A self-publishing journey


I was inspired to write this post after fellow writer Katie M John chronicled her voyage into indie publishing on her website.

Like Katie, I’m an indie author, which is a trendy way of saying that I’m independent. I self-publish. I don’t have the backing of an agent or publisher – it’s all down to me, for better or worse.

The decision to work in this way isn’t ideological. I don’t have anything against either publishers or agents. Quite the opposite, I’d love to have the backing of a publisher who believes in my work. I’m indie because I’m pragmatic: it gets the job done. Rather than spend potentially years seeking a publisher, I’m out there, selling my work, generating a readership.

Of course, this means that it isn’t just the writing that’s down to me. Everything a publisher would do, I have to either do or organise.

Like Katie, I didn’t want the fact that I’m indie to be an excuse in any way whatsoever. I want every aspect of my work to stand up alongside traditionally published works: not just the writing, but the cover design, printing, layout – everything.

I was fascinated to read Katie’s account of her experiences and she encouraged me to share mine – so here they are. Like Katie’s post, this is a long one.

I write using Scrivener. I’ve blogged about this before, but quite honestly I can’t stop banging on about how good it is. If you write long-form, this is quite simply the best tool for the job – Word is a jack-of-all-trades, Scrivener is designed for authors, by authors. Check it out.

What this means in practical terms – or did, for my first novel The Well, is that at some point it has to come out of Scrivener into your final publishing tool. That’s usually Word. In my case, I exported after the first draft was complete for two key reasons:

  • I was sending the manuscript to test readers, so it made sense if we all had a common reference point when discussing revisions – in other words, page numbers.
  • It had to go into Word at some point anyway, so that my editor/proofreader could work on it. She works on Windows; I work on a Mac – and at the time Scrivener was only available on the Mac.

I deeply regret this now. Word is so inefficient and slow at handling large documents that it severely hampered my revision process (at least, versus using Scrivener). I should have held on until the final draft. Well, it’s all about learning, isn’t it?

(As it happens, the new version of Scrivener directly exports to Kindle format and there’s now a Windows version of Scrivener too.)

Ten revisions later and I was ready to call The Well complete. Time to publish.

For me, publish meant both print and paper. It’s worth knowing that my strategy really is to produce e-books. But not everyone has a Kindle or other e-reader – I decided that a print version was essential for marketing purposes, if nothing else. This meant two publishing processes.

I’m fortunate that I already possess the publishing skills required. I’ve been a graphic designer for over twenty-five years and developed websites since the Web sprang up. So, I guess I wrestled less with this aspect than many writers would – although it still proved to be both problematic and time-consuming.

Getting my manuscript out of Word and into HTML was my first nightmare. Word’s claim that it can ‘save as HTML’ is about as accurate as me claiming I can fly (the best I can manage is to fall with grace). The resulting HTML is a garbage mishmash of unnecessary code. Those with an awareness of HTML can be shocked to learn that Word doesn’t even feel compelled to close tags such as paragraph tags, it just opens them, then opens another. It also adds in a massive amount of code which does nothing except increase the file size by around 35%.

I experimented with various tools to clean up the code, but I wasn’t really happy with any of the results. They improved the code, but it was still far from perfect. Since I can read HTML perfectly well, I decided to swallow hard and code it by hand. That sounds extreme, but actually it’s not that big a job – the manuscript may be big but it requires very little formatting. Most of the work was in stripping out the rubbish code. The next large chunk of work was replacing UTF-8 smart quotes and the like with XHTML entities. You could argue that I didn’t need to do this, but it does make the HTML more transportable. So, every instance of an open double-quote for instance would need to be changed to “ – this was really a matter of search and replace. I did the same for accented characters – in The Well one of the characters slips into Romanian, so these had to be in there. I’ve read a lot of Kindle books where ‘real’ publishers don’t bother with this, so all the reader gets is a word with an incomprehensible ? or ! in the middle of it. Poor show and lazy work.

Eventually, I had a clean HTML document. The Kindle file format is really a zip file with a different extension, with HTML and XML files inside it. The Kindle format also uses its own specific tags where there’s no HTML equivalent – such as to create page breaks. To create this file, I used a PC tool called Mobipocket creator (the Kindle format was originally .mobi – purchased by Amazon). Some aspects of this were a little fiddly and it did require a basic knowledge of XML to get the job right, but it wasn’t too bad. I was pretty astonished to find that while there are a few tools which claim to do this kind of thing, many are really not fit for purpose. Again, next time, this won’t be an issue – I can export directly from Scrivener to Kindle format. Although I work on a Mac, since I test websites I also run Windows and Linux, so using this PC-only tool wasn’t an issue.

