Self-Publishing Interview with Melissa Leong

April 27th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

After talking about my experiences with self-publishing, I reached out to a few other Canadian authors to talk about their experience. First up is Melissa Leong, personal finance columnist for the National Post, who wrote the What Kills Me series under her pen name of Wynne Channing. What Kills Me is a bestselling young adult vampire thriller, so she’s able to provide some great insight into what self-publishing is like outside of Canada-specific non-fiction. Moreover she’s been hugely successful, having sold approximately 50,000 copies of the first two books — What Kills Me and I Am Forever — in the series, with fans clamouring for a third.

Before I get into what we talked about I want to note that Melissa has been very open about her writing and publishing experiences, including publishing a two-part set of articles in the National Post about her experience with the first book, and has had plenty of other interviews about her writing and the content of the books themselves. I didn’t want to use up her valuable time rehashing that stuff, so I encourage you to go and read those articles — here we’ll build on what’s happened behind the scenes since the first book and the related Post articles went up.

I started by asking about her thoughts on editing and using beta readers:

“Editing was extremely important to me, especially being in journalism – I know the magic that an editor can do. They can make a huge difference […] Rewriting is key, as well as having an editor. You need a second eye, and not just beta readers, you need someone who’s a professional.” She used a mix of substantive and copy editing from professional editors, but relied on beta readers to spot plot holes and characterization issues. After that, she used a proofreader for a final polish, and a formatter1 to convert the manuscript into a reflowable e-book file.

For more on her use of beta readers and the questions she put before them, see the end of this post.

For myself and The Value of Simple, the content is intrinsically Canadian, whereas vampires and thrills are international. I was wondering whether her Canadian roots helped build a disproportionate local fan base. Melissa says that most of her readers are from the US and UK, as would be expected from the distribution of the English-speaking population. That was likely helped a bit because she used a UK-based blog promotion service to help drum up interest there. Most of her sales come through Amazon, so many of the Canada-specific issues I talked about earlier in the series would be pretty minor for a more global kind of book like this. She’s also a fan of SmashWords, which gives her the power to generate coupons there for giveaways and reviews.

For the minor debate in cataloguing on whether to use a separate ISBN for each version of the book (e.g. Kindle vs ePub), Melissa chose to go with just one number across her e-book formats.

With two books under her belt, I was really interested to hear what lessons she had learned going in to I Am Forever and what had changed in the intervening years between the first and second book.

“The processes of self-publishing were definitely streamlined between the first and second book,” she told me. Kobo in particular made a big effort to improve their accessibility for self-publishers (and I can back that up — it’s a snap with Writing Life now, vs. my initial experience with Kobo in 2011 where they basically told me to get stuffed if I didn’t have 10+ titles as a publisher).

She was more disciplined the second time around, and got more sleep (cf. her anecdotes in the Post articles from the first book). She set a specific goal, with a deadline (purposely set early, working backwards from a planned timeline), and thought of it as a job. She aimed to write 5k words per week, with a bit of time each day set aside to write.

The second time around also came with a better idea of what was involved in the publishing side and the costs, so she had a budget ready. The first time she just wanted to break even while building her brand and her audience. High on her priorities was to not cut corners — she wanted to pay what it cost for quality work, and focused on what was important. So she paid more for editing, but less on promotion and advertising after having a better idea of what was cost-effective — many ways to advertise books don’t pay for themselves.

To help get people into the series — now that it is a series — the first book is currently available for free, and has otherwise been offered at a low cost. “If you have many books on the shelf under your name, that’s how you make your money, and hope the fans keep coming back for the work.” Also with that interest and audience from the first one she had a pre-order period before releasing the second book, with cover releases, blog book tours, and the ability to pre-arrange reviews to help build buzz.

One thing she was unprepared for with her popularity was pirating, and was surprised to see the book available “for free” on sites so soon after publishing.

“Being a self-published author means that you are an entrepreneur, and that’s something I wasn’t prepared for. I know how to write, how to tell a good story, but I don’t necessarily know how to sell myself or how to sell a product. So that was something I had to work on. And those skills did transfer back to journalism [her day job]. I always found self-promotion really difficult, but I realized that if I didn’t toot my own horn that nobody would do it. Then when I took over the personal finance beat [at the National Post], branding and expanding my personal brand became a goal, to also help the paper.”

A big thank-you to Melissa for taking the time to chat with me. Check out the What Kills Me series on Amazon, and follow Melissa on Twitter (or her alter ego Wynne Channing here).

Footnote 1: and she’s happy to recommend him: Michael Mandarano.
Note that all quotes are my transcriptions from a conversation and any errors are mine.

Podcast & Money 201 Redux

April 23rd, 2015 by Potato

Just a quick post to let you know that I was a guest on the Build Wealth Canada podcast with Kornel Szrejber, and part 1 is now live on his site. We chatted about the book and index investing, mistakes investors make, and more! Be sure to check it out for a chance to win a copy of the Value of Simple as well!

Also, Sandi Martin and I will be returning to TPL to give Money 201 at the Agincourt branch on May 4th. See here for more details on that!

VoS BtS 9: Business Side and Taxes

April 21st, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

Now to put on your business hat: what does it cost to self-publish a book, what can you expect in return, and how do you deal and account for it all?

The biggest cost is time. So very much time. A big part of that is my own fault for wanting to make it good, so I spent a lot of time on revisions, going through it with people, etc. If I just wanted to finish and push it out I could have been done months earlier — though at the minimum quality I would consider acceptable, it still would have represented an investment of hundreds and hundreds of hours of my time. A book should be a labour of love, because the odds of making more on your writing time than you could get doing just about anything else are very slim.

There are a number of hard costs as well. Some will be like the “cost of goods sold” — the incremental cost of making each sale, which are really easy costs to swallow: sell a book for $17, spend $12 in incremental costs, and pocket a few bucks for pizza. Some will be the cost of doing business and of getting your book ready for market, which will come long before your first sale or review: these can be a little harder to swallow and you’ll have to be ready for them before you fully commit to self-publishing. As a ballpark I’d say you should be ready to spend at least $1000 to self-publish your book — which should also give you an idea of the kind of market you need to have ready before you set foot down this road.

Expertise: You can’t do it all yourself and will likely have to hire some part of the process out. Professional editing is the main one to look at, which can vary in cost depending on who you hire, how much work your manuscript needs, the kind of editing required (substantive, style, proofreading, etc.), the genre, and the length. A catchy and pleasing cover may require hiring an artist and/or designer. Then you may need help with formatting and layout, or with creating and coding the ebook files. All-in-all I’d suggest starting with a budget of at least $1000, and preparing for more if you need more help.

Printing: Before you get to having your printer send you nearly final proofs, you’re likely going to print several dozen copies on your home printer for yourself and your early beta readers. While many copies were sent out as electronic files, there are people who prefer to read on paper, and I wanted them to be as happy as possible (after all, many were doing me a favour for the dubious benefit of getting to read the book early). For my own review, checking it across multiple formats in multiple places was the only way to see it in a new light. Many review copies were sent early on as home-printed reports with nice office supply store report covers. A new printer toner cartridge and a thousand sheets of paper or so will vary on your model and what-not, but I had $175 in the budget, and other $6 for report covers (thanks to a Grand and Toy 80% off store closing event — best to budget a bit more than that).

Then when all is done at home you go to the professional printer (e.g. IngramSpark) to get your proofs printed, which costs some money (about $60 for 10 copies), plus set-up fees (about $85, including the inevitable file change after reviewing proofs). All told, I’m at $326 in costs to be print-ready.

After finalizing the book with the printer, I had a bulk order done for myself to have books available at events like the book launch party (”the first print run”). Thankfully, IngramSpark didn’t charge me any brokerage fees to get the books to me in Canada — always a concern when ordering items — and they arrived in plenty of time even with economy shipping. For $816, I had just over 160 copies, a cost of about $5 per copy, though the ~$6/copy from the proofs is a more realistic cost for smaller orders. However, this cost is now in to the “cost of goods sold” rather than “getting ready to publish” part of the budget, so you may think about it differently as you prepare to publish — and if you don’t plan to sell directly, you don’t need to do a print run.

