Kindle/CreateSpace/Smashwords Formatting Woes: I figured out the hard stuff so you don’t have to! (Part 2)

Continuing Part 1 of this post from earlier this week, which covered CreateSpace print formatting tips, I’m just going to dive right in to the Kindle and Smashwords tips…

EBOOK FORMATTING TIPS FOR KINDLE

#1 Advice: Know What You’re Getting Into

I didn’t.  For some reason, I was under the impression that this would be simple.  I have a finished manuscript that’s nicely formatted for print, so I figured one, two, three, upload this baby to the KDP site, and I’m done.  Right?  Wrong.

KDP is very misleading – sure enough, the form is only 6 questions (9 if you count the second page, which you don’t get to until after you have a working .mobi file).  And the most misleading step is #5 Upload Your Book file.  I knew from reading the formatting guidelines that they accept a whole bunch of different file types, but what Amazon doesn’t explain is that these are not all created equally.  The best is a .prc file which already has your .ncx and .opf and images and everything in there.  What is all that?  Read on to find out.

After LOTS of searching online, this is what I found I needed to do:

  1. Save my Word .doc manuscript as a Filtered Web Page .htm (NOT .html) and do some cleanup in Notepad (and by some, I mean like 4 hours).  These are the big things that took me a while to figure out:
    1. Anchor Tags & Weird Loss of Formatting Bug.  Make sure hyperlink anchor tags (<a href=””></a>) – like those you find around your Table of Contents (autogenerated by Word if you used their built-in TOC generator, or you may be adding this yourself manually) – are always on the outside of the paragraph <p></p> tags they’re linking to.  Otherwise, you get this weird bug in Kindle where after you use a hyperlink, the text loses all formatting.
      1. Update 5/30/13: As I ran through this process again with Shudder, I discovered that something had changed in Amazon’s interpretation of the HTML code, and now when I put the <a> tags on the outside of the <p> on my TOC links, the Kindle would no longer recognize them as hyperlinks.  However, if I did this around the destination links (the chapter titles) as well, I ran into the same loss of formatting bug.  So what I ended up doing was leaving the <a> tags on the inside of the <p> tags on the TOC links, but putting them on the outside of the <p> tags on the chapter titles.  That seemed to get the behavior I wanted.
    2. TOC Page Numbers. Delete unnecessary span tags (<span></span>) with page numbers from the TOC code.  Word automatically added this stuff into my TOC, and obviously page numbers are unnecessary on an e-reader.
    3. Centering Images. Add image references as needed (you DON’T need to add your cover, since that will be taken care of later – for me, I just had one image, the cover of the second book in the series which I added as a teaser at the end).  If you’re adding images, I found that this code worked well:
      1. Add this class up at the top somewhere (where the other classes are) to help make sure it’s centered properly:
        p.imgcentered
        {
        text-indent: 0;
        margin: 1em 0 0 0;
        padding: 0;
        text-align: center;
        font-size: 0.8em;
        }
        Then add the image reference in the right spot using something like this:
        <p><img src=”NameOfTheFile.jpg” alt=”Description of Picture” width=”134″ height=”200″ /><br />Caption for Pic, if you want one.</p>(Note that I think I read somewhere that that alt=”” tag is required – I didn’t try it without it, but just be forewarned.)
    4. Un-Indenting Paragraphs. If you have paragraphs that aren’t supposed to be indented (for example, first paragraph of a chapter), you’re going to have to manually mark them as such, because Kindle automatically indents all paragraphs whether you want it to or not.  I tried using Word styles and classes in the HTML, but the only thing that worked for me was to manually add the following to the <p> tags on the paragraphs that don’t have indents:
      style=’text-indent:0in’
    5. Monospaced (Courier) Font. This is another one that drove me nuts.  Even the Kindle Publishing Guidelines (sec 3.1.6) say there is a bunch of ways to get Kindle to display the newspaper-like Courier font, but I tried <font face=”courier”>, I tried <pre>, and the only thing that worked for me was adding <tt> tags around paragraphs (<p></p>) where I wanted to use the  monospaced font.
  2. Check your formatting by emailing your .htm file to your Kindle.
    1. Find your Kindle’s email address (it’s under the settings somewhere as “Send-to-Kindle Email”), open a new email (from the same email that your Kindle account is registered to), attach the .htm (doesn’t matter what the subject or body or the email contain), and send it.
    2. Amazon will automatically convert it to display on Kindle, and if your wireless is turned on, it will show up there in 2-3 minutes.
    3. Save yourself some time by tweaking your .htm file NOW, instead of doing all the following steps and having to redo everything when you find a formatting error.  (Note that your images will not work.)
  3. Use MobiPocket Creator to create the .prc file that you will ultimately upload to KDP.
    1. Start a new MobiPocket project with your formatted .htm file from above
    2. Use MobiPocket’s wizard interface to add the cover, metadata, and guide items (helpful walkthrough on guide items).  This will enable the program to automatically generate 90% of your .opf file.
      1. OPF File. “What is a .opf file?” you might ask.  For some reason, Amazon neglects to address this ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL PIECE of your ebook anywhere on their site, so it wasn’t until I did a bunch of digging on the internet that I learned what this was.  It’s called the Open Packaging Format and it’s basically an overall file that tells your Kindle where to find all the stuff it needs to display the book properly, including your .ncx file (more coming on this in a bit), images, all the metadata, the guide items, etc.
    3. Resize any images referenced in the manuscript .htm file to the desired display size and copy the image files into the same folder that your MobiPocket project is in.  (Don’t use MobiPocket’s Add File feature UNLESS you want the image to also display at the very end of your book.)
    4. Manually create a toc.ncx file and copy it into the same folder as the rest of your MobiPocket project
      1. NCX File. Perhaps you’re wondering, “What’s a .ncx file?”  I was wondering the same, and lo and behold, Amazon once again COMPLETELY NEGLECTS TO MENTION THIS CRITICAL PIECE OF YOUR EBOOK anywhere on their site.  Seriously, Amazon, wtf?  I learned from this really helpful guide to making a toc.ncx that it’s called a “Navigation Control file for XML applications” and that it basically tells your Kindle where those little tick marks at the bottom of your screen should go and enables users to jump quickly between chapters.  From a usability standpoint (and if you want your book to look like a “real book”), you need to have this working, so follow the instructions in that post to make yourself a nice toc.ncx file
    5. Use MobiPocket’s Build function, which will create the initial .opf file and .prc file (but you’re not done yet!)
      1. You might hit some errors, so read the build feedback and if there are any warnings, look them up online to try to fix them.  Luckily for me, the only thing I hit was that I had forgotten to copy my image into the same folder, so I don’t really have much experience debugging build issues – sorry!
    6. Now it’s time to tell that .opf file where to find the .ncx file.  Open the folder where your MobiPocket project is stored, right-click the .opf file and choose to open it in Notepad.  (Do NOT edit in MobiPocket or any changes you make will be overwritten).  Then do the following:
      1. Fix the line spacing to make it readable, if need be
      2. Add within the <manifest> tags:
        <item href=”toc.ncx” id=”ncx” media-type=”application/x-dtbncx+xml” />
      3. Edit the <spine> tag to read:
        <spine toc=”ncx”>
      4. Save and close the .opf file
    7. Now go back into MobiPocket Creator and Build again to generate an updated .prc file which now includes your .ncx
    8. Again, save yourself some time by testing the file before you move on.  Follow the same steps from #2 above to email the .prc file to your Kindle and test out your .ncx and images and general formatting to make sure it looks good.  If not, go back and edit (either in your .htm file and make a new MobiPocket project, or in the .html file in your MobiPocket folder) BEFORE you go to the next step.
  4. Okay, now that you’ve got a good .prc file, you’re ready for KDP.  Login to KDP, fill in your metadata in Steps 1-4, and on Step 5, upload the .prc file that you generated with MobiPocket.
    1. Note that if your book is a series, the only way I could figure out to get the series title to display consistently (e.g., “Stitch (Stitch Trilogy, Book 1)” instead of just “Stitch”) is to manually type that in the title.  I did this everywhere – on CreateSpace, KDP, MobiPocket, Smashwords etc. I’m not sure if that’s necessary or not, but it seems to be working thus far.
  5. That’s it!  Just follow the rest of the steps on KDP to preview the .mobi file for your book, and once you’re happy, follow the rest of the KDP setup process to get that baby out there!
    1. Note that if your previewing turns up issues, you’ll need to repeat this all starting from a new project in Step 2 (or editing the existing .html file in your MobiPocket project and rebuilding).  In case you have to start a new project, remember to save a copy of your .ncx file somewhere safe so that you don’t have to remake it from scratch every time.

