Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Self Pub Via Kindle Part 3: Formatting Tips

This is part of a series on self-publishing via Amazon through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. If you want to read the first parts of the series, you can find them here. Keep checking back for more posts with my tips, tricks, and thoughts about the process.

When I first considered going this route so publish a few Christian non-fiction books, I downloaded a webinar from Jeff Goins. I didn't know what a webinar was, nor had I heard of Jeff Goins. But his web-seminar (get it? webinar) was super helpful in terms of getting started. One of the tips was to pay for the book to be formatted into a .mobi, the file type used by Kindle. He said this costs between $50-200, usually. You should also pay, he said, for a cover artist, which can run around the same.

If you've been around, you know that I'm a bargain shopper. I don't ever pay top dollar, especially not for things I can do myself.

Thus began some of the most  miserable days of my life, spent formatting my ebooks.

Seriously. Before you read on, thinking that you are going to do it yourself and forget my advice, please read this twice. Actually I'll write it twice so you can just keep reading:  Pay someone to format your ebook. PAY SOMEONE TO FORMAT YOUR EBOOK. 

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me give you some tips. Because I know me, and the me's out there reading are still going to do it themselves. I totally get it. Especially since I am telling you to pay someone and I just formatted (and gnashed my teeth and maybe cried) my second book myself.  This post is dedicated to all the stubborn me's out there.

Read Amazon's Guide to Formatting.
Bookmark the help page now and make it your best friend. There are lots of tips, tricks, rules, and regulations right there for you to read. Everything from compressing images to making an active table of contents to making sure you have your indentations done the right way. When you have a question, go to that help page first. It will even give you difference between Mac and PC in your formatting.  That matters greatly, as I found out.

Follow What Their Guide Says. 
I'm pretty much reiterating the first point. But since I am writing this post to the me's, I know some of you will decide that you want to have some things look a certain way. If you plan to directly upload a word document to Kindle, you MUST do what they say. If you plan to use a free converter from Word to .mobi yourself (like Calibre), then you might have some options. Otherwise, do nothing funky. Your formatting will be made to conform as Amazon converts it. You will waste time on your funky preferences and your ebook will look just the way Amazon wants their ebooks to look, despite your time and effort.

Consider Converting Your Document for Kindle. 
This is a step I plan to try out sometime in the near future when I have some time, so my advice here is more theoretical. There is a free program called Calibre which enables you to convert your Word docs to .mobi yourself. The idea is that you can plug in all your formatting so that when your document is uploaded to Amazon, if you have some other formatting things, they will not be as affected in the transfer. I tried this once and my document got all weird, so I haven't had the time to work out the kinks. But this may ease the transition process in the long run if you can figure out the workings of Calibre.

Format as You Go. 
With my first book, I was in a rush to write it quickly. Make Him Room is an advent book, which meant I had a specific time frame. I wrote without thinking of formatting and then assumed I could do it all in one swoop, which I did. The problem is that everything from the way I indented my first sentence of each paragraph to the pagination was wrong and had to be changed. If you read the Amazon help page and know what you need to be doing, you can do it as you go. With the second book, everything was formatted so that when I went to publish, there were only a few kinks to work out. This saved me a huge headache. Do your homework ahead of time rather than cramming at the last minute. You'll thank me.

Table of Contents. Just...Table of Contents. 
This was the worst part for me both times. With my first book, I did not read the help page all the way and was using Mac but following Amazon's PC directions. I inserted a fully working table of contents in my document, uploaded my book and then realized the table of contents wasn't active. This isn't the worst thing, but it makes your book look unpolished and amateur. As the owner of a non-touch-screen Kindle, not having a working table of contents can be a HUGE disaster. You must have this work.

With Make Him Room, I tried four times to upload my book on Amazon and could not get the TOC to work. At 3am one night, I had a realization: I needed to do it manually. So I got up out of bed and formatted the thing manually (rather than just inserting the TOC) and voila--working TOC. The second time around with There Is No Small Call, I anticipated having an easy go. I created bookmarks for each chapter title and hyperlinks in the table of contents. I felt smart and capable. Then I uploaded my book and found that the table of contents was not active.