Shipping and Postage: You will be sending copies everywhere, first to publishers as you query and submit manuscripts to chase the traditional publishing dream, then to beta readers and reviewers as you get close to publishing yourself. Any relatives, libraries (including legal deposit), or journalists you want to give copies to will also need shipping. I dropped about $130 at Canada Post before I ever started sending out books to customers (those shipping costs again are part of “cost of goods sold” in my mind).

On top of the postage itself, you’ll need some supplies like envelopes and labels to get your stuff out there. I found Uline was by far the cheapest source of bubble mailers sized just right for a trade paperback (for my book, at 204 physical pages, their #1 bubble mailer is still thin enough with the padding to count as lettermail). They don’t come in small quantities: a box of 100 ran me $44, and now that physical book sales have passed the release and RRSP peak, it looks like I’ll still have a giant box of envelopes left to pass to my heirs.

Advertising: I can’t speak much to what works in advertising for books. I tried Google AdSense, and burned through my trial credit without picking up a single sale from that channel. I had more luck putting ads on Reddit, but I didn’t get precise sales numbers out of that, just clicks. Assuming the clicks from Reddit behaved like my average clicks in terms of conversion to sales, then I had just enough sales to pay for the ads. Exposure is good, so I suppose that was worth it, and I’ll likely do another Reddit ad campaign in the future. I went with VistaPrint to get a poster-sized copy of the book cover done for events, and for business cards and postcards to hand out (and leave behind at restaurants when I’m feeling spammy).

Other: I mentioned in the previous post that I registered my publishing imprint as a business name in Ontario, which ran me $60. I also have a domain name and webhosting, which is relatively cheap (my package runs about $140 CAD for the year).

All told, you may be looking at about $1000-2000 to get ready to publish and start shipping books.

Against this you hope to sell hundreds or thousands of copies to break even and maybe even make a profit for all that time and effort.

Taxes: How now to report all this on your taxes? As you sell books you’ll have revenue coming in from multiple sources: straight profits coming in from your retail partners like Amazon and Kobo, as well as revenues from your direct sales, for which you have a number of expenses (including cost of goods sold). The latter income is clearly business income — self-employment income that you’ll report on a T2125 in your taxes. However, the money from your retail partners looks a lot like royalties, which is a bit more confusing. Line 104 (”other income”) clearly mentions royalties, and kind of sounds right but “royalties with expenses associated with them” go to line 135. Most likely as a self-publisher you will have expenses — all the stuff listed above — even if you don’t have to pay for each incremental book (you’re still paying your own advertising to generate those sales, for instance). That mysterious line 135 comes from the profits on the self-employment T2125 form, so good news: you can roll it all together and report it in the same place.

If you’ve never had self-employment income before this form can be a bit intimidating. There are lots of confusing elements that I honestly have problems with — there’s a line for “delivery, freight, and express”, but then “stamps” supposedly fall under “office expenses.” So where do I put the cost of shipping books to customers? It’s too heavy for regular stamps, so each time I have to visit a post office and pay for the special rate, but it’s still postage/lettermail and not freight or special courier delivery. The worst is which professional fees (like editing or design work) are fees that you deduct right away versus those that create intellectual property (”intangible eligible capital property“) that you depreciate over time? The self-employment taxes are tough enough without having to deal with carrying intellectual property on your books for the rest of your operations.

I don’t mean that to scare you off — from my own experience and other self-employed people I’ve spoken to all of the confusion and vague wording is just treated as creating lots of grey zones in reality. Not sure whether your shipping costs are delivery or office expenses? Flip a coin and move on. Terrible tax advice (which is why this post is not tax advice), but the best I can do, and it seems to work well enough for many. Just be honest, make a best effort, and have your receipts ready: they can recategorize in an audit if it’s really necessary, but as long as it’s reasonable in the first place getting the exact category right on the T2125 should not matter (and the net income will come out the same).

The next thing is that if this is your first endeavour as a self-employed individual you’ll have to consider the business-use-of-home expenses section, where you can count a part of your utilities, rent/mortgage interest, and insurance as a business expense. You’ll have to figure out how much of your home is used for business, then add up all the costs of that home, and can then take the proportion used for business use as an expense. If you work from home and have a space dedicated to your business activities, this is a totally legitimate expense — Wayfare, for example, has been self-employed for years and has a dedicated office in the house that is there solely for her business. So we claim the appropriate part of the home expenses there on her taxes. For myself, I don’t claim anything here — I have a desk, but it would be a tiny percentage of the house, and I use it for a mix of personal and business stuff. In other words, whether I was publishing my book or doing consulting or not, I would still have a desk for surfing the internet and gaming, so I don’t feel justified in claiming its footprint in the house as an expense. However, I may start to in the near future as my for-profit writing activities have increased while my desk-related leisure ones have decreased, so the percentage of time dedicated to business is becoming real. Note that if you want to claim a portion of your rent, you do it here — the line for “rent” higher up on business expenses is for the rent on a specific, dedicated business property.

Summary: I hope this massive series has helped you, and has filled in the gaps that other self-publishing guides leave for Canadians. Remember that you will be acting as a business when you self-publish, even if you’re doing it for love and not aiming for anything more than breaking even. That means some kind of budget, keeping receipts, paying taxes — as well as all the stuff from previous posts on timelines and everything else.

Although this is the last entry on my experience, I’m happy to say that there will be an epilogue featuring tales from other, more successful Canadian self-publishers!

Disclaimer: this post is not meant to be tax advice, but to provide my own experiences as as starting point on a best-efforts basis. I am not a tax expert. Post not microwave safe, keep out of reach of children, use at own risk.

VoS BtS 8: Registrations and Cataloguing

April 16th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

There are lots of databases that you want to (or must) register your book in.

The most basic one is to get an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) to uniquely identify your book. In the states you have to purchase an ISBN from someone, so you’ll often see a free (but restricted-use) ISBN listed as a feature on some print services, including CreateSpace. For Canadians that doesn’t apply — we can get them for free from Library and Archives Canada/Collections Canada. Once your account is set up, getting an ISBN is instantaneous.

Most retailers are set up to use your ISBN as an identifier in their catalogue, and the standard for the barcodes on the backs of books is to encode the ISBN. So whenever possible, you want to get yourself an ISBN, which is an easy decision as a Canadian because they’re free for us (if you read other guides to self-publishing there will be some hand-wringing on this issue because ISBNs can be costly). For print editions, even if you don’t choose to encode the price in your barcode, include at least the ISBN.

You are supposed to get a different ISBN for every format and edition of your book. So one for print, one for e-book — but then a debate arises: is the Kindle e-book a different format from the ePub e-book? Is the PDF different from both of those? The librarians and cataloguers seem to suggest that yes, you should be getting multiple ISBNs for your e-book, however in practice nearly everyone uses one ISBN for all e-formats (and another for print) because it vastly improves the ability to cross-reference and search for your e-book. I used one ISBN for the ePub and AZW3 versions of the e-book, which are automatic conversions of the same basic format (reflowable XML-based text for e-readers), but considered the PDF versions to be different. However, because the PDF versions are not available except as part of an e-book bundle with the existing ISBN, I did not register for a third/fourth ISBN to cover the PDFs.

Another thing that you can register for through Library and Archives Canada is cataloguing-in-publication (CIP). This service looks at your book’s content and a cataloguer decides on the call number to give it in the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal systems, and does so before you print the final version (or upload the final e-book). They will give you a block of text to put on the copyright page, in a standard format. Then when your book goes live, booksellers and libraries know just how to classify it, with the information right there at the front. While I’m always in favour of making the librarian’s life easier, CIP is totally voluntary and is not a great marketing tool in its own right; aside from needing some space in your timeline, it’s also not hard to apply for.

I think it’s important to note that CIP took forever. Their website says “at least 10 days” which would lead you to think that it would be close to 10 days but a little more. I planned for up to 20 days, thinking I was being super conservative. In the end I had to submit my proof files to IngramSpark without the CIP information in order to make my timeline (I added it to the front matter along with other changes to the proof before the final print run). CIP finally came after 29 or 30 days (depending on whether you count the day it arrived). Hopefully this post will give people an idea on how long cataloguing-in-publication takes, so you’ll be ready to submit your material to LAC at least a month before you have to submit your book block — though you do need many things like the title page finalized first for CIP.