EBOOK FORMATTING TIPS FOR SMASHWORDS

(Ugh, yes, there’s more…)

Just when I thought I was done, I went on to Smashwords to investigate what format they needed so that I could get my book on iTunes, B&N, etc.  I expected this to be easy – after all, I had a perfectly formatted, fully-functioning .mobi file from all that work above, so I should be good to go, right?  Nope!

For some reason I thought I’d be able to take my .mobi file and upload at Smashwords and we’d be all set.  Not so.  Smashwords only takes .doc files.  I thought, “Well that’s not too bad – my manuscript is a .doc after all, so I’ll just upload that.”  But then I started reading the Smashwords Style Guide (which is VERY helpful, btw) and realized that the chances of that working were almost nil.

So I tried one idea for a shortcut, which was to open my .htm in Word and save it as a .doc.  Unfortunately, this did not work – it looked like garbage, with random line breaks all over, the styles completely messed up, just unreadable.  So I ended up going with the Nuclear Method.

The Nuclear Method

The Nuclear Method was recommended in the Smashwords Style Guide (Section 5) as the easiest way to clean up all that formatting garbage.  I ended up having to invest another 4 hours here, but in the end I have a version of my book which Smashwords was able to successfully convert into 10 different electronic formats, making it available on virtually any reading device.  For some of these formats the formatting is not quite as good as on my Kindle version, but it’s 95% of the way there and I just decided that that’s going to have to be good enough.

Here’s what you do: Open your Word file with your original (or CreateSpace) manuscript, do CTRL+A to select EVERYTHING, then CTRL+C to copy it all, then open a new Notepad file and do CTRL+V to paste it.  You’ve effectively removed all formatting from your book.  Now you need to repeat the process and copy it back from Notepad into a new Word .doc file.  Do CTRL+A once more to highlight everything, and choose the text style “Normal.”  And now you’re starting from scratch.

