Sunday, July 22, 2012

From manuscript to bookstore ... a route map to get you there!

The other day I was asked a very good question, and this is an excellent opportunity to answer it, for several reasons. One, I'm in  a blogging mood. Two, I've actually started writing myself. Three, since I've started writing too, I'm thinking analytically about the process of publishing, something I haven't done in years -- and this was the meat and potatoes of the question put to me, which was this:

What does it take to edit, format and publish a book from the time an author hands over the writing to the moment when readers can buy it online?

That's a highly astute question! Let me see if I can put the process into perspective here ... and at the same time show off a little of the art I did as a cover artist for one of the other ebook publishers, while I was working with them in 2010 and 2011. (Incidentally, if you want to see the large-size images, you'll find them on the Book Covers Gallery on my main website.)

Here goes...

The publishing process all starts with an evaluation of  the quality of the work that's received by an editor or publisher. Some writers are good enough to deliver what I call "bulletproof copy." This is work that's virtually good enough to go when it lands on my desk. Mel Keegan falls neatly into this bracket, but he's the exception, not the rule. It's far more usual for a writer to need at least a degree of "remedial" editing to get the work fully up to speed.

"Remedial" editing is just what it sounds like: a tidy-up job. Very few writers have grammar that is 105% perfect, 110% of the time. Even fewer writers will be able to hammer out a denouement that is flawless, or close to it. And even fewer will be able to achieve crystal clarify of exposition every time, all the time. A good editor will go through and make recommendations for how a work should be massaged to get it to the point where the reading experience will be highly pleasurable. And let's face bald facts: the writer is trying to please the reader, because they want to sell copies of not just this book, but their next one, too!

So if you're a writer just finishing a book, you might want to bounce it off a couple of reliable "beta readers" before sending it to a professional editor, to get some perspective. The better the work is before you send it in, the better your chances of selling it!

Some writers ... those with many years of experience ... will be able to do all this in their own heads, or perhaps somewhere between their eyeballs, fingertips and computer screens. Let's say you're already darned good and you're sure of the veracity of the work. Next job? Copy editing. Here's where sharp eyes and vast amounts of concentration come into play, and it's true that the more human eyes on the job you have, the better the result will be. Copy editing and proof reading are about scanning on the most minute level, looking for typos (typographical errors), spellos (spelling errors which will elude the spell checker), and grammos (grammatical errors). Even if you known the difference between words like discreet and discrete, and compliment and complement, you fingers can type the wrong one on autopilot, and no spell checker will pick it up. Then there's rhyming typos, and near-mis typos ... like to and too, and the and thee and three, and about a thousand more...

Proofread till you think you're done. Then proof some more. Recruit your friends and relatives to proof for you. As a last resort, high a freelance editor or "proofie" to look at the work when it's as good as you can get it. They'll charge a fee, so make sure the work is very good before you send it to them. A freelance can either heavily correct four pages per hour, or triple-check 25 pages an hour. If the manuscript is problematical when you hand it to an editor, it could cost you a lot of money to get it up to speed...

(And here, it's worth asking the key question: are you sure about your grammar and technical skills? I mean, are you dead sure? Do you know for a fact you have a strangle-hold on the vagaries of the English language, or are you still playing it by ear, taking the occasional shot in the dark, and hoping to score? If you're not so sure of your English technical skills that you can do this stuff with your eyes shut, ask a good freelance editor to look at a few pages for you. Don't submit pages that have been corrected by someone else -- send your own words, just as you write them. If they come back heavily annotated, you'll know it's time to hit the books and learn this trade before you try to sell your work.)

If you do have to hit the books ... don't worry. It's all part of the process. Every writer, bar none, has to go through this. You'll get through it too, and you can enjoy the journey. The bottom line will be the same: you'll become a good writer who's ready to go pro. It'll soon be time to submit your work to an editor -- or, time to go idie, if you've caught the DIY bug. And let me assure you right here, there is nothing wrong with going indie! It can be a lot of fun, and if you do it right, it can be lucrative, too. The only thing readers demand of you is complete professionalism, so you'll need to gird your loins and give them what the want: 1) a top-notch story. 2) Good writing skills. 3) "Proper" book packaging. 4) A lovely cover that will catch their eyes in a catalog. (The eye-catching cover is essential, because if you don't catch the eye in the catalog, readers won't even be reading your sample chapter.)

So the next step in this logic chain is packaging. Once you've reached the point where you firmly believe the body of the work is polished till it shines, it's time to get it into a shape that's acceptable at market. To quote Han Solo, this is where the fun begins.

You might think packaging starts with the cover ... and you'd be dead wrong. Your first question needs to be this: "Who'll be reading this book, and what will they be reading it on?" It's true to say that about 75% of your readers will be reading on a Kindle! So you can let Kindle worry about packaging the product. Make sure you get the "front matter" right, and do a top-notch html file for upload to them, and they'll take care of the rest. But if you only release through Kindle, you're losing twenty out of every potential hundred bucks. It's worth going the extra distance and producing at least two other file formats: epub and pdf.

Everyone in the world can make a pdf these days, so I won't even go there; but epub is still new enough to be worth talking about. Even now, it's a marginal format -- meaning, fewer people are using it than ought to be ... because it's not only better than pdf, it's far, far better  than pdf, and if the format is properly promoted in the near future it won't go the way of Betamax! If it does, I'll be grinding my teeth, because epub is the perfect format for any device I own (BeBook, Android tablet, smart phone, laptop, desktop) while pdf gives me no end of headaches on the BeBook and 7" Android tablet ... and on the phone, phhhtttt. Forget it. Phones hate pdfs. Yet most people (up to 80%, according to the forecast) will be reading on phones inside the next few years!

