Grammar and Spelling Do Matter

I’m a self-confessed grammar geek, which is a dangerous thing to say in a blog post like this.

Whether you are lucky enough to find yourself an agent and publisher (i.e. the traditional route) or have decided to self-publish, the quality of your writing matters. Self-publishing frequently involves paying someone (or some company) to prepare and publish your book, which is a reasonable choice for any author who does not have the necessary technical knowledge. Don’t assume that your book will be proofread and corrected if you go this route – not unless you pay for it.

In any event, the responsibility for producing a clean and readable manuscript lies with the author no matter what help they get along the way. Like many others, I cannot (yet) afford to pay for editing, copy editing, or proofreading. It’s my job – there’s no way out.

If you can’t get an editor, the one thing you must have is beta readers. These are often friends or family, but if you can find strangers, so much the better. Friends and family are liable to be too forgiving. Whichever you get, prepare a comprehensive list of things you need to ask them when they have read the book. This might involve opinions as to characters, pacing, plot, and setting. If they are up to it, you might ask about structure readability. You need feedback on how the book hangs together. Don’t ask them to proofread it at the same time. They won’t read the book properly if they’re looking for typos.

It’s hard to proofread your own work. The first thing you need is some distance – wait as log as you can afford to after finishing your last complete draft. Creating that final draft involves (for me) reading the entire book at least once and making the more major changes. It’s usually a long time since I read any of the first three quarters of the book, so I often find structural changes necessary there. Once I have that real final draft, I move onto copy editing/proofreading, which I tend to combine.

This, too, involves more than one pass. I first read it on my PC, but I read the chapters in the wrong order – just tick them off as you go along. The second pass is done on my phone. I create a Kindle or ePub book to do this. Kindle lets you take notes, which is useful. (I think ePub does as well, but I haven’t tried that yet.) I find the small screen makes grammatical and spelling errors stand out.

The last proofread is on a paper copy. I put the book up on to Amazon Createspace and order a proof. I then go through it with red pen and mark up all the changes I find. Be careful when correcting them that you don’t make more mistakes. It’s easily done.

Once that’s all done, I do a few passes with an editor looking for various things, such as:

weasel words and phrases (as defined by C. S. Lakin in her book Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage). These are the little words that we all put in by habit. Examples (for me) are just, only, began to, very, rather, really, and quite.

I also do a pass for words ending in -ly to root out those dreaded adverbs, along with checks for it was and there were to oust the passive voice.

I don’t remove all instances of these words. They are sometimes useful, but I find them peppered throughout my manuscripts in such profusion that the vast majority get deleted.

I found one book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, to be immensely valuable in helping me understand how to edit a book.

 

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Publishing with CreateSpace

I wanted real paper-and-ink books as well as ebooks. Living in the UK means I have the same desire as all UK authors: to get the book into Waterstones. It’s about the only major high street retailer for books left in the UK. There are, thank goodness, lots of independent bookshops as well, but Waterstones is important.

So I am publishing the same book (with the same ISBN) via Ingram Spark and Amazon CreateSpace. I can, apparently, get away with this by not selecting Amazon’s global outreach option. This means that, so far as they are concerned, the book stays within their own ecosystem. Ingram handle the rest. This, combined with the fact that I bought my UK ISBNs from Nielsen means that my book will, at least, be listed at Waterstones, so people can order it or buy it direct through the website.

Before adding your title on CreateSpace, Amazon make you set up payments (they will do direct bank transfers internationally – at least to some countries) and the dreaded W8-BEN tax form. This is necessary for us non-US authors who want to sell via Amazon.com. If we don’t jump through this hoop, the IRS will withhold 30% of our royalties. Fortunately, Amazon make this incredibly easy by providing an online tax questionnaire which ends with them creating an electronic W8-BEN form. All UK authors need is their National Insurance number, which also acts as a unique tax reference. Simple process. Thank you, Amazon.

Once you are set up as a CreateSpace user, you can add titles. This is straightforward. Amazon are good at allowing you to do things in chunks, so if you haven’t got everything you need, you can save a draft and stop until you get it sorted out. Much has been written about the importance of the description and keywords, so I’ll say no more here.

Amazon will provide a template for your cover. It’s a big template, and your cover only occupies part of it, which is a bit confusing at first. I did run into an issue here. Their online proofing system (which is excellent) showed my cover offset quite badly from where it should have been – a good half-inch out. I ended up downloading a different (correctly-sized) template from Bookow, which did the trick. Some people complain that Amazon want the cover in PDF format. This is not unreasonable, since that’s what their printers will use. They do, at least, accept covers using the RBG colour space. Ingram wants CMYK.