Another thing to be ready for is the requirement to submit copies of your book to Library and Archives Canada, called legal deposit. For print books, you will have to submit two copies shortly after publication (for publication runs over 100 — and better to assume the over than have to ship a second copy if you go over). They also accept e-books to legal deposit.

When it comes time to create the listing for your book, you will have to choose which categories it belongs to. While retailers have sometimes added sub-categories of their own, they pretty much follow the BISAC categorization scheme and subject codes. Be sure to give yourself some time to consider which BISAC headings your book belongs in — you can usually select up to three.

As a self-publisher, you may also want to register your “imprint” as a business name in your province — for example, I have Blessed by the Potato Publishing registered in Ontario. It costs $60 for a 5-year term in Ontario, and you can do it online in minutes. Unfortunately I can’t comment on the costs or procedures in other provinces.

VoS BtS 7: Publishing a Print Version

April 7th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

Printing on demand is really the innovation that has made it possible for people to self-publish print books without needing to commit a lot of money to a print run, while simultaneously dealing with distribution. Many local print shops will be able to do a small print run for you if you prefer to manage your own inventory, however I found it nearly impossible to compare the offerings of local businesses to those of the online giants.

The main PoD companies you’ll come across online are IngramSpark (and its sister, LightningSource), CreateSpace (CS), and Lulu. Both IngramSpark (IS) and LightningSource (LS) are divisions of Ingram, a massive world-wide printer and distributor of books — many large traditional publishers use Ingram for their distribution and printing. You’ll likely find many discussions and comparisons to LS, which was formerly the only way to print through Ingram. IngramSpark just launched in late 2013/early 2014, and now LS is trying to target small publishers with more than one title to their name, while IS targets the self-publisher with just one or two titles to put out. LS has more advanced options, while IS is more streamlined and easy to use. CreateSpace is part of Amazon, while Lulu is independent.

Lulu’s pricing is a bit off compared to the other options, but they aim to have a much wider menu of services (at additional cost) that you can get through them so that it’s more of a one-stop solution, including hooking you up with editors and cover artists. Lulu doesn’t look to charge any set-up fees, but has per-book production costs that are about 40% higher, which means that if you don’t need the services they provide the decision really comes down to IS vs CS.

For Canadians, the tight competition between IS and CS comes down to whether you think most of your sales will be in Canada or not. Under IS, you can set the pricing and wholesale discount of your book by country, whereas CreateSpace will dictate your non-Amazon, non-US royalties to you as part of their “expanded distribution” network — forcing a 60% discount on your native Canadian sales, even those through Amazon’s .ca site. I ended up choosing IS, in large part because I expected 100% of my sales to be Canadian (the material is specific to Canada); if your material is international in nature (as with Wynne Channing’s I Am Forever, a work of fiction — we’ll hear more from her at the end of the series), then being Canadian won’t really matter and you may prefer CS.

The rest of this will focus on my experiences with IngramSpark.

I’ll note that everything is of course still evolving: when I signed up with IS they only had two options for wholesale discounts (40% and 65%), but now they allow you to fine-tune and control it a bit more to anything between 30 and 55% (but still not quite as much control as with the more advanced LS platform). There was an annual fee to keep your book in the Ingram distribution catalogue before, which has recently been waived (likely due to competition as all of the major players have waived their distribution fees). It was only $12/yr before, so if this proves to be a temporary relief, the fees are not huge.

Discounts: as a publisher, you sell your book to retailers at a low price, they then mark it up to the list price and make some margin there — that’s the wholesale discount. With discounts it’s a tough balance: a store won’t carry your book if there’s nothing in it for them, but you need to make money too, and you will have fixed costs for printing that will come out of what the retailer pays IS/CS/Lulu (you can use their calculators to see for your format and page count, but expect it to be ~$4 US/copy). A higher discount can force you to drive your list price point higher, which may then eat into your sales (especially if you cross over some threshold for the genre), but set it too low to keep more for yourself and your book may never see the light of day, or never be featured with a special sale price. With IS at the time I didn’t have a ton of options, so I went with 40%, but that seems about right — many people say Amazon will list a book with less of a discount (as little as 20-30% and Amazon will likely still pick it up from LS), and that most bookstores need more of one (~60% is a traditional wholesale discount), however most bookstores won’t be taking your book anyway, and if you do the work of marketing it to them, they’ll likely still take it at ~40%.

Markets and Pricing: IS will let you control which markets and at which price your book sells at, but you must enable sales in the US (I was not expecting that, hoping to only offer my book in Canada). The thing I really didn’t understand at first is that it appears as though Amazon.ca still orders books through the US arm of the distributor, so you’ll get a royalty in USD based on your US price. This also affects your Canadian pricing — Amazon will ignore your manually determined CAD price (and what’s in the barcode and on the back of the book) and just use the US price with a currency conversion factor applied. Be sure to have your pricing set right the first time the book goes live, as they will not update the “list price” on the book’s page.

Determining what price to list your book at is a bit tricky. You’ll want to start by looking at what your competition is pricing at, but you’ll have to keep your cost structure in mind (some bestsellers will have economies of scale you may not be able to match as a self-publisher).

Getting listed in electronic bookstores like Amazon and Indigo is easy — IngramSpark (or CS/Lulu) will take care of that for you, and the online booksellers will likely pick you up because there’s no cost to having another book in their database. They recommend having your title set up 6 weeks in advance for it to percolate out to the retailers, but for me it only took about 3 weeks to show up on their sites. The retailers will pick up your book’s information from the printer, but not necessarily faithfully. I’ve already talked about the CAD retail price issue with The Value of Simple, but the description is also a touch wonky: it’s clearly three separate paragraphs in the Ingram catalogue, but some retailers just have one giant block of text there.

Getting into bricks and mortar bookstores is a whole other matter. I did not bother, but my understanding of the process is that you can either pay an exorbitant amount of money for a certain amount of time on the shelf, or you can call up every single individual manager of Chapters/Coles locations to convince them to order copies of your book. In IS you can select whether or not your book is returnable, and even whether you want returned copies shipped to you or destroyed. Given that they charge ~$20/copy to ship it to you, and they only cost ~$5 to print, it really only makes sense to return and destroy. Being able to return unsold books does reduce the risk for bookstores taking your book while increasing your risk. But again to be realistic, it’s unlikely you’ll get shelf space as a self-published author anyway.

Direct Sales: A big way self-publishers sell their books — especially when starting out — is through direct sales, whether in person at events or through your own website. I don’t know how Amazon is able to ship so quickly and so cheaply (a very small minimum order seems to generate enough margin for them to ship for free), but for individuals in Canada books can be expensive things to ship. I ordered padded envelopes from uline, which was by far the cheapest option I could find, and the envelopes are actually quite good. The book is thin enough that I can send it by regular lettermail — $5.30 per book after tax — and it’s a good thing too because parcel mail or expresspost is prohibitively expensive. On my direct sales website I include a discounted cost for shipping, and eat part of the cost out of my mark-up on the books.

Lulu and CS provide a neat direct sales option, creating a sort of higher-margin ministore for you on their site. However, the shipping costs here may be deal-breakers for your Canadian readers. If IS offers something like that, I haven’t found it — but prefer to order a print run and manage it myself anyway, and my personal store is all set up.

Libraries: As part of the cataloguing-in-publication service, your book will be included in a listing of new books published in Canada; as far as I can tell only one library system actually found the book this way. Most libraries have some kind of form where you can let them know about your book, and my success here has been mixed. I offered free copies to three “hometown” library systems: London Public Library and Toronto Public Library have not responded or included it in their catalogue; the Prince Edward Island Library did (and the uptake there has been great, with all copies almost always checked out and in patrons’ hands, sometimes with holds).

Let’s Get Ready to Publish: So you’ve decided on IS (or are just following along with my experience here), and you’re ready to get your book out to the world and into your hands for events.

