How to Publish Your eBook on Smashwords
One of the challenges facing us writers is that sooner or later we’re going to want to get our work published. In the case of short stories and poems, there are well-documented avenues to publication – literary mags, online publishers and so on, but when it comes to novels, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
For most of us, the idea of seeing our books on the shelves of our local bookstores (and elsewhere) is the Big Prize – to have our work published via the traditional creation of an actual, physical collection of paper and card, with a nice glossy image on the front and our (suitably pensive-looking) author pic and blurb on the back.
However, as old Bob likes to say, the times they are a-changing, and the traditional route to publishing (to use a watery metaphor) is a hard boat to get into. Either it constantly sits out there in the bay while we stand forlornly on the shore waving like fools, or it docks at the jetty, allows us to get on board then makes us get off at the next port.
In other words, even if we get published, the chances of keeping our precious creations on the bookshelves and in the minds of our intended readers, is a difficult task. Even books that sell well to begin with need to continue selling well in order to keep the book in print. As usual, with these sorts of things, it’s all about money.
Traditional vs eBook
For the last couple of years, I’ve been pursuing the aforementioned route to publishing success. I’ve written three novels and have two more on the go at the time of writing, so of course I want to see my work up there with the big boys. But to get there, I need a publisher, and to get a publisher I need an agent (I know this isn’t always true, but most publishers won’t look at you without representation). So that’s what I did – sent off my precious cargo in the hope of finding that ephemeral vessel.
Still waiting on the dock...
So if, like me, this route doesn’t work for you, what do you do? Luckily there’s another way. eBooks. Self-publishing. Going the way of the Indie Author. But of course, that opens up yet another kettle of those pesky fish:
How do I make one?
Where do I start?
Do I have the skills to do this?
How much will it cost?
So here are a few answers to those questions, and several others.
I can’t say I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of eBook publishing – like a lot of stuff in our modern world, these things take time to gain popularity, to see how they work, if they work, and what the consequences of doing things this way might be. One of my objections for a long time has been the idea that anyone can publish an eBook.
While most people won’t get within a mile of a traditional publishing company unless what they’ve written is highly desirable, commercial and likely to attract a lot of readers, with eBooks you don’t have to be the next Salman Rushdie or Margaret Attwood. You don’t actually need to be very good at all. You can publish an eBook whether you're amazing or rubbish, whether your writing is groundbreakingly good or clunky, clumsy and crammed with clichés.
Obviously, most writers considering publishing their work, will no doubt believe their creation to be worthy of bestsellerdom, but if, like me, you’ve spent a bit of time perusing what’s on offer in the world of e-publishing, you’ll know that there’s a lot of crap out there. Though, just to be clear, I should say there’s also a lot of very talented folk who have written great books that deserves to be read (our own Billy Buc is a good example).
I came across Smashwords a while ago, though it was only recently that I looked at it from the point of view of signing up with them. The company was founded by Mark Coker (as a result of not being able to find a publisher for one of his own books) and is now the biggest distributor of indie eBooks in the world.
Unlike some other eBook publishers, Smashwords is free. That’s right – Free. It doesn’t cost a penny to upload your novel and if you get into the prized P Catalogue, your work will be distributed to the likes of Apple, Sony, Barnes and Noble and WH Smiths. Which is no small thing.
Like anything new, it’s a bit of a learning curve, though if you’re already a writer it shouldn’t be too much of a wrench. However, it’s not all plain sailing (there’s that watery metaphor again), as you’ll see from my own journey to getting published.
It goes without saying (or at least it should), that before you think about uploading your precious cargo, you’ll have spent some time going through your finished novel to get it to a standard that is acceptable to the reading public. Acceptable in this context means that it must:
- Be free of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors
- Make sense (in terms of the plot)
- Have a table of contents (chapter headings etc)
One of the things I often notice when I come to submit a piece of writing to an agent, magazine or whatever, is that usually I spot stuff I want to change. So instead of spending a little bit of time correcting spelling errors etc, I spend a lot of time re-writing the stuff I should have re-written before.
So when I’ve done that, then I get to the editing bit, and again, I find that in correcting spellings and such like, I always notice things that I haven’t noticed before. Even in the final, (final, final, final) edit, there are still changes to be made. Which is good, since none of us wants to be picked up for being a baad spellur.
So then I get to the Formatting.
Formatting Your Manuscript
One of the reasons Smashwords is free, is because they don’t do anything with your manuscript in terms of checks, editing, formatting etc. You have to do that yourself. Luckily, there’s plenty of guidance. Mark Coker has written several books (all free) and lots of videos to guide you through the process of formatting so there won’t be too many problems when you come to uploading the thing to their site.
I won’t attempt to give the full rundown of the process here, since it’s far easier to use the guide books/videos provided, but here’s a little taster: Smashwords formatting advice relates mainly to writers using Microsoft Word (although there’s info about Mac’s too). The recommendation that you copy the whole manuscript into a Notepad document is a nice idea, since it gets rid of a lot of the formatting problems you might encounter otherwise. The new version is then copied into a new document with Microsoft’s generic spell-check and auto-correct etc switched off. For most novels, there are four main areas to cover:
- Chapter titles/headings
- Paragraphs (including block and indented)
- Table of Contents
Chapter headings are one of the problems I encountered, as I wanted them to be slightly larger than the rest of the text (just like a normal book, in fact). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get this to work all the way through so I ended up using a simpler layout, and while the finished book looks fine, I’m sure it could look a bit more appealing.
Paragraphs are another difficulty, since there are various options open to you. Indenting, using block paragraphs, or using a combination of the two (first paragraph of each new chapter aligned left, while the rest of the chapter is indented), which looks more professional.
Table of Contents
This is the magical list of linked headings you’ll see at the start of any eBook. Usually it’ll consist of a list of the chapters or main sections of the book - in an eBook these are all linked to the actual chapters, so readers can easily skip to any one. It’s a bit like including links to websites, so is a fairly straightforward task, but it’s also quite easy to get muddled up. I managed to get it right on my third go.
The other links are the ones that link externally to your blog, website, Smashwords page etc, and again this is pretty straightforward. There’s lots of good advice about what to include (as well as what not to include), and which areas of the book will serve you best for placing each section. For instance, it’s deemed not a good idea to have pages and pages of introductions, explanations, chapter headings, external links and several hundred words relating to how you came to write the book, right at the very front before the reader even gets to the actual novel itself.
I won’t say I found this process difficult, but it took me a few goes to get an uploaded manuscript that was readable, had the chapter headings in the right places and looked good on most of the devices eBooks can be downloaded onto. It actually took me 12 goes, and 12 re-formatted manuscripts, before I got one that looked okay.
And then there’s the cover image.
The advice for creating the cover of your book is that unless you know your way around Photoshop or one of the other good quality design programmes, DON’T DO IT!
Well, while I might explore the possibilities of getting a designer in at some point to update my book covers (which of course, you can do at any time), I like to think I have some talent in the design field. For the moment, therefore, I’m designing my own covers (1600 pixels x 2400 pixels - the recommended size).
If you don’t have a clue about this sort of thing, then it’s probably best to get someone else to do it for you, since (as the Smashwords guides will tell you), you won’t sell a lot of books without a cover.
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March 2016 update:
At the moment I have 11 eBooks available at various outlets (including Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble). In addition, they're also available as eBooks and paperbacks via Amazon and Createspace, and I have to admit, it's Amazon that folks are going to to buy my stuff, rather than Smashwords. So there you go...