The main thing to keep in mind about the Nuclear Method is that it removes EVERYTHING.  That means you’re going to have to manually add back page breaks, all your text styles, extra spacing after paragraphs, even any italicized words THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE BOOK.  But it was the only thing that worked, so just grin and bear it (or, if you can, get smart and pay someone else to do it for you!  I will next time…)

Here’s a bunch of stuff you need to remember to fix:

  1. ISBN & Smashwords License. Make sure your copyright page is showing the correct ISBN (NOT the same ISBN as your print or Kindle formats – it must have a separate one, which Smashwords will give you for free.  Or you can just leave the ISBN out).  Also remember to include the required Smashwords License Notes:This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
  2. Page Breaks.  Not all output formats respect them, but at least the PDF and Mobi versions do (and possibly others), so add these back in at the end of your front matter pages and chapters.
  3. Un-Indented Paragraphs. Similar to my Kindle experience, I tried making a “First Paragraph” text style which set the indent to 0 or 0.01, but I found that it wasn’t respected in most (any?) of the output formats.  Instead, manually select each paragraph that you don’t want to be indented and change the Paragraph properties to set the First Line Indent to 0.01 (helpful tutorial from Microsoft).
  4. Space Before/After Paragraphs. Don’t use the Enter key to add space before/after paragraphs, as the Smashwords Auto Vetting tool might flag you for doing so and prevent you from publishing your book.  Instead, add extra space before/after paragraphs using Word’s paragraph spacing feature (tips from Microsoft).
  5. Italics/Bold/Etc.. Unfortunately the Nuclear Method kills all your text decorations, so you’ll need to manually add them all back.  I found that it was helpful to use my original/CreateSpace manuscript file to search for italicized words so that I could remember where to add italics (helpful walkthrough on searching for formatting in Word here).
  6. Other Text Styles. I had mixed results using text styles other than Normal in my Smashwords .doc.  The Chapter Header style I created seemed to work well, and some parts of the Newspaper style worked, but for some reason the Front Matter style and the First Paragraph style were ignored completely by most output formats.  I found that my best bet was to manually add any formatting other than Normal to the paragraphs where it was needed.
  7. Hyperlinks. If you include any hyperlinks to websites in your book, make sure they include the http:// – otherwise, they will get nailed by Smashwords’s automated tools.
  8. Rebuild TOC. Yes, you have to rebuild your Table of Contents ONE MORE TIME.
    1. DON’T use Word’s autogenerated one this time.  Instead, manually add bookmarks at each chapter – instructions here.  Smashwords will use this to autogenerate a .ncx file for you.
      1. I found that it was best to put the bookmark BEFORE the chapter header, in the line above if possible.  At first I highlighted the whole chapter title and added the bookmark, which resulted in the actual “jump point” being at the END of the highlighted text, which meant that when I tried this out on an e-reader, it would jump to the right spot but would cut off the title of the chapter, which was disorienting to the reader.  On my second attempt, I put the bookmark on the paragraph right after the page break from the last chapter (above the header) and this seemed to give me the behavior I wanted.
    2. Once you’ve got your bookmarks, retype your TOC (it should probably be there already from when you pasted in from Notepad) and add hyperlinks to each bookmark from the TOC.  See instructions in the Smashwords Style Guide (Section 20).
  9. Preview It. EXCEPT you’re not previewing it, you’re publishing it. What?  You heard me – if you upload this thing to Smashwords, it’s going live right then and there.  I didn’t realize this, and I thought I would just get a preview version like I did on Amazon, and then I hit the submit button and there was Stitch on the homepage of Smashwords.  Oops!
    1. If you’re not ready to publish the book yet, you can quickly go into your Dashboard and Unpublish it, which will pull it from the store, and you can still continue uploading drafts and testing out the various outputs until you get it right.  But be forewarned that the publishing date will forever show as the original one.
Whew!  We’re done.  I sincerely hope this information is helpful to someone out there – it took me a LONG time to figure this all out and document it, so hopefully it will save someone else some time!  Remember to check out Part 1 of this post if you’re looking for CreateSpace print formatting tips.

 

 

 

Kindle/CreateSpace/Smashwords Formatting Woes: I figured out the hard stuff so you don’t have to! (Part 1)

I’m just coming up for air after an intensive multi-day foray into the surprisingly (and frustratingly!!) difficult world of formatting a book for consumption through CreateSpace print-on-demand, Kindle KDP, and Smashwords.  My impressions:

1. I honestly don’t know how anyone without a software engineering background publishes a Kindle book.  As a former Microsoft employee and someone with a general interest in programming, I have plenty of experience writing code and markup, and I have a pretty decent knowledge of HTML (which is what format the book needs to be in for Kindle).  Despite my credentials, I had a REALLY hard time getting the damn thing to behave how I wanted it to behave.  How do normal people ever figure this out??

2. Again, as an ex-Microsoft person, you would think I would know basic Microsoft Office programs like Word inside and out.  And compared to most people, I think I do.  But even so, I STILL spent hours learning new Word features and figuring out how to get them to do what I wanted.  Again, how do writers who don’t have a background in these areas ever get this right??