First, you have to create an account and set up a title. They [used to] advertise the cost to set up a book as $53 Canadian, but I was actually charged $49 US — the Canadian figure is just an estimate based on exchange rates. With the credit card fees and weakening dollar, that ended up being more than advertised ($56.42). (note: I see they’ve just now stopped listing prices for Canadians)

They will provide you with an InDesign template (including a barcode) for your cover, and it’s actually a good template, clearly marking the bleeds, the danger zones, and the safe zones for content. You can choose whether your barcode has a price embedded in it, or if it will just be an ISBN. So with the interior contents (book block) in a standards-compatible PDF, and my cover designed and turned into a standards-compatible PDF, I was ready to upload. It took a few days for them to verify the files and make the book available to me to order proofs, which I did (I ordered 10, to check over and to hand out as advanced review copies or ARCs).

The proof step is an important one: you will spot an error or misprint that escaped you in all previous electronic and letter paper print reviews, or something new that cropped up in sending your files through IS. There is a change fee of $25 to upload new files and revise the book (note that the fee applies to the cover and book block separately so if you have to change everything it’ll be $50), expect at least one revision on at least one part of the book and just build it into your budget. This process is also why you want to have a nice lead time of a few weeks before your book is officially available.

One thing I had trouble finding out in advance was whether there would be customs brokerage fees on the shipments of books from IS — one document they had on their website said there wouldn’t be for Canadians, another said there would be for all non-US clients, as did the warning while I was paying. I’m happy to say that there were no brokerage fees on shipping with IS (it would have added about $1/copy to my cost direct sales cost if there were, as well as a great deal of anger because brokerage fees are BS).

I did not use their services for the e-book, but rather created my own ePub and AZW3 versions through Calibre and directly worked with the Kobo Writing Life and Amazon Kindle Direct Program systems (which I was already familiar with from the first book) — see part 4 and part 5 for more on the e-book creation and publishing aspects.

They will note in several places that there can be inconsistencies/variances in the printing and cropping of up to 1/16”, and I was surprised to see that this was not just a cover-your-ass kind of warning, but indeed the variability you can expect to see. I figured that the whole print run might have a shift in the positioning of the trim by up to that margin of error in one direction or another, but would mostly be essentially perfect to the naked eye, and consistent through a run. In reality each copy has its own positioning, and the full 1/16” variability is in force even across just a few dozen copies. While you would never notice with any given copy in your hands (unless you ignore their advice about thin outside borders that might get cropped weird), if you stack them up side-by-side you can see the shifting of elements. When designing your cover keep that in mind, and try not to put anything that’s small enough for a 1/16″ shift to be noticeable (for instance, I have 1/4″ coloured bars on the top and bottom of the spine, which in hindsight I would not do again — I would run the white spine right to the edges and into the bleed area, or make the entire spine a solid colour, green in this case).

Then I was able to order a bulk print run for myself (giveaways, review copies, and direct sales), and IS handled distribution to Amazon and Indigo.ca (and I’m sure a few other retailers and libraries I’m not tracking closely). The book went live as scheduled Dec 1st, and aside from the situation with the pricing and the currency conversion, completely without a hitch. At one point just after release Amazon was predicting a 2 month shipping time, but everyone I’ve heard from has received their books within 2 weeks at the most, so they are able to meet the demand in a reasonable amount of time.

In terms of analytics there’s very little through IS (especially compared to all the ebook self-publishing platforms): you get a snapshot of your past 30 days of sales as soon as you log in, but on any given day (once you’re past the first 30-day period where the counter only goes up) it’s pretty hard to say what the sales are like unless you’re obsessive about tracking it. I have not been able to find any information about what portion of sales go through Amazon versus other retailers — it’s all lumped into one line item. Indeed, as far as I can tell there was no point in setting a Canadian price in the catalogue as all the sales have been in USD through the US channel — and I can’t tell if that’s because of how it’s actually working, or if that’s just how they lump it together for reporting.

You’ll find out shortly after the month end how well you did in the previous month, and will get paid about three months later to your Canadian bank account. They will take care of converting your royalties to CAD, at a rate that appears to be very close to the posted fair exchange rate at month-end — if they had sent raw USD to your bank account I doubt your bank would provide rates as good (though in my specific case, with the CAD dropping, taking a marked-up bank rate three months later would have worked to my benefit). They asked me some simple questions during my account registration, figured out I was Canadian, and I have not faced US withholding taxes (and didn’t have to register for an ITIN for the privilege).

All-in-all I’ve been quite happy with IngramSpark, and it definitely has some advantages over CS for Canadians with books that will mostly have sales here. Knowing how much variability there actually is in the printing, I would have made some slight changes to my cover design (particularly the spine), but otherwise found it pleasantly surprise-free and am happy to recommend them to you.

VoS BtS 6: Creating a Print Version

March 27th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

Unlike an ePub or other reflowable e-book format, with print you will have complete control over the format of your book, which means you need to lend a careful eye to the format of your book.

The big question about tools will come down to whether or not to use InDesign. InDesign is the tool for laying out text and images for print, and what most of the professionals use (and what I used for projects like this). It will help align your text to a grid, will naturally set up facing pages, will work very well with mixed text and images, and will give you some options over spacing and hyphenation to try to avoid “rivers” of whitespace in justified text. It will even feature the little embellishments of professional typesetters like ligatures and drop caps to open chapters. However, it’s not a program to compose in — you can’t just open it up and start typing like with Word. And moreover, InDesign is not set up for collaboration and editing — it’s not even backwards compatible beyond one version.

For a simpler layout like a text-based book, Word has the capabilities to produce a good final product, but beyond a document that looks like a report you really start to push its limits. Word is a little buggy and can start throwing unhelpful autoformats around. Images can move in very large jumps seemingly randomly, and it’s very hard to set up a consistent frame for pictures to place on the page (something that is the bread & butter of InDesign) — so you will spend lots of time right-clicking and fiddling in the properties.

So you will end up composing and editing your book in Word (or something like it), and being very good and careful with your styles so that you can make an ebook… then facing the choice of just cleaning up that format to create your book in Word, or starting a whole new layout in InDesign, then cutting and pasting all the content over.

In my case, I stuck with Word. This is in part because I am a Word Wizard — I’m very experienced at battling the autoformat demons and making the program do what I need it to do. In part it was because I still had edits to make as I decided to start formatting in earnest. And in part because I had already been formatting it to look like a book as I went with my styles, facing pages, etc. But it was a near thing — if I had any more complexity in my interior design (e.g., if I had wanted to include embellished calligraphy drop caps to start my chapters) I would have definitely used InDesign.

A happy coincidence that also helped with my choice is that my archaic, old-man hate of the Word ribbon introduced in 2007 means that I’m still using Word 2003 as my workhorse word processor. A quirk of the new-fangled docx format is that Word will downsample any images you insert, making them unsuitable for high-quality print jobs (where you want to aim for a minimum of 300 dpi). If you do want to make a quality book, you will then have to go to InDesign or back to Word 20031! Add all that up and I think that you will probably want to start looking at putting your print book together in InDesign (if you hire the formatting out it’s quite likely that your formatter will use InDesign).

Whatever tool you decide to use, when you go to actually format the book, first you must know that your final book will be the product of two files, the cover (which you pretty much will have to do in InDesign or at worst Photoshop) and the book block, which is all the inside pages.

Your book block should come out to a multiple of 4 pages, which makes sense if you think about how a book is put together: take a large piece of paper, print on both sides, and fold in the middle: 4 pages to a physical sheet of paper. Pad it with blank pages at the front and back (and even between chapters to make your chapters start on odd pages if you like) to get it up to the next multiple of 4, but try to avoid cramming all the padding together, as most printers will think it’s an error in the file if they see more than two consecutive blank pages (or write “this page intentionally left blank”). Usually, you will have to leave the very last page blank for print-on-demand companies to add a barcode and information about the printing.