A friend of mine who’s a professional illustrator, Daryl Joyce, painted the cover. I’ve blogged about this previously, so I won’t cover that again, other than to say that while it’s true you can’t tell a book by its cover, people certainly buy a book partly based on its cover – so it was important that this was as good as a commercial book cover. The cover is embedded in the Kindle file as a relatively low resolution JPEG, but on the print version it looks superb.

That done, it’s a relatively straightforward process to load the file onto Amazon and make it available for sale in the UK and USA (well done, Amazon).

The print version had its own challenges. I’d originally intended to use CreateSpace, since it’s part of Amazon – but CreateSpace can only make titles available to Amazon in the USA and not the UK, amazingly. So, I opted for Lulu. Unlike Katie, I didn’t want to invest in inventory – the print version for me is mainly a marketing tool. In fact, I literally make pennies from print copies sold on Amazon after Lulu and Amazon have taken their cut. I’m OK with that – I wanted to make it as affordable as I could. Print on demand means higher unit costs, so I was trying to offset that.

Because I’d originally intended to use both Lulu and CreateSpace, I’d opted for the smallest common book size, which was A5. As it happens, this is also quite economical – costing not much different than a pocket book size, but able to have more words per page. As I was about to learn, the number of words per page has a drastic impact on the cost of the final book.

I created a layout in Adobe InDesign, and flowed into it my 116,500 words. The resulting book would have retailed at a commercially unrealistic £16.50. Clearly, I needed to be more brutal with the book layout. I pulled down a bunch of paperbacks from my shelves and measured the font sizes and margins. I reworked the book to something more realistic – allowing for a £7.99 retail. My first printed proof showed me that I was still a little off – the gutter was too tight, so the book would have to be forced open too much to read it. I adjusted the gutter by removing space from the outer margins. (It’s worth noting that quite a few novels are 60,000-80,000 words, which would have really brought the costs down. Perhaps I’ll consider that in the future but The Well is a pretty tight fast-paced read, I couldn’t have lost 20,000 words easily.)

I chose a typeface which had professional ligatures, so that I would have nice-looking fl and fi characters for instance. I had looked at typefaces which were used in traditional publishing such as Bembo, but quickly realised that these had been designed in the days of letterpress printing where there is ink gain on impression. When printing litho, there is usually a little loss. I opted for Warnock Pro, which is nicely economical in terms of width and had a decent x-height so it is very readable.

My comparisons with commercially published books showed that many would reduce the typeface further than I had and also have tighter margins. If I’d followed the same route I could possibly have saved a little more in terms of pages and costs, but these looked too tight to me. If I was working with a publisher, this wouldn’t have been my call, of course.

It took a few proof copies before I was totally happy. Since Lulu gives you a free ISBN and can push from their systems onto Amazon, that gave me everything I needed. Click – publish. It was available on Lulu pretty much right away and then appeared on Amazon several weeks later.

There was a bit of faffing around with Amazon to get them to combine my print and Kindle editions – and the reviews – but they were very responsive, actually, and always helpful. The same is true of Lulu, though they can’t combine reviews of both my print and ePub editions. I created an ePub edition of The Well so that it would feed onto the iBookstore, but it’s yet to appear. (I’m hoping this isn’t because I sent a shirty e-mail to Steve Jobs criticising iBooks, and the smooth experience of being a Kindle author versus getting a book on the iBookstore.)

So, even for an old publishing hand, there were quite a few bumps in the road and a lot to learn. I’ve yet to get The Well onto the Sony Reader and Nook, which I guess I could really do with doing. (Any indie authors who’ve done this – I’d welcome hearing your stories.)

The next time around should be a lot smoother, partly because of what I’ve learned, partly because Scrivener now supports Kindle export, partly because I can hopefully keep the next book in Scrivener for more drafts and hopefully because Amazon will further improve their processes.

I’m not one to say ‘you don’t need a publisher’. Publishers offer a lot of value and take from your hands some time-consuming tasks. But it can be done without them – you’ve just got to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and expend some sweat!

About Peter Labrow

Peter Labrow has worked as a copywriter, writing non-fiction, for around twenty years. His output includes copy for websites and brochures; for around a decade he wrote a regular column for IT Training magazine. He has published one non-fiction book about learning within the corporate environment. The Well, Peter’s first novel, is available on Kindle and in print from Amazon. View all posts by Peter Labrow

13 responses to “A self-publishing journey

  • Katie M John

    I am so glad you did this post, Peter. Wow how different and yet similar experience. We took such different routes; mainly because I am basically ICT incompetent by comparison 🙂 I am going to print out this post and stick it my note book for next time. There are a lot of alternatives / extras here that need to be worked on.
    What is most interesting to me is the paperback print copies and the costing. It does, it would seem pay to go to a ‘traditional’ industry printers as the cost per unit for my 380pp book was approximately £4.50 BUT and it is a big BUT – you do have to raise the capital for 100 copies first and this is a big barrier for lots of people.
    Thanks again, Peter – Brilliant. If anybody would like to see a completely different route please feel free to check out http://katiemjohn.blogspot.com/
    What both Peter and I agree on whole heartedly is that with hard work, creativity and determination YOU CAN get your book out there to a readership. And there are a whole host of other indie writers who will support and look after you 🙂

    • Peter Labrow

      It’s a long post, but this is very much the abridged version! Considering I’ve been in print a quarter of a century I was amazed at how much there is to learn – but then I’ve not designed books. I still didn’t get it all right.