I uploaded the PDF for the interior of the book without a problem. Amazon then insist (rightly) on you going through a proofing process. You can do this online or via a downloaded PDF, but I always want to see and read a physical book. There was a minor issue here. Amazon can only print proof copies in the USA. Why, I don’t know, but that’s they way they work. I ordered two copies (two pairs of eyes are better than one), and chose the standard shipping, which should have taken about ten days. It took a lot longer, and the package couldn’t be tracked. Next time, I’ll be paying a bit more for a courier service.

I got the proof copies from Amazon rather than Ingram Spark because I wasn’t sure whether Ingram would charge me for uploading the new, corrected version. (They did, so it cost me $25 for the file upload of the new interior. You can get proofs from them before the book is released, but no more free uploads. I can only guess that their approval process costs money they need to recoup.) On CreateSpace, you can upload stuff as often as you like, so I knew I was safe..

The only wrinkle with using two POD distributors is that Ingram appear to use thinner paper than Amazon. I had, therefore, to create a new version of the cover for Ingram with a spine one tenth of an inch thinner.

On the whole I found CreateSpace easy to use.

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Publishing with Ingram Spark

I am nearing the end of the process of publishing with Ingram Spark. Their process is slightly different from Amazon CreateSpace. It may be a little less forgiving, but does have a professional feel.

Adding a title is a straightforward process. You will need to provide an ISBN. If you have to stop part way through this four-page process, there is no option to save a draft version, but their system does keep track. It will force you to start again from page 1, but the fields you have already supplied will be pre-filled.

To get a template for your cover, you also need an ISBN. Ingram Spark provides cover templates in PDF or EPS format. Both have your ISBN and barcode included. You do not have to put the barcode where they place it. Just incorporate into your cover art wherever you want – so long as it is on the back cover. One little wrinkle here is that Ingram want the cover in CMYK format. Using the PDF/X-1a:2001 when you save your CMYK file is also necessary.

There is a payment required as part of this process. Ingram Spark charge for adding a title. You will have already been required to set up both payment details (a credit card) and royalty payment details (direct deposit into a UK bank account, in my case).

Once you book is uploaded it will be listed as in a Premedia state. I also noticed that there was no cover shown on the details page at that time. Don’t worry – it will come along eventually. After a day or two, I was asked to check the proof for my book. This consisted of a PDF file to download which contains both the cover and the entire text. You can, after checking that, approve the book for distribution or (as I did) decide to withhold approval until you have seen a physical copy. You can order copies direct from the site, Ingrams have Lightning Source to do their printing, so no waiting long weeks (or spending vast sums) to gets proof from the USA, as you must do on Amazon CreateSpace. Lightning Source print in the UK (as well as the USA, Europe and Australia), so it shouldn’t be along wait.

Once you’re happy with the book, there is a button to approve it on the site.

I have to say at this point that the copies printed at Ingram Spark are nicer than the Amazon ones. The text is slightly smaller (leading to fractionally wider margins, which is nice), but much crisper and blacker than the CreateSpace version. This means, of course, that copies I buy to give away or sell will be from Ingrams.

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Kindle Wrinkle (Technical)

I had an issue with publishing on Amazon KDP that caused me a lot of grief, so I thought I would document it.

This revolves around the use of embedded fonts. I know many people say that Kindle doesn’t support them, and you should avoid them, but they are supported, and they do work (mostly). This issue is about one of those times when they didn’t.

I built my ePub file (by hand and with Sigil), then ran KindleGen to get a .mobi file. I used the Kindle Previewer (useful piece of software) to test it. All was well. I generated a file (suffix .azk) to test on the Kindle reader on IOS (iPad and iPhone). You can copy that file to your device via iTunes. All was well. My chosen fonts worked just fine.

In order to publish to Kindle, you have to upload the .mobi file to Amazon KDP. The upload worked and a new (different) .mobi file was produced. I downloaded this to test on Kindle Previewer and found that one of the fonts was not loading correctly. Hmmm.

In case you didn’t know, this .mobi file is pretty much identical to an ePub file inside. Both are basically zip files that contain a set of folders holding all the HTML and CSS for your book (along with a manifest, index information, etc.). All the font files were present and in the right place (no, you can’t extract them and use them – Amazon kindly obfuscates them).

However, two references to the font-family CSS tag had been stripped out of the CSS file.

I finally found out that if you use a font-family in an HTML tag (via a class, of course) inside higher-level HTML tag, the Kindle converter gets confused and strips out both font-family tags. In my case, since one of the HTML tags was relatively unimportant, I switched that to use a standard san-serif font, which looks fine.

Just so that you know, I have a font-family defined for the <body> tag (which, providing that it has a valid fallback font, works fine) and on a <p> tag inside it. The paragraph (a one-liner) only had the font-family because it was referencing a bold version of the font.

The next time I uploaded the book, all was well.

