Clearly, free is everyone's favorite four letter word. Smashwords sends me an email every time someone buys a copy of One Last Quest, and I've been watching with great glee as a new message pops into the mailbox about every hour over the last few days, ever since that freebie coupon code took effect. Right now, the magic "copies sold" number is 40 -- three copies actually sold-for-money sold, and another thirty seven downloaded since the coupon took effect.
Does this mean my readership is a bunch of cheap bastards? YES. And I love you all for it.
So to celebrate the midpoint of the week of freeness, here's the promised "lessons learned" post.
Picking a Distributor
I was already familiar with Smashwords, and I liked how their aptly-named "meatgrinder" software churns out multiple electronic files from a single, carefully-formatted upload. Their royalties are generous, even on a cheap book like mine, and frankly, I kind of like the "everybody in all together" attitude of the site. Yes, there's a lot of pr0n-ish vampire novels about, and it's easy to get swallowed up in the noise. Direct-linking to the book is way more effective than trying to chance across it on their site.
Free, all the way through. Multiple file formats and distribution channels, including one just-announced channel that can feed into libraries. Once a customer buys a book, they have access to all revisions of that book, so you don't need to feel guilty about fixing up typos (ahem.) ISBN assignment is free and easily done, and you use the same electronic ISBN in all the other places you might want to upload your book.
Approval for the distribution process to other retailers like Apple and Sony is slow -- I've been waiting two weeks, which seems to be the minimum, and I'm about to update the file with a new corrected copy. Does this restart the approval process? I don't know. Very little hand-holding in the process: this is a DIY operation, and formatting your manuscript according to their rules is fiddly.
The Smashwords style guide is so particular that the resulting document can serve as the foundation for other distributors with just a few changes to the styles.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room: ignore it at your own risk. Amazon's attitude towards traditional book publishing houses seems to always be making news, and I can certainly see how a huge operation with no brick-and-mortar presence wants to shift the world to electronic downloads: it makes great business sense.
It's rather hard to track down, but Amazon has the Kindle Direct Publishing system, which is very Smashwords-esque. You upload a formatted Word document and a cover image, there's a vetting process, you set the price and rights, and after a waiting period, your book shows up as a Kindle download, and is available through Amazon's various international incarnations as well (they handle the currency conversion.)
Amazon is making a big push for their "KDP Select" program, which sounds too good to be true, and thus probably is. The most glaring issue I have with this program is that you sign over exclusive distribution rights to Amazon for your work for 90 days. No selling it anywhere else, at all. This felt like a Bad Deal to me, so I opted out (though it's presented to you each time you log in to check reports.) Mr. Speegle opted to go this route with Pen & Platen and I'm sure that his recent rise to the top of the Anthology chart was helped by the Amazonian marketing muscle that accompanies this program.
Anyhow, the Amazon upload format is practically the same as Smashwords: add page breaks before your chapters, replace "Smashwords edition" with "Amazon edition" and you're about done. Prepping a file for upload is easy.
Amazon has two royalty levels, 35% and 70%. What right-thinking individual wouldn't choose 70%? Me, of course. It's a very confusing page -- possibly by design -- and my natural skepticism tells me that Amazon isn't giving you 70% of the book price without you giving up something else in turn. It seems to hinge around "delivery costs," which baffles me for an ebook in this era of unlimited-bandwidth cell phone plans. Short version: seems scary, and I don't like the scary.
Very organized. Upload is a snap after Smashwords. Who hasn't heard of Amazon? "Kindle" is becoming synonymous with "e-reader" (even though the Nook is better!)
KDP Select narrows your distribution options, and may involve signing over firstborn or selling soul.
Barnes & Noble
If the KDP program was hard to find, B&N's PubIt! program was nigh impossible. It's referenced in numerous places in their discussion boards, but I had a hard time tracking it down short of a web search to find the signup page. I have a Nook reader from B&N and certainly feel brand loyalty in distributing through them. Also, I'd still be waiting on Smashwords to distribute to B&N, so uploading my own file made the most sense to me.
Sales here are on par with Amazon, honestly. I'm going to experiment with the coupon systems on each and see what happens. There are a number of price-harvesting services that scan the major sellers and look for price drops/coupons: I wouldn't be sad to be picked up by those.
Equally organized. Upload is also trivial after Smashwords. Maybe the only domestic competition left for Amazon.
Is not Amazon.
A Word About DRM
That's "digital rights management" to you, or "the reason you can't share an ebook with a buddy, or read that file you already bought for your Kindle/Nook/Kobo on your computer." In other words: the way your file is encrypted to ensure that it is read only by the paying customer. All distributors will ask you what approach to DRM you want to take, and once you've chosen it for a book, there's no going back short of scrapping the old one and uploading a new one.
To soapbox for a moment, I think DRM is a very, very, very bad idea. It's as secure as any encryption scheme meant to protect paying customers from their own base instincts, which is to say, not at all. DRM makes no distinction between sharing a copy with yourself on another reader and sharing a thousand copies with your friends. I think DRM primarily serves the companies that make the reading devices and the encryption software. Why assume your customers are thieves?
