Monday, June 24, 2013

This Idiot's Guide to Ebooks

by Jennifer Harlow

I'm lucky in that I have one foot in both publishing worlds. I was blessed with what many dream of, a book deal with an actual publisher. If you go into the mystery section of Barnes & Noble chances are you'll find a Jennifer Harlow there. Eventually six of them, at the very least. The first time I saw one, I almost burst into tears and had to flee. It was one of the best moments of my life. But with the slow seemingly “death” of brick and mortar bookstores (still miss you Borders), mergers of the big publishing houses, and boom of ebooks most authors may never get that experience. As of right now the ratio of physical vs. ebooks sold is 60/40 but just three years ago it was 90/10. We all knew what happened to the music industry when iTunes came around. (I can't remember the last time I bought an actual CD.) So times, they are a'changin. If that’s a good or bad thing is up for debate, but my gypsy soul wanted to give this new time a try.

At the bare minimum you need a manuscript, a cover, and a blurb, all of which you can slap together yourself. Might cost you nothing. Put it up on Amazon and congrats, you're an author. This is wonderful if you just want friends and family to read it or just for bragging rights. From my research, this seems to be the standard. 90% of ebooks only sell about 50 copies. This is the equivalent in the traditional publishing world of making a living as a writer, of which only about 5% of authors can. But since I want to reach more than my immediate circle, and I'll bet you would too, you have to be willing to spend some money and time on this. I spent a full week researching the ebook racket, comparing companies and prices, hitting blogs for the best formatters and cover designers, learning if I need an ISBN and LCCN, deciding if I want print copies too, if Kindle Select was worth it, how to promote, etc. My mind was awash with information. But it was fun. I hate studying but love to learn. And here is what I learned, with the help of my friends Alan Orloff and Emily Kimmelman:

1) Before you do anything, work on your manuscript. I've had A LOT of feedback from Beta readers, my agent, even publishers on how to fix my book. It's been edited about twelve times, so I decided with this one to skip a professional editor. But I DO NOT recommend this. For the next Galilee book I plan to hire one. Things like missing commas, slow pacing, clunky dialogue all separate you from the 90%. You want to be a professional, you need a professional presentation. That includes making sure you have a Title Page, Copyright page that includes the ISBN and LCCN (more on those later) among others, dedication, acknowledgements, and author biography. 

2) Manuscript in ship shape and professional looking? Good. Next comes possibly the most important part: the cover. Once again, this is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Think about the last ebook you took a chance on? What initially drew you to it? Yep, the cover. Covers make or break a book. It's the most important marketing tool in your arsenal. Besides the editing, this is where the majority of your money should go. I did the most research on this. I looked at contests, inside ebooks (the artist is usually listed) I liked, and went to their websites to view their samples. I had no idea what I wanted my cover to look like except it needed bold colors, was moody,  and had something superhero on it. Damonza won by a landslide. His prices range from $195-$395 for ebook only. He is the premier for a reason as witnessed by my cover which is a freaking work of art. Don't skimp on this one.

3) Now comes the business side of publishing. One of my big questions was, do I need an ISBN? An ISBN is how your book is cataloged and identified. This is kind of a gray area if you really need one for ebooks or even print self-published ones. Some sites said yes, others no. If you go through companies, or even Createspace as I did for my physical copies (see item 7 ) they'll give you one, but then they control the ISBN. But since I'm a professional who has a toddler's grasp of copyright law, I decided to err on the side of caution and get some. To do this, you go to Bowker and create an account. When you do this, congrats! You have your very own publishing imprint! I named mine Devil on the Left. When you've created this, then it's time to buy your imprint's ISBNs. One costs $100 but ten cost $250, and you need a separate ISBN for every version (ebook/print/audio etc.) so buy the ten. This way you 100% own the copyright of your books and you're technically a publisher. More bragging rights!

4) Okay you have your cover and manuscript including copyright page with your ISBN on it. Now to get the manuscript into digital form. Once again, I recommend going professional. I am not at all tech literate and there are a million rules for formatting. Seen ebooks with no indentations or entire blank pages? Want to read something else by them? Nope. Hire a formatter. Once again I went with Damonza and got a deal for doing both formatting and cover with him. I got both ePub and MOBI (you can do PDF yourself from the Word document). When it came time to put it on Kindle I just had to upload the MOBI file. Easy peasy.

5) Now the blurb. This is the product description for the book. The cover gets them to read this, which really sells the book. Spend time on it. My agent and I wrote this one to send around to publishers so I was covered, plus I've been writing blurbs for ten years, but if you haven't maybe contract this one out too. If not then just make sure you use concrete imagery, don't give too much away, and really focus on the first sentence. 

6) Okay, I got everything. Time to publish the sucker. This is the easy part. Just set up an account at KDP and follow the instructions. But there is a caveat. They'll ask you if you want to enroll in Kindle Select. Once again I've heard arguments for and against. If you chose it you cannot publish on Nook or anywhere else for at least three months. The truth is, if you can't make it on Amazon you ain't making it anywhere. Enroll. That way you can do the five day giveaway thing and potentially get ten thousand people to download it. Sure you don't make any money but they may buy the second or third in the series. Another important thing is keywords for searching. I used "superhero, epic sci fi, hard boiled, etc" so whenever someone searches those words mine will come up. Don't get too general or specific though.

7) You got your ebook up! Huzzah! Now ask yourself if you want to do print too. You should. If not to sell them then at least to have physical copies for reviewers. Some will only take physical copies like when you do a Goodreads giveaway or at libraries. I used Createspace. Make sure you have changed the ISBNs but you can use the same Word document you sent to the formatter. You upload it and their program formats it for you. Then you create a cover using their templates, send it for review and you have a book. You can sell it on Createspace, Amazon, and if you spend $25 you can even get it to book distributors who buy for real bookshops. And if you go a step further perhaps even libraries. To get into the Library of Congress you need an LCCN. They only accept print books where you have your own imprint and ISBN. You fill out their form and they'll review you stuff. It'll take from a day to a week. At least this way you have a chance to get your baby into libraries, but don't hold your breath.

So, in total I spent about $825 on Justice so far (not counting the blog tour and other publicity stuff yet to come.) The usual average is about $1250 with an editor. I need to sell about 420 books just to break even. (Slowly getting there.)

One of the big questions floating around is which is better, traditional or self publishing? I've done both and honestly I don't have a verdict yet as I've only been at the latter a short time. Both have strengths and weaknesses, but so does everything in life. I'm a total control freak, and love my freedom, so the fact I got to have complete control over the back cover copy, cover, the title, all of it was nice. And the fact I get 70% of every book sold (a little over $2) instead of 10% is great. The downside is I front all the money, take all the risk, and unlike an advance from a publisher, I'm guaranteed no money. Plus with traditional you reach a wider audience (not everyone has joined the revolution) and get to see your book in stores. I'm doing about the same amount of publicity work on the ebook as I did for the others. But from a logic perspective, if you can go traditional, do. I wouldn't be a member of Mystery Writers of America or Horror Writers Association without going traditional. Gain experience with the publishing world, a fan base and connections then maybe branch out on your own if your gypsy soul commands it. Remember, everyone and their mother can and is publishing on Amazon. You're one voice among two million, it's damn hard to be heard. Hope this post makes it that much easier. 

Do you have any tips for ebooks, either the product or the marketing? I still read more physical books than ebooks, do you? Why is there so much us vs. them mentality when it comes to this topic?


MB Dabney said...

This is GREAT. Thank you very, very much.
Doesn't make the decision any easier but with knowledge perhaps come clarity.

Jennifer Harlow said...

You are welcome.