  • Carmen

    Wow – I can’t even begin to imagine all that html work, it takes me a day just to figure out and alter it on my blog if I fancy a new look.

    I have to say I am one of those naughty people that does judge a book by it’s cover, I know I shouldn’t but it happens. Love the cover work on The Well, sets the scene totally.

    • Peter Labrow

      I think the notion that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is noble but nonsense. We all do it. Most people decided if they fancy someone within a few seconds. A book cover has to catch someone’s eye and hopefully tell something of the story within. As to HTML – it shouldn’t be so hard to do all of this stuff. I know you can upload a Word file to Kindle Direct Publishing but the results are just not the same and the file size is massive by comparison.

  • Anders Gerdmar

    I’m beginning to appreciate Scrivener too, however coming from quite another direction, heavy scholarly writing, my horror ;).
    I love mostly two things: to be able to handle each little bit of the text as in Scrivener, and the full screen. I’ve also migrated from Word, never to go back. I still have not evaluated the export side of it, and find the footnote functions, which are very important to me, somewhat primitive compared with those in Word, but I hope for some developments…

    • Peter Labrow

      Yes, those two things are my biggest loves in Scrivener – the way the text is broken down into sections and the full-screen mode, which is highly customisable. Although it’s not great for layout (because it’s not intended to be) it’s fantastic for everything else. It takes Word well over two minutes to load up a big manuscript (and that’s on a machine with 8GB RAM) – on Scrivener it’s instant.

  • amber simmons

    Regarding publishing to Sony and Nook, have you checked out Smashwords? It may be worth looking into if you haven’t already.

    Also, regarding the HTML file conversion, this wonderful article has great advice about a much faster process for converting from Word (or whatever) to HTML. http://guidohenkel.com/2010/12/take-pride-in-your-ebook-formatting/

    As a former web dev myself, I can appreciate the time it takes to hand code. Sometimes it’s worth it. In this case, though, the methods outlined here will probably save you some time and some sanity 🙂

    Thanks for the article. It’s fascinating to hear other people’s processes 🙂

  • Monday Links | Clary Books – Jennifer Powell

    […] Two stories by authors following the independent, self-publishing path. Horror writer Peter Labrow share his self-publishing journey, and he links to fantasy writer Katie M. Johns, who has described her own experience as an indie. […]

  • Brian Rathbone

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree with Amber’s recommendation to check out Smashwords. I’ve been using Smashwords for a couple years with much success. You may find that the “meatgrinder”, which takes a Word doc and generates multiple formats, does not quite hold up to your formatting tastes. It’s a bit “one size fits all”. For example, you cannot upload your painstakingly formatted .mobi file to Smashwords. Instead, Smashwords will generate its own.

    Despite its rigidity and shortcomings, Smashwords provides a great way to get onto multiple platforms including Sony, Kobo, B&N, and Apple iBooks. One of the great things I’ve found is that you can distribute free ebooks to these platforms through Smashwords. My free title, Call of the Herald, has been downloaded over 40,000 times in the first quarter of 2011 through Smashwords distribution. I’m pretty sure that B&N’s PubIt does not allow for free titles. For paid titles, it can be advantageous to go through PubIt, as you have more control over the categories and product page.

    Using a free title on these platforms has allowed me to attract a large number of readers, and my sales on Kobo, Sony, and B&N outpace my sales on Amazon. I would definitely look into getting onto these additional platforms.

    I’ve also found Twitter to be my best avenue for connecting with a community of readers and writers. It takes time and patience, but the payoff can be very worthwhile. Feel free to connect with me on Twitter, I’m @brianrathbone.

  • sarahwinters

    In 2009 I wrote about my self-pub trip with iUniverse on my blog. After reading how difficult HTML was for you, I’m glad I left all of that to them. I am not good with the smallest HTML issue. Thank you very much for sharing your journey. I will look into Scrivener it sounds ideal. 🙂

    • Peter Labrow

      Well, the HTML wasn’t a big deal for me because I do it as a day job, but it’s work I could have done without. I think with Scrivener 2 you can go direct to Kindle, which is fantastic. I can’t recommend Scrivener enough. Thanks for commenting.

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