The American Society of Journalists and Authors recently hosted its annual conference in New York, and we have been posting recaps of some of the panels we were able to attend.
We started off with a recap of “Sassy Sentences and Wicked Good Prose: How to Craft Better Writing,” in which San Francisco-based journalist Constance Hale shared her tips for perking up your writing in surprising ways. We also posted highlights from “Social Media Crash Course: Write Tweets People Read,” which featured insight from tweeters from BuzzFeed and The New York Times,” and “The Hero's Journey: The Fiction Foundation for Great Nonfiction Interviews,” which featured tips writer Mary-Kate Mackey.
We continue with a recap of “Take Control of Your Book’s Success: A Self-Publishing Primer.” This panel of bestselling authors and book publishing professionals covered the basics of self-publishing and shared an A-Z guide to getting your book ready for publication and marketing. The panelists were:
- Miral Sattar, founder and CEO of BiblioCrunch
- Andrea Phillips, author, “A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling”
- Deborah Chase, health and beauty writer; founder of No-Nonsense Beauty Blog
Following are highlights of the discussion:
The publishing spectrum is huge at the moment, and right now there are DIY authors working on everything from cover design to marketing and editing all by themselves, as well as traditional publishers that do everything for authors. In between, there are huge opportunities to fulfill unmet needs.
Sattar founded Bibliocrunch back in 2011 to help authors connect with professional publishers, designers, editors, etc. Throughout her years working in the publishing industry, Sattar recognizes how to launch a successful publishing campaign.
Sattar began by listing the many phases for publishing a book: write the book; edit the book; create a cover; format and convert the text; decide whether you need an app; fact-check and proofread; consider enhanced features; come up with a marketing and distribution strategy.
Clearly, publishing a book is quite a process. Sattar distinguishes several common mistakes self-publishers tend to make:
- Forgetting to define goals: This is a key step. Are you looking to get more readers? Sell more books? Build upon a platform? Outlining a desired outcome and knowing the goals is the first step to designing a successful campaign.
- Not doing thorough-enough research on vendors: Always do research before working with an editor, designer, etc. Simply Google any vendor you are considering, look them up on Better Business Bureau, and always (always!) read the terms of service before signing up for something.
- Not hiring an editor: Sattar exemplifies the importance of hiring a professional editor. Some things to consider include: make sure the editor has worked with a self-publisher before, ask them a lot of questions, agree on a deposit structure (pay percentage), and make sure the person has worked within your genre.
- Not optimizing cover designs: JPEGs will work with most retailers, but you have to make sure your cover design looks good on an iPhone, an iPad, a black-and-white kindle, and in print. There are only have a few seconds to grab someone’s attention, and readers will judge a book by its cover.
- Not proofreading your own book: You hired an editor, sure, but it is your book and you may find mistakes. All the big retailers will let you preview your book, so attempt to catch all errors before it goes public.
- Printing books before coming up with a distribution plan: All the elements of a book must be in place before printing. Without a distribution deal in place, it will not be an easy sell, and you want to make sure the book is edited and proofread, the cover is acceptable, etc., before printing out hundreds or thousands of books you cannot sell.
- Sending a book out without getting reviews first: Advertising and promotion sites will not help out a publisher unless their book has a few reviews. Sattar recommends getting about 10 written reviews from other writers, bloggers or through websites like NetGalley before publishing.
“All the tools are available to you; you just have to make sure that you use them,” Sattar said.
Sattar sidled over to book retailers and the two main ways to sell a book: through major retailers, and selling directly off a website. All the major retailers allow authors to upload and self-publish books. The biggest book retailers include: Amazon (KDP), Barnes & Nobles (NookPress), Apple (iBooks) and Kobo (Kobo Writing Life).
“Before you upload your books, you need to prepare your files for conversion,” Sattar said. By converting files into the formats the retailers accept, one is less likely to run into errors and a big formatting mess. MOBI/PRC is used by Amazon, and ePUB files are used by Apple, Barns & Nobles and Kobo. Print-ready PDF files are used for print versions.
There are a cluster of desktop tools one can use to format and proofread word files: Calibre is a free open-source e-book manager and conversion tool. Adobe InDesign lets you export to EPUB and Amazon’s MOBI/PRC format as well. Sigil is used to convert files into EPUB and Pages on Macs will also let you export your document directly into EPUB. Once you have an EPUB file, one can easily use Calibre to convert it to MOBI/PRC. Scrivener is another great tool for writing and exporting files.
