Best practices on format for publishing on the Kindle

Best practices on format for publishing on the Kindle

Since I’ve been putting together so much information for members of my critique group on how to choose between self-publishing and traditional, and what to do first if you have decided to go either direction, I created a series of shorts on the Kindle on these topics. The process of formatting these shorts and getting them up was quite an ordeal.

Hopefully sharing what I’ve learned will help some of you get your Kindle books formatted with greater ease.

I read about ten blogs on this, posted to the Kindle community, and bought four Kindle books on the topic. But there are still glitches not everyone covers. This was my experience when everything finally worked, including a Table of Contents TOC file that would appear on the device itself as well as all images showing in the proper size, and no blank pages or strange indentions:

Step 1

  • Decide if you need to strip all formatting out first.
  • Here’s the problem: if you already have a lot of formatting in the book (bold, italics, heading styles, paragraph style, inserted images), it’s going to take a long time to put it all back in by hand. If you did a printed version of the book, or an epub version already, you might want to weep at the thought of doing it all again.
  • But if you don’t take the formatting out, the Kindle version may be a mess, and you’ll have to start over anyway.
  • I look at it this way–if I think it will take me less than half an hour to put the formatting back in, I strip everything. If I used a lot of italics or other quirks that will be difficult to reintroduce, then I give it a go without stripping it all.
  • So make that call. If you are going to strip it all, go to Step 2. If you are going to hope for the best, go to Step 3.

Step 2

  • Find a program on your computer that has plain text only. On PCs, you should have NotePad. On Macs you should have Text Edit on OS X or later. If not, Google “Mac plain text editor” and download one.
  • Open your document and highlight and copy the entire thing. Paste it into NotePad or TextEdit.
  • This is going to remove everything except the words, punctuation, and returns at the end of paragraphs. All images and hyperlinks and formatting is gone.
  • Copy this newly stripped text and paste it into a new Word document.

Step 3

  • Turn on the “Show paragraph marks’” tool in Word so that you can see dots where the spaces are and paragraph marks. The button looks like this:
  • The thing that makes the indents screwy on the Kindle is an extra space at the end of a sentence. Look for these. You can do a search and replace to remove any spaces followed by a paragraph (the symbol for a paragraph mark when you are search and replacing is ^p.) Replace them with just the ^p.
  • Also look for two paragraphs in a row. Do a search for ^p^p and replace it with the single ^p.
  • Put any italics, bookmarks, or hyperlinks that were stripped back into your document.
  • Once those are fixed, you are ready to get the format ready to generate a table of contents that can be used by the Kindle.

Step 4

  • Use the Heading 1 Style to create both a prettier document as well as a TOC.
  • Highlight each chapter heading and apply Heading 1 style. Don’t worry what it looks like just yet. Just apply them all.
  • If you have sub heads, apply the Heading 2 style anywhere you want a second level of formatting. You will have the option to add these to the table of contents or leave them out.
  • Reinsert any images. Use the “insert” tab and choose “picture” to navigate to the location of the image. Do NOT copy and paste images into your document. Click on them to resize. I made all mine three inches wide, letting the length fall wherever it should to stay proportional, and they were perfect on both Nook and Kindle. Now center them.
  • Add any page breaks where you would like the Kindle to force a new page. You might want to do this after chapter headings, or before images, to make them fall in a better location. Add page breaks by selecting the “insert” tab and choosing “page break.” Do NOT hit a bunch of returns or spaces.
  • Now, if you did not like the look of the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style, or even your normal body style, go ahead and change them now. Find the box with the style in it (they are across the top when you are in the “home” menu, and RIGHT click. Then choose “modify.” You will see the usual boxes come up to change fonts, paragraph style, indent, etc. Change it there and it will automatically update the style throughout your document.
  • You are done with the Word document. If you have EVER used track changes on this document, go in to the Review tab and click “Accept all changes.” If you do not do this, the next step will have both the old text and the new text of anything you have ever changed in the document. (I’m saving you a week of my life here trying to figure out why my e-book kept getting worse each time I fixed it.)

Step 5

  • Save the file as a .doc file (.docx is no good for anything when doing e-pub.)
  • At this point we branch again. Some people are happy to just upload the .doc file to the Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP) site and be done. This might work for you. It did not work for me. I wanted a TOC that you could access from the Kindle menu, and a .doc file will not do this.
  • I also had blank pages, and my images did not show up correctly. In fact, the file was so large that the KDP uploader repeatedly crashed and gave me errors. My first book was actually a picture book, so it had many many images that had to be placed exactly with the text.
  • If you find your .doc file is not working as is, or if you want that menu-driven TOC, then go to step 6. If you are ready to try an upload, go to Step 11.

Step 6

  • Open your .doc file and SAVE AS. This time change the “save as type” to save your file as a web file, FILTERED (*.htm, *.html)
  • Do NOT move this file after you create it, as links were made to a nearby folder where your images and other data are stored. Mobipocket is going to need those in step 8.