Then think about what you’re going to put in there (aside from your main content) as your front matter:

  • You must have a title page, and it must be on an odd page (right side) with a blank page facing it. An interesting note is that this title page the official one for cataloguing: sometimes the title of a book (or inclusion of a middle initial for the author) can change when creating the cover art, so when the cover and the inside title page disagree, it’s the inside that’s used. If you are submitting your book for cataloguing in publication, this title page must be finished (with final fonts and any embellishments) well in advance — aim to have the title page, table of contents, and final page count locked down for about a month and a half before you submit your final book block for printing, which may be about three months before release. To get the page count you’ll have to be pretty close on your final format (though having a few blank pages throughout or at the end can give you a bit of leeway for changes that come after you submit your information for cataloguing in publication.
  • On the even page behind your title page (i.e., the back side of the same sheet of paper) you put your copyright information and cataloguing in publication block. Have a look at some other books to see what goes here — there’s a lot to cram in so a smaller font is the norm. Basically, some statement about the copyright date and ownership, and information about publisher (and optionally the printer). The title and author, and any other contributors (co-authors, artists, substantive editors). Disclaimers, links to the books’ website (esp. if you plan to have an errata page, which is usually just a non-fiction thing), copyright/license notices, etc. If you are going print-on-demand then you won’t need information about print runs or those countdown numbers to indicate printings.
  • You might want to have some pages filled with praise and pull-quotes — these often come before the title page, so that they’re the first thing you see when you open the book. “Also by” and “Other books in the [blank] series” lists typically come before the title page as well.
  • A preface, introduction, or dedication. Typically at this point you start numbering with roman numerals for the front matter. Though the title page, copyright page, and pages before don’t typically get page numbers printed on them, they do add to the total, so if your introduction starts on the fifth page after a page of praise, a blank page, a title page, and a copyright page, then the intro will have a little v down there even though it’s the first instance of a numeral.
  • A table of contents usually ends the front matter, with the first chapter starting on the next odd (right-hand-side) page and a switch to numbering with regular numerals starting at 1. You have a lot of freedom in how you want to set up your table of contents — if you have many short chapters you may focus on just a few larger sections to avoid having a multi-page table of contents.

As for formatting, take a look at other books in your genre of choice to see what the conventions are. Usually for print you will be looking for a serif font, around 10-11 pt (with more line spacing for smaller fonts to help readability), with margins of about 0.75” (0.5” is the smallest most printers will allow but looks very cramped; 1″ is common on large-format hardcovers but takes up too much space on paperbacks; and there’s no need to keep the same margin for the top/bottom/sides — some books do have a bit of a skew, especially if the author has a predilection to holding books open one-handed by gripping at the top). Set up slightly larger inside margins, especially if you have a really thick book (over 300 pages) because the binding will take up a bit of the space. Both left-aligned and justified text are common; for 6×9” (trade paperback) and larger you can mostly start to get away without hyphenating lines to fit the maximum amount of text in; for 5×8” paperbacks or smaller you will almost certainly have to enable hyphenation.

Do not put two carriage returns (pressing enter twice) between paragraphs. Mostly you will want a small indent on new paragraphs, and a small space (about ¼-½ the usual line height, ~3-6pt) between paragraphs to maximize readability, though many commercial works don’t use spacing between paragraphs, just indents. New chapters should be started on new pages, with some space added above (through your text styles or InDesign, not by pounding enter).

You’ll usually put in headers and footers in a smaller size, aligned to the outside. The page number can be at the bottom or top corner, but I find bottom corner is more typical. Often you’ll have the author’s name on one side, and the book’s title or the current chapter/section title on the other side. Sometimes it will be book title on one side, section title on the other — it kind of depends on the structure of your sections and what makes sense.

For what it’s worth, here are my format decisions for the Value of Simple:

  • Text: The body font was Bookman Old Style — I was going for a more academic, textbook type look, and something that would be very easy to read. The size was 11pt with line spacing of 1.1X, a 0.25” indent and 6pt spacing between paragraphs. For a more stylish book (esp. fiction) I’d recommend a tighter serif font with something more like a 1.3X line spacing. The body font was paired with Verdana as a sans serif font for chapter headings.
  • Page layout: Margins of 0.75″ on the sides, 0.8″ on the top and bottom, with the header and footer 0.5″ from the outside. I used a gutter of 0.13″ (1/8) to give a little more space near the spine, so the bound book looks more like it’s evenly balanced.
  • Titles: Chapter headings have 36 pt of white space around them, and this was about the minimum I was comfortable going with. Section headings were larger and dropped more (~66 pt) and were noticeably larger (16 pt font).
  • Header/footer: Odd pages had the book title in the header, even pages my name, with the page numbers in the footer on the outside edge. Header/footer text was in the same font as the body text, but two sizes smaller (i.e. 9 pt).
  • Summary boxes: The helpful summary boxes that appear after certain chapters were indented on each side by a third of an inch — and that was one aspect that would have been simple in InDesign but was a fight in Word, as each one kept trying to be its own size. For the ebook version the frame was dropped to just top and bottom and it was a paragraph style with left and right indents.

Then you will create a PDF with this book block — all the front matter, the main text of your book, and any end matter (references, about the author, etc.). Your printer will create the book from that PDF plus your cover file. Check that PDF carefully, many times. Flip through it quickly in a zoomed-out mode to see if anything shifts suddenly. Go through it backwards and forwards. Double-check your requirements for blank pages and the like. Count up along with your pages to make sure they’re all there. Run a preflight check to verify that the images (if any) are at the resolution you expect.

Then you also have to have your cover file ready. I’ll talk more about that in the publishing section.

1. From reading around, I’m not 100% clear if the problem is just with docx or Word itself — if you can use a more recent Word version and just save to the doc format, or if you actually need a copy of Word 2003. In my case I was covered either way.
2. A post with more on cataloguing in publication will follow in the series.

Money 201 and a Crazy Idea

March 24th, 2015 by Potato

I have re-created the Money 201 session from our Toronto Public Library talk in February, and put it up on YouTube for your enjoyment and/or education and/or ridicule:

Now, here’s my crazy idea: wouldn’t it be great if there was a full online course along these lines? A full course would be about 12-24 hours of material, and would be designed to have some coherency and flow. So would you be interested in something like that? Doing something like that would take hundreds of hours of time to plan, draft, record, and upload: would you be willing to pay for it (either to pay for an online course with group hangout sessions/webinars, or to sponsor a video series through something like KickStarter)? If it was say $200 for an online course?

As cool as it sounds, it’s not like an online course is the only way to learn this stuff: there are plenty of books and blog posts, there are even some videos out there on individual components of personal finance/investing/planning if you look hard enough. But other than the odd book it’s very haphazard. If you’re coming in with no background, a blog is a terrible thing to encounter as the information is scattered all over chronologically, and often blog posts are focused on debating little technical issues which are not so helpful for a first-timer looking to learn.

There are in-person courses around: Ellen Roseman and Gail Bebee both offer courses on investing, with the added bonus of the reputational backing of the continuing education arms of UofT and Ryerson (at $245 for ~12 hours of class time). Plus there are plenty of free Toronto Public Library talks on the matter. Of course, you have to live in (or haul your butt to) Toronto for those classes, and I don’t think the rest of the country is as well supplied, so an internet option may be needed. So comment, email, or Tweet if you want to see something like this (especially if you would want to support it and make it happen).

I’ve started to give the idea some thought, and even thought about who I might pull in for guest lectures (some of whom are game if I can raise some money), but this is something that will only come together if there’s a real demand in the community for it — and the demand might be for someone other than me to do it. And just because I was crazy enough to think it was feasible doesn’t mean I’m the one who has to do it: if you think Ellen or someone else should make an online course then mention that in the comments too, and I’ll give them a poke.

“Have I told you about my latest crazy idea?”
“You have lots of crazy ideas, it’s hard to tell which one is the latest.”

Note: the self-publishing series will return at the end of the week.

VoS BtS 5: Publishing an e-book Version

March 21st, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

Once your book is written and converted into an ePub (and AZW3) you’ll have to actually get it into customers’ hands, and ideally get some money for yourself out of the bargain. To do that you will publish the book with one of a number of self-publishing options, and sell through the following sales channels.