3. There is a serious lack of comprehensive help information on the KDP or CreateSpace sites.  I put off all this formatting stuff until the end b/c I (mistakenly) thought that Amazon would have easy-to-use tools that were designed to help self-published authors get their books to market quickly and easily.  Instead, I spent hours upon hours wading through blogs and online forums to find tips from other authors who had struggled through it and eventually figured it out.  Amazon, get your shit together and write up a step-by-step guide for newbies!!!  (After a lot of digging, I did find this, but it was no-frills and definitely targeted towards people with a basic understanding of Kindle publishing and HTML, which I don’t think most first-time self-published authors really have.)

4. Smashwords does a much better job of making the formatting steps clear, BUT I was disappointed that after I had gone through hell with my Kindle format and finally got a good working ebook, I couldn’t just upload it to Smashwords.  Instead I had to start from scratch, again.  And then when I uploaded my file expecting to get a preview back, it published it!

So I guess this is why there are so many companies that now charge $400+ to format your book for you.  At first I thought, how hard could it be?  Why would anyone throw away $400 on formatting?  Well, now I know.  If Stitch makes ANY money, I can promise you that in the future I will be dishing out to have someone do this for me as well, since I spent WAY more than $400 worth of my time to figure this stuff out.

Okay, so now that I’ve finished my rant, I’ve got a list of useful tips for anyone who might be trying to sort through these same problems.  Below are tips for Print formatting for CreateSpace, and Part 2 of this post will has Kindle & Smashwords tips.  Hope this helps!

(NOTE TO READERS: My tips are based on my experience in summer 2012 doing this in Word 2010.  Things change quickly in the world of software, so just be advised that my tips may be out of date by the time you get to them…)

PRINT FORMATTING TIPS FOR CREATESPACE

#1 Advice: Start with a Template!

CreateSpace has kindly posted formatted and basic templates for all available print sizes here.  I used the 5.5 x 8.5 Formatted Template and it got me 80% of the way there – I just saved their template on my computer and wrote my manuscript right in there.  I liked it b/c it gave me a good idea as I was writing how long my book/chapters would be and what the final product would look like.

#2 Advice: Think Kindle from the beginning!

It’s easy to focus on getting the print version perfect and put off the Kindle formatting until later, but based on my experience, it would have been A LOT easier to make sure I was using Kindle-friendly formatting in my Word doc BEFORE I converted it to HTML for the Kindle version.  So if you landed here just looking for CreateSpace tips, if there’s any possibility you will also release your book on Kindle, make sure you read the Kindle tips in Part 2 of this post as well.

Customizing Fonts, Spacing, Indents, etc. with Word Styles

This is huge.  You CANNOT, I repeat, CANNOT just highlight text in Word and change the font like you usually do.  There are a few reasons for this:

1. If you change your mind about your how you want your font/spacing/indents/etc. to look (and you will!) it will be a NIGHTMARE to fix it, b/c you’ll have to go through every spot and fix it manually, instead of just changing the style in one place.

2. It will be even MORE of a nightmare once you convert your book to HTML for the Kindle version and there’s so much formatting markup that you can’t even read the damn thing.

So my recommendation: use Word’s Styles feature.  There’s plenty of information out there about how the feature works (here’s a nice long tutorial from Microsoft).  I had a handful of different styles – one for regular body text, one for the first paragraph of a chapter (with no indent), one with a special “newspaper” font, one with a “newspaper” headline, and one for front/back matter.  The main things that I got snagged on:

– If you’re trying to modify a style, sometimes you will run into difficulties because the style is inheriting properties from another style, in which case you may need to modify the “based on” style instead.  For example, when I tried to change certain properties of my body text style, I found that they wouldn’t take until I noticed that the “Style based on:” was listed as “Normal” which, in order to access and edit, I needed to open up the Styles window and go from there (see the tutorial above for info about finding the Styles window).

– Don’t forget that a Style is also where you should edit things like line spacing, space before/after paragraphs, indents, etc.  You can find all of these things hidden under a little drop-down called “Format” in the bottom left corner of the Style Modify window (which you open by right-clicking on a Style and choosing Modify).

Use Word Section Breaks to Ensure Proper Header/Footer Formatting

The CreateSpace templates have some nice features already built in, like not showing the header on the first page of a chapter or not showing the page number on front matter like the copyright page and dedication page.  It all works great as long as you stick with the pages that are already there, but if you decide to switch things up at all, you might run into some trouble.

The key here is to understand how Word’s section break feature works and make sure you’re using them properly.  Here are instructions about how to add a Next Page section break.  I found that in my case, as long as I did this when adding new front/back matter sections or chapters, the formatting that was set in the CreateSpace formatted template worked just fine.

Word Automatic Table of Contents

This is another important one.  You’ll save yourself a ton of time and effort by using Word’s automatic Table of Contents generator, not only in the print version but also once you convert it to Kindle.  Here are some clear instructions from Microsoft about how to use this feature (skip down to the “Create a table of contents automatically” section.)

Adding Extra Space Before/After a Paragraph in Word

If you need extra space before or after certain paragraphs, DON’T just press the Enter key to add it.  Instead, use the Paragraph Spacing feature to adjust the amount of space before/after your paragraph as needed (instructions here – skip down to “Change the Spacing Before and After Selected Paragraphs”).  Remember, if you need to do this for ALL paragraphs in your book, use the Styles.  This is just to adjust individual paragraphs (for example, if you are showing a break in the middle of a chapter when changing point of view or skipping time).

