...

Joan, while I do have a nice little collection of old photographs, some of which I used for my book trailer and for the cover of a short story, the other covers are modern photographs we've taken, made to look old. I'm very happy to hear that it worked. :-)

Jacqueline Simonds said...

Joan asked how Beagle Bay handles an author who wishes e-book creation. That's a given these days. We do have to charge more for e-book creation (Beagle Bay is a custom publication business), and like our regular typesetting business, it's based on size of the project. But since the book is already typeset, it's not a very large charge (around $150-300 on top of typesetting). We start with Amazon Kindles, since they have the lion's share of the market, and distribution is relatively easy. Then we create an e-Pub file and start submitting to the various sites for includion.

I would say that Smashwords has a good distribution system, but again, not a very good system for creating the ePub files. I wish I could show you some pictures posted just yesterday by someone who showed how they had formatted their Word file, and what Smashwords' "Meatgrinder" did to the page after. Awful!

We are just reaching the toddler stage with e-books. Steps are being taken by printers and distributors to create methods of delivering all forms of content (p- & e-books), and you should see roll-outs of these within the next 18 months.

Joan Druett said...

Many thanks again for sharing your expertise, Jacqueline. So you would strongly suggest that anyone thinking of ePublishing their book should wait 18 months or so, and see what the book world offers then?

Jacqueline Simonds said...

Joan said: "So you would strongly suggest that anyone thinking of ePublishing their book should wait 18 months or so, and see what the book world offers then?"

It depends on your project.For example, Ms. Curry's book will be fine for most platforms just as they are.

Joan's TUPAIA is another story. That book would be fabulous as an "enhanced" e-book (and I really hope her publisher will do so), with the pictures in the book, and possibly video from various British and Pacifika museums. But right now, Amazon doesn't have a color-capable reader. They will in October, though. I would be readying my more involved projects *now* and watching the tech developments. Jump in when the time seems right, knowing it's an imperfect world and you may have to adjust marketing and platforms.

It's a very confusing but exciting publishing world right now!