Amazon: a monster in e-books, Amazon produces most of my sales (by a huge margin for print, a respectable one in e-book), and I believe most of the ones for other self-publishers as well. Their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program is huge, and was a pioneer in helping people to self-publish. With all of that experience everything runs quite smoothly now. You can set up a pre-sale period by uploading your final file in advance, and can set prices for different countries easily, with a 70% royalty rate for books in a normal price range1. It’s all so intuitive I don’t feel the slightest need to give you further guidance on the interface. You’ll get a chance to virtually preview your file on a number of Kindle virtual machines, though nothing beats actually trying your friends’ and family’s devices.

They will try to get you to make it exclusive to Amazon with Amazon Select, which is a tough call — on the one hand it will let your book go on sale and have promotional events (the regular KDP price doesn’t budge and doesn’t go into the lending library), but Amazon isn’t quite big enough to make forgoing all the other channels worth it in my opinion — especially if you put DRM on your book so readers will not be able to convert it to use on their Kobos or other devices. I did not go with Select and can’t recommend going exclusive.

If you have a print edition, you can create a special bundle price discount so readers can get the Kindle edition for a few dollars more — this option applies even if you publish the print edition through someone other than Amazon/CreateSpace. Typically the price points are 99 cents/$1.99/$2.99 for this “match book” option. I personally think this is a great option to enable, and have a similar print and digital bundle available through my direct store — think of it not as a discount on your e-book, but as an up-sell on your print book. They can get the file and get a head start on reading, and then finish the book in print when it arrives in the mail, or can read in print and give it away, but have an easy to archive digital file to refer to later.

Amazon will pay out by direct deposit to your bank account when you get over $10 in royalties, usually with a lag of ~60-90 days. Just enter your Canadian bank account information in their system and you’ll be set. They also recently (late 2014) updated their tax information collection so that you can fill out the forms to avoid US withholding tax without having to write to the IRS to get a registration number.

One weird thing about Amazon is that they want a cover image at a 1:1.6 aspect ratio, at a really high resolution (higher than will ever be displayed on most e-book readers). 1:1.5 (6:9) is a more common aspect ratio for covers — that’s the layout of a trade paperback, and also happens to be the screen aspect ratio for most e-readers. So keep in mind you may need to tweak a cover image to suit slightly different sizes, and mention that to your cover artist early on as it can affect what they put in the edges of the image — or they may need to prepare two files for you.

Kobo: fairly popular in Canada, thanks to its incubation and device sales at Indigo, Kobo is a bit player in the US, so you may see other guides to self-publishing downplay its importance. Kobo sells ePubs which are compatible with their own devices as well as Sony e-readers, Nook readers, and tablets/phones/PCs via apps. For a Canadian author I think you really need to include it, and that it may be meaningful enough to make it worthwhile to list your book there directly rather than through something like Smashwords. With Kobo Writing Life you can get set up selling ePubs pretty quickly, and they recently (late 2014) upgraded their payment systems to allow for semi-annual small payments (though I believe their documentation still mentions a $100 threshold, that will be likely changing as the small payment pilot seems to be going well and the payment threshold will move to a more standard $10). Like Amazon, they have a 70% royalty rate for most book prices.

For me, Kobo comes in third to Amazon and my own site for e-book sales. However, Kobo has a Canadian presence so you avoid having to fill out US withholding tax information, and the data collection to get you set up is really easy to use and clean, so it’s not hard to do yourself vs using a distributor.

Smashwords: a distributor and a retailer, Smashwords is a neat time-saver for e-book publishing. Through Smashwords you can get access to Barnes and Noble, the iBookStore (Apple), Scribd, and a few others including Overdrive (it’s the source of e-books for libraries though they tend not to go for self-published stuff, and Overdrive hides2 it from them). They’ll also get you into Kobo if you want, but it’s so easy to do on your own that there’s no point in giving up the royalties. A weird thing — and unfortunate from a Canadian perspective — is that you can’t set prices in CAD or by other regions on Smashwords, only one price in USD for the whole world. Smashwords’ royalties are a little complicated from all the channels they provide access to: their own direct sales channel (sales through Smashwords.com) is ~75%, and most other channels are ~60% — they provide a lower royalty rate for these channels for the service of being a one-stop shop for getting out to all those retailers. You can opt in or out of each channel individually, so you can opt out of Kobo and go direct to Writing Life for instance, and then accept the lower royalty rate for say B&N and iBooks, which is ok because in my experience (and what I’ve read elsewhere) those other channels are orders of magnitude below Amazon in terms of exposure and sales. I have almost 5 times as many sales through Kobo as through all Smashwords portals combined, and Kobo is itself a factor of 4 below Amazon and my own site.

You can either upload your own ePub to Smashwords, or give them a Word document and let them do the conversions. I created an ePub anyway, and I’m highly skeptical of completely automatic file conversions, so of course I went with the upload my own ePub option.

I have not yet figured out how to fill out their paperwork to avoid US withholding taxes without registering for an ITIN with the IRS, but it’s not something I worry about (a 30% withholding tax on a few tens of dollars is only a few dollars). They pay out to PayPal with a $10 threshold, and give Canadians a very clear and easy button to tell them to hold payments until you file your tax information if you want time to sort out your filings to avoid withholding tax, or to send payment ASAP and acknowledge up front that there will be withholdings so no one is surprised.

Google Play: it’s Google, and it has the ability to offer PDFs, which may be a neat feature, depending on the content of your book. However, the royalty rate is lower (52% vs 70%), and they provide at least 20% of your book as a free preview, which some authors have complained is giving away too much. I have not had a single sale through Google Play yet, but they claim to have a monthly $1 threshold to Canadian bank accounts so if sales do come through, getting royalties should be quick.

Google Play mostly works intuitively for getting your title set up, but when it comes to setting prices instead of just going through a list of countries/currencies and putting in the price like with other retailers, you have to use a string, like “Region: CA” to set prices for Canada, and then “WORLD -CA” to set a price for the rest of the world excluding Canada. It’s just a few little things like that that made it a bit tougher to get set up with them, but none of it was devastating.

Direct Sales: it’s fairly easy these days to set up a merchant account with PayPal (or another small business credit card processor) so that you can accept payments and sell books directly to customers without a middleman. You can also set up a shopping cart yourself, which can automatically serve an e-book to customers. The main reason I set up a direct sales site was to keep control over the format: I want customers to be able to get a bundle with every format they could need, including PDF as well as Kindle and Kobo files, so that they’re not tied to any one retailer’s ecosystem or hardware. If it weren’t for that I likely wouldn’t have bothered as it is a lot of work. A side benefit is that you get more than 70% of the gross (93% for me) — and as long as you’re a small supplier your customers can save on the HST. For some people it can make sense to sell directly just for the profit boost. You may be generating most of the leads and interest in the book yourself anyway, though the downside is that you don’t get people leaving reviews for the next customer to see like on Amazon or Kobo, and you don’t get the sales traffic which can help your book move up the ranks and become more visible at the retailer. If you do sest up a direct sales site, I’d recommend listing with regular retailers as well, as there will be people who only find your book through that route.

I’m with DreamHost, and they make it pretty easy to create a subdomain with ZenCart as a direct sales shopping cart program. It’s open-source and works fairly well out of the box, though you will likely want to do some customization. I’ll note that creating downloadable products is not the easiest thing — you’ll have to delve into the admin settings to create a downloadable product.

Another option is to use a PayPal “buy now” link. The advantage to that is that it’s super-fast for your customers: they don’t have to register on your site or go through a three-step cart checkout, just one click and they’re entering their payment information. The downside is that it does not produce an automatic download link: you have to manually follow-up with an email that has the book as an attachment, or with a download link. And no matter how many times you write it out, or include it in the receipt text, or put it in bold face, people will freak out all over you that they paid for something at 2am and your site is broken, and you didn’t get back to them with their digital thingy until nearly noon, which is just unacceptable customer service. I would love it if PayPal could outsource this for us for digital goods delivery, as when I did have the one-click buy now links about two-thirds of my sales were through those — the convenience factor is huge, and you don’t have to worry about people abandoning their cart when your store software forces them to create a password (even if you don’t want it to). But the headaches from getting emails from angry, inpatient people made me stick with the less-convenient store software this time (also, the added complication of having print and e-book options, which would necessitate multiple buy now buttons).