Word Vertical Page Alignment (Centering Text Vertically on a Page)

This is actually very simple, but the feature is hidden away in a spot where you might not think to look for it.  This is particularly useful for front/back matter.  See instructions here (under “Center the Text Between the Top and Bottom Margins”).

Okay, that’s it for my print version tips!  Check Part 2 of this post and the Kindle formatting tips.

 

The Big Reveal: Stitch Cover Art!

I’m SO excited to share the final cover art for Stitch!  Drumroll please… Ta-da!

Book Cover Art for Stitch

A big shout out to Damon over at http://damonza.com/ for bearing with me through many, many rounds of revisions until we got it just right.  He’s fantastic – I really can’t say enough!

Doing the cover was probably one of the most fun aspects of this whole process.  Even when you have a finished manuscript with 300+ pages and 75,000 words, it doesn’t really feel like a book.  But seeing your name on the cover makes it real.  I wrote a book!  Look, there it is!  Ahh!!!

In all seriousness, though, the cover is probably your most important selling tool, and one of the things that’s great about being a self-published author is that you have full control over how your cover looks.  As a person lacking in graphic design skills, this can also be a bad thing (there are plenty of hideous homemade covers out there…), which is why I decided to invest some money in getting a professionally designed cover by someone who actually knows what they’re doing.  It was really important to me that my book look like a “real book” and I think we’ve managed to achieve that.  Yay!

One of the challenges of designing the cover is that it needs to give the reader an idea of what to expect without giving too much away, and of course also has to be compelling.  And then of course there’s the “too much face” issue – since I wanted to show the characters’ eyes, I obviously needed to show some face, but my beta readers were very clear in that they didn’t want to have a face planted in their brain before they even started reading.  So it was necessary to find a balance in that respect.

My book also incorporates elements of both paranormal romance and sci-fi, and it was a challenge to find a design that didn’t lean too heavily in any one direction.  I wanted to keep it clean and modern – in keeping with the feel of many YA sci-fi/fantasy books lately – and I wanted to use images that would hint to the reader that this book is more than just a love story between a girl and ghost, that there is something much deeper (and more science fiction-y…) going on below the surface.

Being that this is the first book of a trilogy, I also needed a repeatable design scheme that I could use for the remaining books so that they would form a cohesive set.  I was happy with this design because it provided a handful of elements which could be tweaked and reused to show the progression through the series.  (Hint: there’s a teaser of book 2 – which includes the book 2 cover art – at the end of Stitch… but you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of the book to see it!  Muahahahaha.)

Anyway, I’ve got to go post this baby on Facebook and other spots on my website, so I’m heading off to do that!  Would love to hear what you think about the design!

Any Advice? Marketing & Promotion Schedule

The past few days while planning my marketing campaign, I keep running up against the same question (or rather, ramming into it headlong until my brain is mashed to a bloody pulp): should I start my major marketing push before or after the book is released?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wading through book blogs and trying to find good candidates for bloggers who might have the time and inclination to review my book.  Now that I have a nice hefty list of 100+ blogs who might be a good match, I’m trying to figure out the optimal timing for a publicity tour.

My initial thought was to do it before b/c, well, this is how things are done!  Books (from New York publishers, at least), movies, music albums, even clothing lines (H&M and Banana Republic have been doing a lot of this lately) – they all do the same thing.  Announce the upcoming product launch, create a big social media presence for it, send out emails and messaging to everyone and anyone who might be interested, and then launch the thing on the appointed day to fireworks and blaring trumpets and thousands of cries of success.  So I thought, okay, that’s what I’ll do too.

BUT as I work on implementing this plan, I keep running into roadblocks that piece by piece are tearing out the foundation of my plans (see lists below), and I’m starting to worry that the whole campaign is about to crumble below my very feet.  The only solution I can think of would be to “soft launch” the book as soon as possible and then run the campaign afterward.  Though logically it seems like this should be fine – and I believe it’s what a lot of self-published authors end up doing for the reasons listed below – instinctively it’s just not sitting right with me for some reason.  So to decide my course of action, I’m going to do what I do best: make some lists.

List 1: Reasons to Do the Marketing Push BEFORE Launch and Have a Big Grand Release

  1. Blogger Priority. A lot of bloggers said they give preference to Advanced Reader Copies (who wouldn’t?  Seems like a lot more fun to me too to have an “in” on something before anyone else can get it), or that they at least would do their best to post their review near the launch date if it’s coming up, so it seems like doing a pre-launch campaign would give me higher chances of getting more blogs to review the book sooner.
    • One counterargument here is that a lot of these blogs said they also give precedence to upcoming blog tours, so if I decide to do a soft launch, maybe as long as I schedule a formal blog tour, I will still be able to get timely reviews?
  2. Instincts.  Again, for some reason I just generally have a gut feeling that this is the optimal way to go (that is, if there weren’t all these other issues blocking me from doing it effectively – see next list)
  3. Hmm… I thought there was more here, but this is all I can think of at the moment.