After converting a file, the next step is to validate it. “What these validation tools do is they take the files that you’ve created and just check them for errors, because if your book is not formatted correctly and you upload them to iBooks, it will just spit out a bunch of errors and say ‘it’s not ready,’” Sattar explained. Sigil will validate these files; another validator Sattar recommends is EpubCheck.
Each of these vendors require specific parameters for uploads. Below are the specifications for each of the four biggest book retailers:
Amazon Publishing Platform
- Known as KDP or Kindle Direct Publishing
- 70% royalties for books between $2.99-$9.99
- Over 60% of the market -- 25% from self-published books
- MOBI/PRC file
- Cover – at least 1000 pixels, JPEG or TIF, 1.6 height-to-width ratio
- Do not hardcode page numbers
- Have to submit tax information
Barnes and Nobles
- Used to be PubIt, now known as NookPress
- 65% royalties for books between $2.99 and $9.99, 40% otherwise
- 25% of e-book market
- EPUB file
- Cover – 750-2000 pixels (1400 for optimal quality), JPEG or PNG, file size 5KB-2MB
- Have to submit tax information
- 70% Royalties
- 25% of market
- EPUB file
- Cover - 1400 pixels, JPEG or PNG
- Great for enhanced books, videos and illustrations
- Have to submit tax information
- Need to have a MAC and iTunes account to upload directly
- Need to download iTunes Producer
- Known as Kobo Writing Life
- 80% royalties
- EPUB file
- Cover – 600-800 pixels, JPEG or PNG
- Have to submit tax information
Another distributor and resource that will help format word files for the different publishing outlets is Smashwords, but they will take a cut of the proceeds on top of the retailers themselves and will lessen average royalties, so Sattar recommends uploading directly to the platforms yourself if at all tech-savvy.
- 60% average royalties
- Cover – 1600-2400 pixels, JPEG
- Have to submit tax information
- Romance novels do great on this site
International Book Numbers, or ISBNs, are not required for e-books, but professional publishers and those printing copies and hoping to sell inside retail stores should consider getting one. They are $125 each and a pack of 10 is $295. They can only be attained from Bowker, the single authority on ISBN and official ISBN agency.
There is also a plethora of websites that let authors sell directly. A “fantastic” one Sattar recommends is GumRoad. These sell-directly sites are great for well-established authors with niches.
The panel switched over to a question and answer section with advice from Andrea Phillips, an award-winning game designer and author, and Deborah Chase, a health and beauty writer who has written 12 books and has built an enormous online consortium of blogs for women over 40.
Q: Why did you decide to self-publish?
Phillips decided to self-publish because she is, she confesses, “crazy impatient.” For her first book, published traditionally, it took nearly a year after it was complete to get it on shelves, which is faster than usual.
“Whereas with my self-publishing experience, the time between deciding I want to write something and the time I actually have it in front of readers is as little as three days,” she says.
Phillips works on many unique projects that tend to be hard sells to publishing companies; she also works in transmedia, creating game-like experiences for readers, a concept that may be lost to a traditional publisher. Her current self-publishing project is a serial – and, by self-publishing, she is able to adapt the story, incorporate reader’s suggestions and guarantee she can continue the series.
Chase was forced into self-publishing because the industry changed and publishers did not want lifestyle books unless the author had attained celebrity status or had a television show. She insists that even though she was forced into it, it was a great liberation.
“You have so much more control. You can market exactly where you know it should be. The time frame is amazing,” she says. “You can treat your book with the respect it deserves.”
Since you decided to self-publish, how did you raise money for your book?
Phillips told a story from a few years ago, a time when she really wanted the new iPhone. She had written a short story, which was not selling, but was convinced she could make enough for a phone from it. She made a deal with her audience. She said, “If I could collect $250 on Kickstarter, I would publish this particular short story on my blog under Creative Commons license, which means anyone can do what they want with it.” She reached her goal in about a day, and raised over $600 overall from a 2,000-word short story.
“That was just an astonishing experience to me that people were willing to give me money that I might not be able to make through a publisher,” she says, and she and her husband both got phones.