Step 7

  • If you use a PC, download MobiPocket Creator. It’s free and you can find it here.
  • If you use a Mac, download Calibre instead. Find it here. You ‘re on your own at this point, as I have only used MobiPocket. But read the MobiPocket instructions to see the general idea of what to do next.

Step 8

  • Open MobiPocket, and under “Import from Existing File,” choose HTML.
  • Find the file you just created with the Save As on Word and import it.

Step 9

  • Click on “Cover Image” on the left and find the cover to your ebook. Click the update button below the image once it is imported.
  • Click on Table of Contents on the left.
  • You will get a set of forms to generate the Table of Contents. Where it says “tag name” and “first level,” type H1 in the box. This will make all the chapter headings you put in Heading 1 style be part of the table of contents. If you have subheads with Heading 2 style, then type H2 in the “second level” box. It will add those too.
  • Click “Update.”

Step 10

  • Click the “Build” button in the blue bar across the top. This will create your e-book.
  • If all goes perfectly, you get a happy green checkmark.
  • If it doesn’t, you will get a list of errors. The most common error is that you moved that HTML file and it can’t find the images it is looking for. The second most common error is that you didn’t use proper heading styles in Word, so the H1 or H2 command was useless.

Step 11

  • You are ready to upload to the Kindle. Go to the Kindle Direct Publishing Web Site.
  • If you have not created your account yet, do that. You’ll have to enter a lot of things I’m not going into here–the book title, author, description, as well as set your bank account for the royalty payments and set the price of your book. You can change that price on the fly, but books are settling in at $2.99 to $4.99. You can run a 99-cent special to start and change it later if you like. I personally only do 99 cents for short works. $2.99 kicks in the better royalty rate.
  • CHECK your file. Download the Kindle reader for your PC or Mac or even your phone. Once it is loaded, double clicking the .prc file created by Mobipocket will automatically open your book on the Kindle reader. If you have an actual Kindle, by all means email or USB upload the .prc file to your device.
  • When it is time to upload your book file, find the .prc file in the folder where you saved your Mobipocket version. Do not upload the .htm file. It was incomplete.
  • Double check the file one last time in the previewer.

One problem I had is that when I tried uploading a NEW version of my book to the web site, it was not updating the previewer. I was still seeing an old version. Since I did not feel confident that Amazon was actually using the newest version of the book, and since the book was not on sale yet, I went ahead and deleted that book and started over. (Another five days of my life I’m sparing you, figuring out that it was Amazon’s problem, not mine, that the book wasn’t looking any better in their previewer.)

If you have a print version of the book that needs to match up with the new e-book, Amazon claims they will put them together on their own within a week. I’ll come back here in a week to update and let you know if that happened. Barnes and Noble has never gotten the Nook and print versions of our book together, as you can see here and here. Trust me, I’ve told them. Repeatedly. I finally just wrote a review of the paperback and said to go see it on the Nook.

Some day I might right a blog post about my epub creation experience for the Nook and iPad. It had problems (you MUST use Sigil), but was much less difficult than the Kindle.

Good luck with your book, and many happy sales!

Choosing agents or self-publishing in an ever-changing world

Choosing agents or self-publishing in an ever-changing world

It’s hard for a writer to know what to do these days.

Everyone knows established writers are going independent after turning down six-figure deals from publishers due to poor contract terms, especially for e-books.

And self-published writers have made millions on their own just to sign traditional deals.

But those are isolated incidents. What do those actions mean for you, the unpublished writer with a bunch of novels on your hard drive?

I’m going to run through the history of what has happened in publishing since March, and end with some advice on what you, the writer with a book ready to go, should do during these changing times.

Talking ’bout a revolution

If you aren’t aware of the change in attitudes that began a couple months ago, read the blog post that started it all, a dialog between established authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath comparing the new self-publishing model to traditional contracts (or, as they call it, “legacy” publishing).

Since the craziness began, more layers have been added. Agents began taking their authors’ back list titles, ones where the e-book rights had never been sold, and published them under an agency imprint, cutting the original publishing companies out of the deal.

Some of the agent deals were fine–15% as usual and well-defined costs coming out for covers and formatting. In-house editing was not an extra cost, the same as prepping a book for submission to houses.

Other deals were sketchy, with unusual percentages for the revenue split (50/50 of the net) with strange clauses about royalties being paid “after costs” without defining those costs.

Some authors worried that with agents jumping on the e-publishing bandwagon, they might not be as impartial when negotiating contracts with traditional publishers, since they could be publishing a promising e-book themselves.

And who would watch out for the authors’ interests in the contract if the agent was one of the beneficiaries IN the contract? In the UK, agents are considering changing their code of ethics to allow them to become publishers.

Publishing client work is currently a violation of agent ethics.

Then the publishers pushed back. Random House cut the agent out of an e-book deal, citing that the agent was now a publisher.