I had done everything correctly and could not for the life of me figure this out. I didn't want to promote without having the TOC active, and hated having a book up for sale on Amazon that was not fully functioning, so it drove me nuts. I ended up realizing that I had formatted the book on my Mac mini at home, then finished formatting on my new PC laptop. The only solution I could come up with was that there was some combination of the two that proved lethal. So I stuck with the PC, formatted one more time, and found that it worked.

Don't Use Mac AND PC. 
They aren't friends. Did you see the commercials from a few years back? Take note: you want to stick with one. I did find that using the PC, things were easier. I'm not sure that is a grand statement I can make about publishing as a whole, so I will simply say that you should not transfer your document on a flash drive back and forth from Mac to PC. It will make the publishing gnomes very angry indeed.

Pay Attention to the Preview.
While my first book was uploading, I hit "save and continue." This meant that when Amazon finished converting it, the book went right  into the queue to go live (this takes between 4-48 hours). I didn't get to preview it at all to see if things looked right. They didn't. I had weird boxes I couldn't explain, which came as I copied and pasted, and none of my links or TOC worked. Had I previewed, I would have known this. The preview may have slight changes (font, for ex) when the document goes into your Kindle or Kindle reader, but you can see if the TOC is active and where the book starts and if your hyperlinks work. Do not save without previewing. Wait until they convert, preview, and then hit save.

If You Design Your Own Cover, Make Sure It Holds Its Own. 
If I wasn't going to pay someone to format the book, I surely wasn't going to pay for a cover. I have the benefit of a nice DSLR, an artistic background, some knowledge of design, and access to photoshop. If you don't have these things, then you will either need to find a good friend who will donate their design, or pay someone. The last thing you want is to have your book look really dumb in the midst of other slick, professional covers.

The reality is that we ALL judge a book by it's cover. Especially online. You want it to stand out for good reasons, not because it doesn't fit in. Here are my two covers and a little bitty critique.

Major differences? Size of the covers as well as the font size and clarity. Make Him Room was my first attempt at a cover and I was honestly really pleased. It was simple and stood out when it was up there next to the other advent books. It looked different, but still professional. But on Amazon, the covers are a fraction of the size that you see here. Which meant that you could not read "An Advent Devotional" or my name. Kind of important. The title was even a bit fuzzy.

With There Is No Small Call, I followed the parameters exactly (there is an acceptable size and a recommended size) so that it looked like it belonged right there next to the other professional books. I also zoomed way out in Photoshop and then toggled between the Kindle bestseller page so I could see how the cover looked in that small thumbnail size and how it stacked up next to the others. And though it looks just like a photo with words on it, there were tons of layers and actions and whatevers applied to give it just the look that it has. I'm honestly thrilled with it. I knew what I wanted and I knew that I could do it myself. If you are unsure of your abilities or don't have the tools, PAY SOMEONE.

Are you hearing a common theme here? The theme is that formatting can be a beast. I lost sleep. I cried. Maybe I said things that I shouldn't have. I probably snapped at my kids or Rob. I might have screamed out loud at my desk. I wrote angry emails to the Amazon help desk. They are very willing to write back quickly, by the way. (Google, how I wish you would take note.)

What did I save? A few hundred dollars. Which, on my books so far, would have been a chunk of my profits. What did I lose? My sanity. Sleep. My sense of well-being. My sanity.

Clearly, since I am formatting myself again and plan to as well for my third book, I feel this trade-off is, in the end, worth it. We don't have extra cash floating around for this. There are no guarantees for how many copies you will sell. I feared that I wouldn't sell enough copies to pay for the formatting. That is a very real fear. If you don't have enough dough to front this endeavor, you may be stuck in DIY mode.

But if you are able to afford it, consider it a business expense and (say it with me) PAY SOMEONE TO FORMAT YOUR EBOOK. 

Update: Check out this really great post from Digital Book World on how to not look self-published as you are formatting!



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