In order to create an ongoing revenue stream, Phillips decided to begin writing a monthly serial and to begin a new Kickstarter campaign in order to gauge reader interest. She ended up collecting $7,701 for “The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart.” She includes puzzles and pays an editor and illustrators for monthly art installments. The serial is currently making tons of sales on Amazon and Barnes & Nobles. This serial and self-publishing itself has fetched Phillips many opportunities, including a contract to write a “choose your own adventure” that takes place in this pirate world.
Remember, Kickstarter is free, but does not guarantee an audience unless the user has already garnered a fan base.
What marketing strategy worked best for you and how do you attract your readers?
Chase urges authors to make a website for their book and work on the website while writing. She recommends WordPress, in which a website can be made within an afternoon.
“It is really a fundamental basis of developing your brand,” she says, “and you need a platform that’s all yours.”
A website helps create and establish a universe for fiction. For non-fiction pieces, it allows an author to implement updated information that relates to their story.
Create links with your site and gather a tribe of followers that care about what you say and who will buy your book. Join with other writers and create a consortium based upon common topics and interests. A similar audience will be developed and there is strength in linking and cross promotion.
Chase also recommends looking at an editorial calendar and finding natural PR timings to promote a book. Look for holidays that coincide with themes in a story, or consider the perfect season for a book’s release and promotion. This is important to get the attention when attention would be paid.
Phillips stressed the importance of making friends with other writers on social media and not just focusing on self-promotion, but rather propping up other authors as well.
“If you are promoting someone else’s work there is someone willing to promote yours in return,” she says. You should not talk about yourself more than 30% of the time on social media, which the panelists agreed may even be too high.
What are your opinions about the Kindle Select program?
KDP Select is a promotional program set up by Amazon. An author opts in to sell a book exclusively on Amazon for 90 days; the book will be free for five days in order to promote a project and increase downloads. Sattar sees it work well with a lot of authors, but not for others; as with all things, there are pros and cons.
Chase exemplifies how this program built her business in just a week. Your book may be free for a little while, but it may get some tremendous exposure. Chase recommends trying it.
Phillips has a contradictory opinion on KDP. She detests it, and ever since Amazon changed their ranking algorithms, there is not as much of a visibility boost anymore. When she used it, she did not see a meaningful sales boost. She also says that some people may only download a book because it is free and are less likely to value it. They may not read it or they may leave bad reviews. With KDP, you are not really hitting the people you want to target and she considers it a terrible marketing scheme.
“Unless KDP is giving you a boost of at least 30%, it’s really not worth it,” she continued. Unless there is a boost, “you’re actively losing money by going with an exclusive offer.”
Sattar, like Chase and unlike Phillips, thinks it is great for non-fiction and thinks it gave her “NYC Dessert Guide” a boost in sales. It is also way to increase the number of reviews for your book. It is all about experimentation, and keep in mind exclusivity only lasts for three months; after that, an author may upload his publication to other vendors.
If there is one thing you wish you had known before you self-published what would it be?
“Success comes in a lot of different flavors and sizes,” said Phillips. “What’s worth it for them [big housing publications] to publish and what’s worth it for you to publish are two different things.”
A $3,000 profit for a self-publisher is decent money but a miserable failure for McGraw Hill. Perception matters. With self-publishing, there is no guarantee that one will make tons of money, but there is a good chance one will make some money, and it does not have to be millions to be worth one’s time. Phillips regrets waiting for as long as she did to put her writing out there, and surmises it is OK to start small and build.
The most important thing Chase has learned is to start with a clean manuscript.
“You really need to understand what the manuscript needs to look like before you give it to somebody to convert or convert it yourself,” she says. There are very strict rules in place, which may change within the next few months. E-book designs are limited, and remember e-books can be read vertically or horizontally, in an iPod, phone, a Nook, Kindle or desktops, all different sizes, in color or black-and white. With different generations of each device, a book can and will look different, so the cleanest simplest design is always going to work.
Chase’s biggest regret is not getting one of her first projects re-typed from scratch. She insists authors should learn the basic formatting rules and keep in mind design options, font sizes, etc.
Sattar’s publishing mistake involves her not editing her about me section, and a friend informing her of an error after the book was made public.
“Edit the whole book, not just the book,” she laughingly suggests.
There is a lot of tough technical information involved in self-publishing, but knowing the basic rules and formatting options can greatly optimize the success of an author.
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