So here's a tip: don't get too cheap. Spend forty or fifty bucks or so, and get a proper program to make proper epubs. Play a hunch, and guess that there's going to be gajillions of readers like me in the future, who're more and more predisposed to using only epubs because pdfs are just too much hassel ... and we love to read on our phones. So long as you have a program to make the epub for you, you have no problems. The file will be fully professional -- which is what readers demand. If you try to use one of the online "converters" ... well, they're free. That's about all you can say for them. The product? Crap. Sorry, guys.

Now you're cooking: the book is well thought out and plotted, well written and edited, proofread to death; you've done your html for upload to Kindle, your epub and pdf making software is on standby. Now -- now! -- is the time to think about your cover art. And this is where someone like me comes into the picture.


There are artists out there everywhere, and a lot of them are very, very good indeed. The only thing you need to make sure is how much they're going to charge, and if their work is what you want/need. As a hint, or tip, don't pay an arm and a leg, because there are artists who'll deliver fantastic stuff for under $50 -- even under $40; and if you'll take an "off the peg" or "ready to go" piece of work, you can get out of this particular wood for under $30! A red hot tip? Unless you're as sure of your artistic skills as you are of your grammatical skills, don't try to do the cover yourself. Its another of those instances where getting too cheap will hurt you in the long run, because ... well, now you're tickling the wonderful world of marketing books, where having a great cover is one of the concrete ground rules. I'm only going to say a quick few words about marketing books, because this was't part of the original question!

The original question was about what goes into getting a book from the submission copy to the point of release, but What Happens Next is an even bigger story. For instance, it's easy to whack your book onto Kindle, but here you are now, with a fantastic epub and pdf ... what next? You'll need a website and/or blog to sell them. You'll also need a file server to deliver the books and track sales, and pay you. Good news: anyone with PayPal can get a Payloadz account, and this answers almost every question you have about file serving and tracking, in one hit. A website? Well, give some serious thought to using a Blogger blog like this one! Whack your "buy" buttons into the margins as "gadgets," and run your blurbs and covers in the posts. Umm ... duh. But what about getting into those other stores, like Apple iBooks, and B&N Nook, and Kobo, Sony, and so forth? Well, up to very recently I'd have had to say that Smashwords was the best way to go. They're an aggregator, or accumulator -- meaning, they take in books at one end from writers and indie publishers, and they hose them into the big online stores, like the aforementioned. But...

It is nooooo secret that Smashwords can, and does, drive saints to drink. There's a thing the boss, Mark Coker, calls the 'meatgrinder.' I've had reason to call it 'the sausage machine,' because it can make you feel like you've been through a garbage grinder yourself! It's the conversion engine at the heart of Smashwords that takes in the trim, spruce .doc file you submit and (theoretically) converts it into html, pdf, epub, mobi and so forth. When it works, it's a dream. But it doesn't always work, and when it doesn't, you get error messages about things that don't actually need fixing ... a book can wind up 'caught in the machinery' for months. Mel Keegan's Flashpoint was caught that way. It went into the big online stores (other than Kindle) four months late, and there was not one thing we could do to get around this. In all fairness, I'll admit that 80% of the time the Smashwords engine works just fine. But when it chooses to hiccup (or barf, as Dave says), it's the most infuriating process in the world. And it turns out, you have an option. Read on!

Lately, Lulu has branched out into ebooks. Not only that, but Lulu will put you into a lot of the same stores that Smashwords reaches ... moreover, somehow (and I have no idea why), the sales at Nook and so forth tend to be a leeeetle but better via Lulu than via Smashwords. But here's the big thing: the process of getting to Nook and iBooks via Lulu is very, very easy. You send them a pdf and they do the rest. There's only small downside: the epub file will have unjustified text. Before you have the heebie-jeebies about this (too late, right?) it's a good idea to do some research not only into the devices people will be using to read, but also into the software they'll be reading in. One of the most popular epub readers -- free and downloaded hundreds of thousands of times -- is known as Moon Reader. And no matter how brilliant your epub is, Moon Reader will not display justified text. So, before you ditch Lulu as an avenue to get you easily, painlessly, into the ebook stores, think about the number of people who're reading on Moon Reader. Ahhh....so.

Now that you have have your stock and distribution figured out, you're ready to start marketing ... and you'll be asking, "How do I sell books?" That really is another question, and not one I'm going to tackle here, because it's way outside the scope of the original question. However, Mel Keegan has written a fantastic article on this subject, which is about to appear in a book, some time in July 2012. When that book comes out, I'll return to this post and update it with the url.

So ... how long does it take to go from Finished Book, to In-store and Earning? This depends on how much editing you need to go through, how long the book is, how many proofreads you can organize, how exacting you'll be with the cover art, and if you go smoothly through the process of upload to the engines which get you into the stores. Kindle takes just a couple of days to get a book into the catalog ... on the other end of the scale, if you decide to publish in paperback too, you'll need to format everything, then order a physical proof for delivery by mail, give it the OK, or correct it and go to another proof, and so forth. Paperbacks are a different animal, and a complex one, which might account for why the vast majority of publishing these days concerns ebooks! If you can organize reliable editing and proofreading, and you know what you're doing with the software, you can get through a normal-length book in a month or so. That's a book of something like 80-100,000 words. Longer books simply take more time. An artist should be able to deliver a finished work in anything from a few days to a week, depending on what complexity you're asking for. Then, entry to the Kindle catalog takes a couple of days, and getting to B&N, iBooks et al via an aggregator can take from a few days to a few weeks.

Then the marketing starts ... and as I said, I won't tackle that here, but will wait till the book for which MK has recently written a very good feature is released, and will return and update this with the url.

Hope this has been useful!

Jade, July 22

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