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Buying UK ISBNs

Nielsen is the UK ISBN agency. The smallest block of ISBNs they will sell is ten. Buying a block of ISBNs sets you up as a publishing imprint. You should take care in selecting your imprint name. Nielsen will try to tell you if the name has been used before, but they cannot guarantee to avoid a clash. I selected Griping Griffin (the name of an inn from a novel I wrote years ago).

Nielsen provides a PDF form online to apply for ISBNs. A block of ten (as of May 2015) will cost you £144. The form is fairly straightforward. It’s an editable PDF form, so it can be filled in on your PC.

Nielsen are friendly and helpful,so call them if you need help. You can pay by credit card (supply the card number on the form or a phone number that they can ring to take payment) or by direct bank transfer (which takes a couple of days to clear).

I’ll try to clarify a few fields:

Publishing Name is the name of your new imprint.

Communication Details. I chose not to show any of the data.

Date of Publication. You need to specify a month and a year as a minimum.

Subtitle. Don’t confuse subtitle with series title (as I did).

Name and address of publisher. That’s you (and your imprint).

Name and address of distributor. This one took me a long time to research. Since I am publishing and distributing via Ingram Spark, all I wrote was Ingram Spark (via Lightning Source). Nielsen understand this and will fill in the correct details for you.

Fill in the payment details, and you’re done.

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ISBNs are not a Mystery

International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) seem to cause confusion. This is frequently because the companies trying to help writers self-publish try very hard to make the process as easy as possible, including the assignment and use of ISBNs.

ISBNs are there to uniquely identify a given edition and version of a book.

The bottom line is that every discrete version of a given book should have its own ISBN. For a novel (as an example) there should be one ISBN each for:

  • the printed book,
  • the ebook (all ebook varieties can share an ISBN), and
  • an audio edition.

Any time a book undergoes substantial changes (more than just copy-editing), a new ISBN should be assigned.

That is the official line from the ISBN agencies. If your book is only to be sold in a given ecosystem (e.g. selling a Kindle book on Amazon), you do not have to have an ISBN. Amazon have their own unique identifier called an Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). This is fine for them to identify a book within their own systems, but if you want to publish more widely, you need an ISBN.

How do I get an ISBN?

You have several options:

  • buy an ISBN (or a batch) from your national supplier (this is Nielsen in the UK and Bowker in the USA),
  • use an enhanced distributor who will publish your book under their imprint and supply an ISBN,
  • allow your distributor (e.g. Lulu or Smashwords) to give you a free ISBN, or
  • don’t use one at all (i.e. only publish in one isolated system).

Free ISBNs are perfectly valid, but will mean that the provider of the ISBN is listed as the publisher of the book.

My decision was to buy a batch of ten ISBNs from Nielsen in the UK (where I live), which effectively sets up a publishing imprint – in my case that was Griping Griffin. I will, over the next few years, have four books to publish, so I will need at least eight ISBNs (four for print, four for ebooks). For a total outlay of £144, that sounded like a good deal to me. Nielsen are friendly and helpful, but their standard form can be a bit daunting. I’ll provide some help in a later post. Once set up, they have an online system to allow to add or manage your titles to their list.

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Routes to Self-Publishing

When I first started looking at means of self-publishing, there was one name that jumped out at me: Amazon. It seemed like an easy option. It is highly likely that Amazon will account for a large percentage of the sales for any indie author, and that, for a while, seemed good enough for me.

Amazon have two main offerings: CreateSpace for print publishing and Amazon KDP for Kindle. Of these, KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) is the easiest. I have decided that I will us both these routes, but not in isolation.

I have not included any of the paid assisted services here, since I do not (as yet) intend to use them.

Print-on-Demand

For print publishing there are a few other options: Lulu, Ingram Spark, and Blurb. I have tried both Lulu and Blurb.

N.B. You may have heard of Lightning Storm as a possible print-on-demand option. This is also owned by Ingram, and they have, it seems, decided to push indie authors to Ingram Spark instead, reserving Lightning Storm for small publishers. You may still be able to get an account there, of course. If you can, you will get a wider spread of discounts available.

Lulu has a clear and easy process for publication and may be ideal for authors who want a few copies of a book to give or sell to friends and family. The issue is that the print costs at Lulu are far too high. They cannot compete with the others and are therefore not viable for me.

Blurb are excellent at publishing photography books, but I have no experience of using them for anything else.

I have decided to use Ingram Spark for non-Amazon print books. This will, according to my research, work well alongside Amazon. I can publish the same book (with the same ISBN) through both channels at once providing that I limit the Amazon sales to their own stores only, using Ingram Spark to provide books to the rest of the world.