I just started reading Twain's Roughing It on el Nook the other day, and am enjoying it immensely. I can do this because 1) the title is in the public domain, and is thus available from Project Gutenberg and 2) it's available in a variety of DRM-free formats, including one that my Nook reads (the common .epub format.) If my descendents 100 years from now are reading -- and they damn well better be -- I'd like them to be able to look up great-great-great-great grandpa's silly little adventure book and not suffer the same puzzlement that my kids do when I show them an 8-track tape at the thrift store. "Dead format kids, sorry. Your introduction to Herb Alpert will have to wait for another day."
As an writer -- and I think I can call myself that now -- I'm sure that I'm robbing myself of... something. Money? Eh, I'm not going to get rich on a $1.49 piece of amateur fiction. Credibility? Any hope I had of that was gone a long time ago. Honestly, I don't see how anyone's needs are met by DRM here. I want a broad audience, and I want them to read, dammit. If one of them happens to pass my book along to 150 friends, that would be 150 more potential readers.
DRM BAAAAD. READERS GOOOOD.
OK, off the soapbox.
Getting In Print
Thanks to their affiliation with NaNoWriMo, I'm pretty solidly in the CreateSpace camp for making a print-on-demand copy of my book. They usually offer a coupon or special code to NaNo winners which, being cheap, I'm happy to exploit. (Last year was a free proof copy. This year is five free "real" copies.) CreateSpace is also an Amazon company, so you get to leverage that connection or feel icky about it, depending again on your opinion of Amazon. If you're overcome by the ickies, I'd check out Lulu, which seems to be the other big player in this arena within the United States. Both seem to be free, until you start ordering things (proof copies, a copy for mom) or want to take advantage of their professional services (cover design, editing, interior layout, etc..)
One Last Quest is very much a labor of love as well as a grand DIY learning experience: it's a "firsts" book for me. First book worth reading (IMHO.) First book transcribed and edited. First book I let other people read. First book sold. Might as well get another "first" under my belt, right? Besides, there is nothing, nothing so electrifying as holding a physical copy of a book with your name on the outside and your words on the inside. (OK, maybe holding your newborn children wins out there. But they don't come with your own ISBN number, either.)
Print is a different beast, but again I started with my Smashwords digital file, and tweaked a copy for Createspace. Intra-document links went away, obviously, and I added some art to the interior that I omitted from the digital editions. Measurements are critical here, and it took a while to get my word processing program to format the PDF exactly right; wide margins on the inside, and narrow ones elsewhere; page numbers in the outside corners; and getting the front- and back-matter (title page, copyright, about the author) to look correct.
Still: oh, that electrifying proof copy. And oh! The typos. Lesson for next time: don't be so cheap, and get a pre-proof version run off at the copy center. I'm finding far more mistakes on the printed page than I am on-screen.
Preparing for print is a lot more fiddly than ebook preparation. Upload the file, and then wait 24-48 hours for approval (and reports of issues.) Upload or design a cover, and then wait another 24-48 hours for approval. Order a proof (recommended), wait for delivery. If there are fixes, start over. It's a game for the patient, and I'm not a patient person.
One last tidbit: hyphenation and justification. You'd think that a typewriter person would have been aware of this, but no. This is something I honestly don't pay attention to in books that I own, but the right edge of my proof copy seems very ragged to me. I need to review some of my commercial print books at home and see if they are set in a justified width, and have hyphenation. I suspect that they do.
If you come in prepared, it's easy, but it's still like air travel: lots of hurry-up-and-wait. The "cover calculator" tool gives you a handy template that shows exactly where to place your art -- and where not to -- based on the page count and size of your book. I tried to do this by hand: never again.
What-you-see isn't necessarily what-you-get. I cycled through about four cover designs, with layers and textures and so on, and after approval, discovered that the layers didn't, and the textures weren't, and so forth. Simple, flattened designs like the one Rob Bowker made for Pen & Platen are going to give you the fewest surprises. The default covers look default, like PowerPoint slides. Lulu's defaults appear no different.
Pay extra attention to options in your PDF-generating software that talk about "true registration." I spent a couple of days wondering how my text could bleed into margins that I'd clearly set up. This is buried in the paragraph style section in LibreOffice, and it magically fixed the problem.
Ah, I bet you think this section is going to be chock-a-block full of self-deprecating wisdom, don't you?
Honestly, this is the part I'm struggling with the most. Within minutes of getting the "all clear" email from Smashwords, my first inclination was "I need to tell everyone about this" followed immediately by "I wonder if it would be a bad thing to send this everyone on my contact list?" It's a dark day when you suddenly find yourself sympathizing with pill spammers and secret-shopper fraud mailers.
The great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. The bad thing about self-publishing is it appears that everyone is doing it, and except for a few wild outliers (who we hate in public and envy in private) there's not a lot of immediate gratification for the indie author. Forty sales! Well, forty downloads, in the guise of a sale. So what do you do?
I'm blogging about it here, obviously, and I set up a new "books" page here on the blog just to point to the available work, and to start teasing about the next one in the pipeline. I've been known to drop non-subtle hints on the various social media outlets (free book! free book!), and would encourage any readers to pop in to the site where they got the book and leave a review.
In the meantime I keep reloading my "dashboard" page and checking email for that magic message...
41 copies! I could get used to this feeling.