Forever, and ever, you pay

Soon, the issue of what the agents might do to earn their percentage when publishing e-books arose. Readers don’t know the agency names, and so their imprint carries no more weight than a self-published author. The agencies are having the book formatted and the cover made, but these costs are charged against royalties. The authors could hire people to do this at a fixed cost and not a forever percentage of their earnings. (Plus decide for themselves how much to spend.) Smashwords has a list of people who provide these very services.

With all this going on, some popular bloggers are insisting everyone dump their agents if the agents do e-publishing or if they are changing their contracts to add phrasing such as in perpetuity, which can mean your book will pay them even if they fail to sell it, and you decide to self-publish.

So what do you do if you have a book ready to meet the world? Query agents? If so, which ones? Those agencies that only go through traditional publishers or those that also have an in-house e-book option? How do you know if your agency agreement is safe, since agents seem to be increasingly covering their interests as well as yours?

Or do you go it alone? Put that book out there and hope for the best?

Dark days for writers

I belong to a couple writer forums, and panic seems to be setting in. The traditionally published authors defend their choice to go the regular route, even if they got poor e-book terms and little marketing support. They believe in the system and worry that thousands of crappy e-books clutter the market.

Even though most traditionally published books do not sell well and do not earn anything beyond the advance, the author did get money on the table and did not have to worry about editing, covers, or distribution.

If they had e-published, they would have spent their own money on the cover and formatting, worked a lot harder to get their book ready for the market, and probably lost money rather than letting the publishing company take the hit.

Because the bottom line is: most books don’t make money.

There, I said it.

If you want to make more per hour than the guy sacking your groceries, you’ve picked the wrong profession. You do it because you love writing and you have a story to tell.

And there is that chance, that teensy-but-very-real chance, that you will break out and make a lot of money.

The fact is, the odds are against you either way.

Both traditional authors and self-published authors break out and become hits. More often, both traditional authors and self-published authors work very hard, and their books go mostly unnoticed.

Check the hard numbers on sales of self-publishing authors.  Will you be one of those who sells 60 copies in 6 months? Or will you be the lucky author who sells 30,000?

Then consider the agent route. You will most likely spend a year querying, possibly never signing with one, and even if you do, possibly never getting your book sold. You will have lost a year or two and be back at square one (possibly having signed an agency agreement that limits your options.)

But let’s say that goes perfectly. You sign an agent easily, they sell the book easily. Let’s look at what happens to your money even if you sell your book to a big publisher for $100,000 or more. You still can’t quit your day job.

I know this is too much information. I just wanted it all in one place. So now, the advice.

A Simple Plan

1. Query agents first, always.

If you succeed and find someone with a simple contract and huge enthusiasm for your work, you have an ally in this crazy world. Even if a few request your book but ultimately reject, you know you have something good–most of all, a query letter than can become your sales paragraph for your self-publishing venture.

If no one asks for anything, you still have information. Your query doesn’t work. Something’s wrong. You aren’t ready to self-publish because if an agent isn’t interested, most likely buyers won’t be either. You will put time and effort into the wrong part of process–publishing too fast rather than getting your book into good form.

2. Deciding not to sign

If you get lots of interest, but no one ultimately represents you, or if you feel the agent who is interested in you has a contract you can’t live with, has begun e-publishing, or just isn’t as responsive or as good a fit as you’d like, you’re in a good place. You can choose to go with a medium or small press and start the process again, or you can take your winning story idea and killer query to shape your self-published e-book.

3. If you’re ready to e-pub

So let’s say either the agent failed to sell the book, or you narrowly missed representation or turned it down. You can shelve the book and start another. Or go it on your own. Realize that the #1 factor in e-publishing success is having more than one book. Even if all you can squeeze out is an Amazon short that relates to the novel, get more than one thing up. If you have a series or similar books, get  at least two ready so you have two chances to hit. The more spaghetti (well cooked, well seasoned spaghetti, mind you) that you can throw at the wall, the more likely something will stick.

4. How to e-pub

First, GET A GOOD COVER. It can vary from $50 to $800, but find someone who understands how to make a cover that

1. uses legal images

2. is eye catching at both thumbnail and full size

3. isn’t a blatant fail in design or font usage. YOU may not have an eye for this. In fact, you probably don’t.

Second, formatting. If you have a lot of technical know-how and a fair amount of spare time, learn the ropes yourself. I’ve seen some pretty unreadable e-books, not because someone didn’t pay to have it done, but because someone got an epub created and stuck it on all the e-readers without checking how it came out in the end.  What looks perfect on the Nook can be a disaster on the Kindle (although if Amazon adds the epub format as is rumored, this will help.)

Whether you format that e-book yourself or pay to have it done, learn the difference between the Nook and the iBook and the Kindle. You can download all the majors to your computer without having the readers. Do not skip this step!

You’ve spent enough time here–now go! Off to QueryTracker to find agents. Then to Smashwords to learn about e-book formatting. Then into your published future, for better for worse, for richer, and hopefully not poorer.