List 2: Reasons to Soft Launch and Schedule the Marketing Campaign AFTER the Book is Available for Purchase

  1. Window of Opportunity.  It’s summer, and it’s not going to be for much longer.  Stitch is a great fun summer reading book for readers of any age, and a big portion of the target market are teenagers who have to go back to school in the fall.  I need to get the book in their hands before they have homework to worry about, and while they still have enough time to finish it before all the “back to school” hullabaloo begins.  (Note to self: remember this, and in the future, start planning summer releases much earlier!)
  2. Impulse Purchase Availability.  The entire point of doing a marketing campaign is so that people will buy the book, so it is absolutely critical that readers be able to act on their purchase impulse when they encounter your marketing.  Unfortunately, at this time Amazon KDP does not offer the ability for self-published authors to take pre-orders on books, which means that if I did the big campaign before the book was for sale, there’s a good chance a lot of people would forget about the book by the time they could actually buy it.
    • Note: There is a totally hacky way of using Amazon Advantage (a tool for having Amazon distribute print books on your behalf) to take pre-orders of the print book, but the problem is that the print book costs 3 x’s as much as the Kindle version, so if people pre-order the $9.99 paper copy and then all of a sudden on launch day a $2.99 Kindle option appears after they’ve already paid $9.99, they’re going to feel ripped off.  And that’s a very good way to alienate readers and make them hate you (bad idea!!).
  3. Ease of Getting Print Copies. Most bloggers seem to prefer the print version over the ebook format, and some even went as far as to say they would probably take 2-3 times as long to get through an electronic version versus a print version.  The problem is that CreateSpace (Amazon’s print-on-demand self-publishing option) only allows the author to buy 5 “proof” copies before the book becomes available for sale, which is not nearly enough copies to send to all these blogs, especially b/c I need extra copies to do contests/giveaways.
    • Again, there are some workarounds here, but all of them require hassle and/or make me nervous b/c there’s potential that I could screw it up.  One option is to create multiple copies of the book on CreateSpace and order all their proofs but just never release all the extras (unless I somehow accidentally do!), or to make the book available on CreateSpace but then disable all the sales channels so that no one can actually buy it except me (but what if I do it wrong, or what if the sales channels don’t came back right/quickly when I’m ready for the “official” launch?).  Another option is to work with a different printer to print a bunch of ARCs, but this is expensive and hassle-filled, and then I have to deal with going to the Post Office or UPS to ship each book to each reviewer, which again is expensive and a huge time-sink.
  4. Cost and Ease of Shipping.  I didn’t keep a full tally, but it seemed like many (if not most) of the bloggers I found who are into YA sci-fi/fantasy are located internationally, most often in the UK.  Though sending ebooks is no problem, again, most of these bloggers preferred print books, and since I’m asking them a huge favor, I feel I should give them whatever they prefer.  If the book is available for sale, I can easily sign on to Amazon.co.uk and buy the book for the blogger while paying the local shipping rates (about $4) instead of mailing it from the US for $11-16.  And even for US-based reviewers, how much easier is it to order the damn thing off Amazon and have it shipped directly to the reviewer (especially since I have free 2-day shipping with Amazon Prime) versus mailing each review copy out myself?
  5. General Schedule Considerations.  I can’t start doing this marketing campaign until the book is totally done, and I still need a couple weeks to finish the cover art and get final feedback from my beta readers.  Given that I need to give most bloggers probably 4-6 weeks of lead time to read and review the book once I have the finished book, that means if I wait for the reviews to be posted before the release, the launch date is going to be creeping into September (which not only misses the summer reading window, but is also infringing on wedding crunch time!).

And that’s it for my lists.  As usual, this exercise has been incredibly valuable – looking back over those two lists, it’s abundantly clear that there seems to be many more factors in favor of doing a “soft launch” ASAP and focusing the marketing and promotion after the book is on the shelves.  So that’s my plan.

What do you think?  Am I using the right strategy here?  If you can think of any other factors that I didn’t consider above, please leave them in the comments!  This question has occupied my every waking thought for the past week, so I’d love to finally put it rest…  Thanks for your help!

Navigating the Befuddling World of Book Blogs

Yesterday, I almost drowned.

Okay, not literally, but I felt like I was drowning.  You see, I had a couple free hours, so I decided to dive in and get a head start on my marketing plan.  And oh what a deep, deep dive it was…

As anyone who uses Amazon probably knows from personal experience, buying a product with few or no customer reviews just feels a little bit shady.  There are millions of people using Amazon every day, so if not even a handful of those millions have purchased a particular product, it begs the question of why.  Why am I the only one buying this?  What does everyone else know that I don’t?

Or maybe that’s just me…  But I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not just my own shopping paranoia, because there are hundreds and hundreds of blog posts and books and articles about how to get people to review your book on Amazon so that other people will actually want to buy it.  And according to all these sources, the number one way to do that is to plead for help from book bloggers.

The idea seems simple enough.  Find blogs who review books like yours, email them to see if they want a free copy, send it out to the takers, wait for the reviews to flood in.  Yay!  The only catch here is that:

1. There are A LOT of book blogs.  Like THOUSANDS.  Which means you have to go through each one and spend 5+ minutes evaluating whether they’d be a good match for your book or not, b/c if they’re not, asking them to review it would not only be a waste of your time and their time, but will likely also result in some less-than-stellar reviews…

2. Once you find a blog which you think would be perfect for your book, you go check their Review Policies page and find out, oh, whoops!  They’re not accepting any review requests b/c they’re already backed up with 6 months of reading.  Or more likely, they’re not accepting self-published works b/c they’re already backed up with 6 months of reading and self-published idiots who can’t write or proofread have been flooding their inbox with requests to read their crap, and since you’re self-pubbed too, they can only assume you’re one of them.