Moving on from retailers, let’s talk about DRM. Most retailers will offer you the option to lock your content down with DRM, Smashwords being the main DRM-free exception. It’s up to you what you choose, but personally I hate DRM. If you become insanely popular, the pirates will break it anyway. If it’s unlocked and a few people share the book, well, it may lead to some buying their own copies, or at least spreading the word. In the meantime you have fewer frustrated readers (and before you go with DRM, it should be mandatory to try to help your Aunt load a locked ePub that she legitimately paid for onto her e-reader — it’s frustrating). Plus it’s a lot easier to offer multiple formats through your own website if you don’t have DRM.

1. Note that they charge a very small amount for data transfer, but if your book is huge with many pictures (i.e. tens or hundreds of MB) these data charges may seriously impact your profits. Normal price range is ~$3-10 for the e-book; cheaper or more expensive and you’ll have to accept a lower royalty rate.
2. Obviously not first-hand, but the explanation I have seen is that Overdrive presents librarians with a default catalogue of “real books” to build their collections, and that self-published works are technically available through Overdrive but the librarians have to specifically enter the self-published side to see them.

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

VoS BtS 4: Creating e-books (ePub)

March 18th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

Electronic books have really brought the cost and effort needed to publish a book down. There is very little overhead or initial investment needed to publish an ebook — zero if you do everything yourself, though you’ll likely want to outsource some things (e.g., editing and cover art). Some places will charge to convert your book into an ebook and list it; IngramSpark for instance charges $25 USD to convert and publish your ebook, though there’s no additional charge if you do it at the same time as publishing a print book (though they do take a larger slice of the royalties). However, you can fairly easily do all of this yourself.

The low overhead for e-books also translates into a relatively high royalty rate (~70% for Kobo and Kindle, ~60% for some other platforms, ~40% if you use a service to automate some of these steps for you — assuming your book is in a “normal” price range).

Formats

There are two basic ways to create an ebook: to use a reflowable text-based format, or to use a PDF. While PDF has become a standard for displaying all kinds of documents across the web, it is near impossible to buy an ebook in PDF format: Amazon, Kobo, and iBooks only offer reflowable/text-based formats (ePub/mobi or proprietary analogues). Google Play apparently allows PDFs, but the customers are not on Google Play (also, Google Play only offers a 52% royalty rate).

The ePub format is the base, standard ebook format, and will work on nearly any device (Kobo, Nook, Sony e-reader, plus many phones and tablets with reader apps), and is close enough to the Amazon Kindle format that you can convert from it with automatic tools and it will work pretty well. The format is basically a self-contained package of really basic webpages (it’s not quite standard HTML but close enough that if you know how to use tags you’ll be fine) and associated images. Each chapter will appear as a separate sub-file inside your ePub, with a common CSS style sheet to create the formatting.

The neat thing about e-books (ePub or Kindle) is that the user has a lot of control over their reading experience: if their eyesight isn’t so good, or their device screen is small, they can bump up the text size or the spacing; they can adjust the margins, and even change the font face. For you, the publisher, the upside of this is that you don’t need to put much work into formatting because the user will just break it anyway (unless you’re a design nut in which case not having control over your layout is probably a downside). The downside is that ePubs are really only suited to text-only (or mostly text) books. They do not have the ability to display tables, and images can be really frustrating to work with. Plus the formatting doesn’t understand percentages, so if you want to indent some text (like the little summaries at the end of several chapters in The Value of Simple), the indent is set in ems, which can create a really narrow little column of text on a small screen (as most of the total space ends up being the left and right margin of my indented summary), and on larger high-resolution screens the indent is very modest.

Years ago, I had to create my ePub by converting my book to html, then using a special creator/editor program to convert that to ePub, then use the editor to fix all the conversion errors. It was several days of coding (every special character wonked out, plus other bugs). Now, Calibre is here and does a much better job of converting directly from Word. I had to tweak a few things — like images, tables and indented paragraphs — but the automatic output was passable. To make my life a bit easier converting, I did some of the work in Word first by creating a new document with the page size equal to the screen size of a 6″ Kobo, and replacing all tables with images. Though don’t trust automatic file converters to do an awesome job — check the code and output yourself.

To get around the limitations of the format, you have to convert any tables to images. However, images are still limited: you can’t simply say “100% width”, the image will by default just display at its native resolution, which may look great on a Kobo Touch, and tiny on a Kobo Aura HD. To get around this you’ll have to manually go in and create frames around each image to tell it to scale to 100% width, using the appropriate aspect ratio (see code snippet at the bottom).

As if that weren’t tricky enough already, you have to deal with the limitations of the readers: older readers had lower resolution than more recent entries. The typical way to deal with this is to put in a high-resolution image and downsample it (shrink it) for smaller screens — going the other way doesn’t make sense, as you can’t create resolution (outside of crime dramas). However, the thing is older devices like the Kobo Touch have crappy graphics processors to accompany their crappy screens. That means a high-resolution image resized (shrunk) to fit on the Kobo Touch looks way worse than a low-resolution image designed for the Kobo Touch blown up to fit on an Kobo Aura HD.

Speaking of limitations, keep in mind that e-ink e-readers are black and white — if you have graphs or other images with colour, be sure they translate to greyscale (I had to redo a few images), and update the figure descriptions to match. Be sure to try to get your hands on a few different pieces of e-reader hardware to see how your book will look on them.

A minor issue with the ePub format is that there are so many little code tags in so many sub-files, and for some reason different retailers will throw up on some for no reason at all, making you fail file validation (after I got it working for Kobo and Google, SmashWords ended up not liking a meta tag in the header — how it can decide one meta tag of several breaks validation, I do not know).

If you’re creating a print version anyway, you may have spent a lot of time on layout and fine formatting, plus have high-resolution images available. In that case you may want to publish a PDF, as I did. Though plenty of readers want one, other than through Google Play I don’t know how to sell them one, so I created my any format ebook bundle that I sell directly through my website, where I have control. Of course, that was many, many hours of setting up a PayPal account to accept credit cards, a ZenCart instance, and dealing with the odd customer issue with the web store. The effort has paid off, I think: it’s my second-most popular sales channel, and my effective royalty rate is higher (I have to pay for hosting, but I do that anyway, and credit card transaction costs).

Writing

Of course, you don’t actually start by writing directly into an ePub or PDF, you start by writing in a word processor, most likely Word. My biggest, most important tip is to use styles when you’re writing to control the formatting. I covered this in the part on writing, but it’s important to repeat as your ePub conversion will pull from these styles — they are what will feed that stylesheet. Hard returns and using the spacebar or tab to indent a paragraph will not translate well into ePub: be sure to use the paragraph style properties to do this. Creating headings ad hoc will lead to inconsistencies in detecting chapter breaks, and in the appearance of your work when you use an automatic converter. While you can manually repair this in something like Calibre, if you simply upload a Word file to any of the services offered by Kobo, Kindle, Smashwords, or IngramSpark, you won’t be able to fix it without uploading a new file (which may cost you a revision charge).

Addendum

Here’s the code I used for creating a frame to resize images to the device in ePub.

<div>
<svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" xmlns:xlink="http://www.w3.org/1999/xlink" version="1.1" width="100%" height="90%" viewBox="0 0 594 648" preserveAspectRatio="xMidYMid meet">
<image width="594" height="648" xlink:href="images/image5.png"/>
</svg>
</div>

Then make the dimensions in both the svg and image tags match the dimensions of your image, and the height percentage be a bit more than the height on a Kobo Touch (e.g. for its 600×800 screen, an image 648 pixels high would be 81%, so I put 90% to give it a bit of a whitespace border).

Of course, as time goes on you may start caring less about backwards compatibility: newer devices from Kobo, Sony, and Nook have higher resolution screens, and likely already outnumber the older devices. In the next few years you may want to use the same trick for resizing, but use a higher screen resolution for your base.

VoS BtS 3: Editing Process

March 17th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

As an editor in my day job, I have to say that editing can make a huge difference in the professionalism of your book and in the clarity of your message.