This sounds optimistic, and it is. As a UK-based author, I want my books to be available in Waterstones and other UK bookshops. Pricing them and providing the ability for the shop to return unsold copies is difficult if I still want to make any money. To get any kind of a return, I would have to price the books too high for anyone to buy them. For now, I accept that having them available to order through UK bookshops will have to be good enough.

Ebooks

For ebooks I found the following options: Amazon KDP, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Ingram Spark.

There is, of course, an option of publishing directly to each ebook store. Karen Inglis has a useful page on her experiences on her blog.

Amazon KDP

I will be using Amazon KDP, since it would be stupid not to, but I will try to reach other major distributors (Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.) via other routes. I will also try to publish on Google Play, but will have to do that myself. Since I want to use all these stores, I will not be signing into Amazon’s Select program on KDP, which gives you a few benefits in return for your book being exclusive to Amazon for 90 days.

Smashwords

I will also be using Smashwords, mostly for their reach and royalty payments.

I am, I should say, wary of the Smashwords “Meatgrinder” (as they call their auto-converter from Word to EPUB). I have, instead, created my own EPUB files and will use that wherever possible.

Draft2Digital

This sounds like a growing competitor to Smashwords and, as such, may be well worth considering. Their reach is slightly smaller, but that will change.

Ingram Spark

They have a huge reach for ebooks as well as print. The major downsides are that they charge an annual fee for keeping your book in print and that they pay much lower royalties than Smashwords. For me, the annual fee is what makes them non-viable. The history of publishing is littered with pulped books that just didn’t stay on the shelves long enough to get noticed. Ebooks should last forever.

 

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Cover Preview

Third Circle (front cover)

Front Cover

Whilst my first novel is not due to be published until the middle of May (to make sure I’ve got time to everything right), I thought I might share the latest cut of the cover. It’s not quite locked in yet, but is looking very likely to be the final version.

I went against the prevailing advice here and designed the cover myself, though with a considerable amount of help from Gill. She spends a great deal of time using Photoshop, and I think we were able to come up with a powerful enough image to sell a few copies of the book.

Time will tell.

While I’m dishing out praise for Photoshop skills, why not take a look at her website, which is called Roompics.com.

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Research

Research is getting harder on the Internet. All the information you need is there, of course, but finding it can be difficult.

The main issue I had with researching self-publication was the amount of out-of-date information that is out there. As an example, I was investigating US tax withholding for non-US authors and was immediately bogged down in ways to get tax IDs from the IRS to be able to fill in the require W8-BEN form. I eventually found out that this process has been simplified by the IRS, and authors can use a local tax identifier – providing that your country has the relevant tax treaty with the USA. In the UK, you can use your National Insurance number.

There was a further wrinkle. Some publishers are obviously not aware of the change, so still require the old process.

That was, admittedly, an esoteric sample, but the self-publishing industry is changing. New players arrive, old players improve. Any author wanting to move into self-publication must be careful to pick the right path for them.

My first decision was whether to go it alone or to pay for help. There is no right answer to this. There are a wide variety of publishers who will take your Word (or whatever) document and turn it into an ebook or into print. They will, however, charge for that, and some of those charges can be savage. There is a useful analysis of the market in Choosing A Self-Publishing Service 2014 (updated each year, I believe) from the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

Being technically minded (and a web developer), I was not afraid of constructing EPUB (the most common format) ebooks myself, so I didn’t feel the need for professional help. Many other authors would find this incredibly difficult. The only real advantage that could see for me in picking a publishing partner was to get help in UK-based distribution. Like every other UK author, I want my books in Waterstones. If I can find a sensible deal to do that, I’ll jump at the chance, but I can’t afford to pay a fortune for the chance of selling a few copies and having the rest returned at my expense. Bookshops need large discounts and a sale-or-return agreement which, for print-on-demand, is almost impossible to meet at a sensible price.

I will discuss this issue in a later post specific to self-publishing in print.

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The Beast is Born

New blog.  New blogger.

My world has changed into that of a writer making the decision to go for it and self-publish. I haven’t always been like that. A few short weeks ago I was determined to hold out and try to get an agency to take an interest in my work. Didn’t happen. Probably never would happen, if I’m being realistic. That doesn’t mean I’m a poor writer. It reflects the state of the publishing industry.

This blog is not all about publishing. It will be about my writing and books as well.  I can’t promise there won’t be a few geeky grammar posts in here. Like most other writers, I have pet hates (and loves), and I know I’m not going to be able to resist posting about them. I’ll keep it positive, though. Rants are not my thing.

I read a fair bit, so you’l get to know about that as well.

So who am I? Jerry Beckett, author of Third Circle, the first volume in the Children of the Moss trilogy. That book is currently in the throes of being published both in print (insofar as any indie author can) and ebook formats. I’ll be blogging about my experiences of doing this, of course. For day-to-day stuff, follow me on Facebook. There’s a link up there on the right.

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