3. After going back to the drawing board, you find a list of book bloggers who do read self-published novels, and start checking out those Policies pages, and luckily many of these bloggers are interested in your genre.  Except, your book doesn’t *quite* fit into any one genre so neatly (which was the entire point of writing it, because as a reader you were ready for something different and figured other people were too), so there are some bloggers who like paranormal romance but don’t say anything about dystopian sci-fi.  Should you bother asking that person?  Some are devoted to Young Adult books, but if your main character is in college or their early twenties, are you really YA?  And there are tons and tons and tons of posts out there from book bloggers saying, “please don’t email me if your book isn’t in a genre I’m interested in!” so you really don’t want to irritate these people by sending them requests that aren’t up their alley, but you just don’t know if yours is a book they might like.  So do you send it, or don’t you?

4. Okay, so after hours of sifting, you’ve picked a list bloggers who you’re fairly certain would enjoy your book and who are actually accepting submissions and who are open to self-pubbed authors.  So then the question is, when do you send your request?  Should you send an Advanced Reader Copy before the launch date since a lot of reviewers seem to give preference to ARCs and you want to build buzz?  But many bloggers need 6-8 weeks to read it, and you didn’t really want to wait that much longer to launch your book…  So maybe you should just launch the book and do the marketing thing after it’s already available?  But will that hurt the book’s reputation in the long run, to come out to a fizzle instead of a bang?

5. And finally, what can you offer these people in return which will make them want to read and review your book?  Yes, you’d love to think that the simple enjoyment of your compelling and well-written narrative will more than compensate them for their time, but that is not reality.  Reality is that this person is going to need 10 hours to read the book, another few hours to think about what they want to say and actually write the review, another hour to post it on their own site and Amazon and Goodreads and wherever else they’re kind enough to post it, and in the meantime they all have day jobs and these successful blogs to keep fresh with content.  And what they are giving to you with all these hours is incalculably valuable towards helping your book to sell, so what could you offer that could ever return the favor?  There’s the usual interview, a giveaway, a guest blog post, etc., but how do you know what they actually want?  How do you make this complete stranger like you enough to do you this huge favor??

So as you can see, this book blogger thing is not as simple as it sounds.  I’ve started compiling a list of blogs who might be interested in reading and reviewing Stitch, but I still have a lot of doubts about whether I’m going about this the right way.

On the bright side, the book blogging world seemed very supportive of authors in general.  Most bloggers who were too backlogged to accept review requests said they’d at least be happy to do an interview or host a giveaway.  And many also seemed open to being included in a “blog tour” (basically like a virtual tour where the author visits blogs instead of bookstores).  So there is hope left in me yet that with enough persistence, this will all work out.

The good news is that if you are an avid reader and you want free books in exchange for writing reviews, there is plenty of demand out there for your services!  If you’ve been thinking of starting a book blog, do it.  My recommendations would be to 1) make sure your blog is listed on directories of book bloggers (like this one or this one) so that you’re easy for authors to find, 2) post a Review Policy page with an easily locatable email address (you’d be surprised how many blogs don’t do this!), and 3) be specific about what genres you like (and what you don’t like).  And pretty, pretty please take submissions from self-published authors!  (Maybe request that they include the first few pages of the book in their email so that you can weed out the garbage…)

Oh, and if you want to review Stitch, be on the lookout for future posts…  :-)

On Freedom & Liberty (and a Belated Happy 4th!)

(This blog post was meant to be in honor of the Fourth of July last Wednesday, but as I spent Independence Day and the subsequent rest of the week incapacitated by a freak summer cold, I’m a little late.  Sorry!)

I love America.  I really do.  I cry at museum films about the Revolutionary War and Ellis Island and the writing of the Constitution.  When abroad, I’m indignant at the little things other countries do wrong even when they don’t affect me directly (handicap accessibility, anyone?) and I spend the whole trip wishing I was home.  And like any good American, I believe strongly in the ideals of liberty and freedom.

But what does freedom really mean?  There are all kinds of freedoms.  Obviously there’s the broadest concept of being free, i.e. not someone else’s property (America was a little slow on the uptake here… great job, USA…).  But once you’ve got that basic freedom, there are still many other facets to consider – freedom from want, freedom from coercion, freedom to express ideas.  And it’s at this intersection that some of the themes of Stitch lie.

Now, considering that the book hasn’t been published yet, I’m going to shy away from spoilers, which makes it difficult to get into specifics.  So instead of an analysis of how these themes appear in Stitch, let me instead talk about how I see the ideas of freedom and liberty evolving today, and how those observations inspired me to touch on these topics in the book.

As I mentioned before, I am wholly vested in the patriotic ideals of freedom and believe that these ideals are what make the US great.  However, I think that the way we think about freedom is very different today than what it once was.  Because the majority of Americans are lucky enough to be free from basic wants – food, shelter, clothing – and are afforded every foundational liberty we could ask for just by virtue of being citizens of this country – the ability to choose our own religious beliefs, to express our opinions to whatever degree we desire, etc. – we tend to take these things for granted.