Getting eyeballs on drafts is the best way to improve something, but you have to keep in mind whose eyeballs they are. A professional editor may not be an expert in your book’s genre1, but will help spot and ruthlessly correct errors and ambiguities. Friends are a fantastic resource because they’re often willing to work for peanuts2, but they’re also not likely to be comfortable making criticisms (constructive or otherwise) for fear of hurting your feelings. However, anything a friend hints that they may not fully understand is likely a point that needs a re-write for clarity.

I like the concept of beta readers: people who read an early version of the book and critique it (sometimes what they heart, mostly what they don’t like or get). Your beta readers should include your target audience: if it’s an introductory guide to personal finance, then you’re going to need some people who are fairly naive on that subject. Experts may already know TFSAs inside and out, so their eyes may gloss over your particular bunny-based explanation of how they work and miss any issues, whereas a newbie will tell you if the analogy works or not (especially if you quiz them on what they retained). But you also need some experts to help spot errors.

I don’t think the beta reader/peer-review model is catching on as much as it should, which is a shame. It does require some indulgence from your friends and colleagues, and in return you need to give them enough time to actually read your book — at least a month, and more like three. That can be a big delay on your timeline if you weren’t ready for it, but it’s also a great time to let the first draft cool.

A critical part of editing is that you have to be able to spot weaknesses in the first draft and be willing to make changes even if they’re painful — you may be particularly attached to a certain joke, but if no one else finds it funny or notices there’s even an attempt at humour in there, then it’s no good keeping it in. Or you may be thinking about how much work you put into looking up a certain fact or crafting a certain paragraph, and don’t want to cut it even though it impedes the flow around it. I find that a cooling-off period lets the short-term memories of actually writing parts of the book fade enough that I can treat them objectively and work to improve them — even if that means ripping them apart.

So with re-reads and making changes, parcelling out copies to beta readers, accepting and discussing their feedback, and making rewrites, the editing process can take a lot of time — more3 time than writing the thing in the first place did!

In addition to beta readers, a professional editor can really help sharpen your language, get rid of distracting errors, and restructure the document. In my case I work with editors, and was fortunate enough that they were willing to give the book a detailed read-through in exchange for keeping the office snack area well-stocked with wasabi cashews. Not quite literally working for peanuts, but as good as. And their feedback was great — in addition to spotting all the little typos and awkward sentences with their eagle eyes, they suggested that I reorganize the book into about four defined sections — the first version was a collection of short chapters that didn’t have a great flow between them or an overarching idea linking them into a unit other than “this will be handy for learning to invest.” I ended up creating three sections: an introduction, which was focused on quickly bringing in important concepts; an applications section, which was to be the practical step-by-step guide forming the core of the book; and an advanced discussion section, which would focus on particular issues, topics that were a bit more complex, and then tie the whole thing up.

Once I had that three-part structure — even though putting it in place was just a few headings and short introductory paragraphs — it became a lot easier to navigate the book and see how it should be laid out. Many chapters got reorganized after that, in particular the part on Norbert’s gambit which originally followed right on the heels of ETF investing, but it was really complex and confusing. So in addition to tweaking the chapter itself, it got pushed back to the advanced section with a healthy disclaimer, so it would be clear that readers could safely ignore it if they were confused. Likewise, the Automation chapter was originally buried in the end matter, but when I was talking about the book and how to invest, automation kept coming up as a central part of the approach, so it just made sense for that to be the close of the Putting it into Practice section.

Enlisting the help of an editor can be a harder sell as a self-publisher when you’re not one yourself and can’t entice your colleagues with foodstuff: if you have to pay out of pocket to do it you need to try to put a value on it. Books riddled with errors certainly do sell — sometimes well, even — but it will be a distraction, often one that makes it into a review. It’s better to be clean and polished, but how much better? If you’re only going to net $1000 from your book no matter it’s polish, it’s hard to justify spending nearly that much on editing. It’s extra hard when many of us are vaguer than a per-word price quote, as the cost to edit will depend on how much work each manuscript is, meaning you may not even know the exact price up front. For the Value of Simple, which started fairly clean, I’d probably have charged myself several hundred dollars to edit it. As a self-publisher with a small audience that would be a tough value proposition: I know I would have had to sleep on it before hiring myself. The book is certainly a better product for all the work of beta readers and my editorial team, but to the extent that it would sell 50% more copies? A manuscript needing more work would take more hours to fix, and possibly cost more — though then it might need it more, and get more value out of the service.

For this project, I was all over the beta reader concept. Some people get paranoid about sharing early, but you can’t really keep a book secret for long, and there isn’t much point — you’re going to publish it at some point, and you want people to be looking forward to it. So I sought out some people who could help make the book good. The phenotypes I targeted were:

    1) Colleagues and friends who fit the target audience (i.e. not do-it-yourself investors while not being afraid of money). They could tell me if anything was unclear and help spot typos and fix the language.
    2) Financial planners and bloggers — experts — who could evaluate the simple plan I laid out to make sure I wasn’t leading people totally astray or leaving out something hugely important. Indeed, spotting what is missing is one of the hardest parts of substantive editing, and will likely take a lot of eyeballs before it’s caught.

About 65% of people I tried to enlist as beta readers responded with feedback, so be sure to get more than just one or two beta readers as you will have a few who can’t find the time or will just say something nice but unhelpful like “looks great, can’t wait!” I did keep a few readers in my back pocket for the second iteration, so someone could see it with fresh eyes after the improvements from the first draft were implemented.

Then we went through the rounds of edits, really firmed up the material (and added chapters), and off it went to the reviewers to start building some buzz. One of whom was Michael (of Michael James on Money fame), which reminded me that I didn’t get a math guy to look at it. So it was fortunate that he didn’t just skim through the book to write a review for his blog, but really checked my figures in detail, like a beta reader or editor would. I want to mention two issues he identified — while neither one broke a thesis or would change the recommendations, it was good that he caught them while there was still plenty of time to fix them, and kind of highlights some changes that can come from the editing process.

The first was my own goof: I came up with a spreadsheet to calculate the figures to back up some important point. The numbers came to about what I was expecting, I copied the results down, and was off to the races. Well, Michael actually found an error in my figures, which let me find a mistake in the formula used to generate those figures and create a graph. So I reworked it with fresh eyes and double- and triple-checked the math. For the average reader the error is of no consequence — in fact, the point I was trying to make is stronger than I originally made it out to be — but it makes me feel a lot better to have it done right in the final version. This was like scientific peer review at its best.

The second illustrates how something that’s totally reasonable in your head doesn’t translate to understanding for the reader. When it came to describing the typical fees on a mutual fund in Canada, I didn’t want to confuse the reader with by being too technical, or to be too precise. I figured it’s high, we all know it’s high, so let’s just move along. At different points in the book I said that the average MER was “over 2%” and “nearly 2.5%” — both of which are oblique ways to describe an average fee somewhere in the range of 2-2.5% (with 2.4% being the specific figure in my head). I’ve seen different figures from different sources, and I didn’t want to just pick one study or report as the definitive one. However, that vagueness crossed the line into an inconsistency that might cause confusion (or make the reader think I didn’t actually know), so I had to pick a source and a final number, or at least settle on one consistent way to describe it. For equity funds, Morningstar’s “Global Fund Investor Experience” 2013 report puts the average MER at 2.42%, which I suppose is as good a figure to settle on as any, and this the citation you’ll find in the final version.

And this is a great place to thank my invaluable beta readers:

  • Jill Bressmer
  • Dr. Carrie-Lynn Keiski
  • Dr. Margaret Kinyanjui
  • Kelly Robertson
  • Ben Pakuts, also responsible for the wonderful cover art
  • Sandi Martin
  • Kyle Prevost
  • Shelly
  • Michael Wiener

  • 1. Indeed, there are different types of editors. I read one book a while ago that claimed to have had multiple professional editorial passes, and while the micro-editing was good — free of typos and grammar errors with minimal passive voice — the content was full of errors and just simply not worth reading. While you want to make it easy for your beta readers and early reviewers to read by being clean (so they don’t get distracted by minor issues), save a professional copyedit for closer to the end and focus on substantive and style editing first.
    2. Or wasabi-coated cashews as the case may be.
    3. On the calendar if not in time at the keyboard, as I was taking more time off work at the writing phase.