So my first thought was, how would Americans of today react if we suddenly couldn’t take these things for granted anymore?  What would it mean to my daily life if I no longer felt secure that I could get food whenever I wanted, or didn’t have a safe place to go home to, or couldn’t say whatever I please to whomever I want without having to worry about being thrown in jail?  What personal or ethical compromises would I make to achieve this sense of security that I so rely on?

My next thought was, well, how could we have gotten to that point?  What would have had to take place to change America into a place where freedom wasn’t given so freely anymore?  Post-9/11, I think we all saw how quickly we were willing to trade liberty for safety.  Suddenly, racial profiling and phone tapping didn’t seem quite so wrong, as long as they were for the collective good, of course.  And based on my brother’s experience, these days it’s nearly impossible for a recent college grad to even get a credit card, since a newly-financially-independent 21 year old doesn’t have enough of a record to prove their identity (that is, to prove they’re not a terrorist).  For crying out loud, we can’t even bring water through airport security anymore!  This sort of subtle erosion of freedom is a slippery slope indeed, and it’s happening all around us already.  So what if the world suddenly got less safe?  What else would we be willing to trade?

And finally, this begs the question of what it really means to be “free.”  If you can’t leave the community you live in whenever you please, are you free?  Probably not.  If you are fed and clothed and sheltered and entertained, but you’re afraid to ask too many questions, are you really free?  I think most of us would say no.

But what if you don’t know enough to be afraid?  What if you’re living a comfortable, state-constructed life that’s better than what you came from before, and you’re happy and have no desire to leave, or even to look beyond your own borders?  Are you free then?  Maybe not, but is your liberty compromised enough that it’s worth fighting for?  Is it worth dying for?

These are some of the questions that the characters in Stitch will struggle with over the course of the series, and I think they are important for everyone to consider (which is why so many great science fiction novels before mine have asked the same questions).  After all, how can we ever truly appreciate what we have if we don’t consider what it would be like to not have it?

And with that, I’ll leave you to your thoughts – feel free to share them in the comments!  Happy (belated) Fourth of July and God bless America.

Making the Connection – Marketing a Book to Readers

I can tell you with confidence that having people read your book is the absolute best part of writing one.  Since Stitch hasn’t been released yet, there’s only been around 20 people who have read it to provide feedback.  But when I hear back from those people about what they thought (good or bad!), it makes my day every time.

As a first-time author, I have to say I wasn’t expecting this – I thought the writing itself would be the fun part, and the sharing would be nerve-wracking and painful.  But much to my surprise, it’s not.  Even when the feedback is critical, I’ve found that the fun of sharing my book with others well outweighs any negatives.  And it’s made me eager to get the book out there and into readers’ hands.

So now the question is, how do I find more people to share it with?

Up until this point, my blog posts have been about things I’ve already accomplished and which I feel reasonably comfortable I did well.  But marketing is uncharted territory for me.  I’ve only just begun the process of trying to find readers, and having never marketed a book before, I’m not really sure what the most effective strategies are.

Lucky for me, lots of successful authors have been kind enough to document their experiences in blogs and ebooks, and so from those sources, I’ve compiled the following plan:

1. Create an author website with a page about your book and an active blog (done!)

2. Create Facebook pages for your book and for yourself as an author, get enough people to like them to claim the vanity usernames (done!)

3. Create a Twitter account and use it to interact with readers (…not quite there yet, but perhaps someday soon)

4. Design intriguing cover art that looks good and is recognizable at thumbnail size (on its way!)

5. Tell everyone you know that you wrote a book.  Ask (beg) them to read it and refer it to other people who might like it (get ready friends & family!  planning to do this as soon as my book is available…)

6. Find reviewers.  Start with the people you know who’ve read your book and have them post reviews on Amazon & Goodreads.  Find blogs who review books in your genre and see if they’re interested in reviewing yours.  Reach out to influential reviewers on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. and offer them free copies of your book.  Be creative in finding other groups of people who might be interested (people from your hometown, hobby groups related to the content of your book, etc.) and find a way to get your book in their hands.  Host contests for free books or giveaways of advanced copies.  Basically, do whatever is necessary to amass as many reviews as possible… (still figuring out how I’m going to do this – I’m sure there will be later blog posts on this topic)

7. Make your book easy to find.  List it in as many relevant genres on Amazon and in the ISBN info as possible, use Smashwords to get the ebook version distributed at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers, make sure your website comes up when you search for the book in Google, etc. (will do this as soon as the book is ready for release)

8. After launch, remember the 3 P’s: Patience, Persistence, and Patience again!  Every author I’ve spoken to has said the same thing.  “It takes time to build an audience, so don’t get discouraged and just keep trying to get your book in front of people.  Don’t give up!”  (patience… going to have to keep reminding myself about that one!)

So that’s basically my plan.  Of course, this is just the beginning of a plan.  Once the book is for sale, there will be all kinds of levers to tinker with – pricing, promotions, Amazon Lending Library, local media, bookstore appearances.  So we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them, and in the meantime, I still have plenty of work ahead in getting the book ready for release and trying to garner reviews.   Check back for my reports on the results!