Publishing a Book

Self-publishing advocate, and best-selling author, Hugh Howey has posted a video where he explains how he designs his paperback books. At around the 25 minute mark, you can see how he fixes widows, orphans, and the like--including the very-helpful kerning adjustment.

I wanted to share this because the intricacies of paperback book design are numerous and non-obvious (as I've mentioned to many people who have asked me about self publishing), and Hugh does a great job of illustrating the work involved.

I was just going to add a link to his video, but then I found a saved draft of the following post where I highlight some aspects of publishing that I found interesting, so I decided to post all of this at once. 

Regarding Traditional publishing

I was not successful with this route, but I'll share what I did in case it's helpful.

Today, the traditional publishing process for new authors seems to be something like this: 

  1. You write a book that is as close to print-ready as you can possibly get it
  2. If you finish your book, you try to find an agent
    1. Write query letters and send them to prospective agents, or figure out a way to meet them in person
    2. Wait
  3. If you find an agent, your agent attempts to find a publisher
  4. If your agent finds a publisher, you work with an editor at the publisher to finalize the book (more revisions, cover and interior artwork, etc)
  5. If that all works out, the book goes into production and you're eventually published!

It's a long process, with lots of opportunities to experience a flameout. Finding an agent can take months or years (and may never happen). Another long span of time passes while the agent tries to find a publisher (which also may never happen). And then another long wait during the publisher's editing and production processes. There are varied opinions on whether or not it's all worth it; there's all that effort, the rejections, and then, even if you get published, a very low probability of making any money anyway.

However, I think a lot of people still want to go this route because, basically, it would be awesome to be able to say you landed a traditional book deal. I decided to try it, and never got past step two. To be fair, all I did was send query letters, which most seem to agree is the least-likely way to land a deal (better routes include attending writing conferences or figuring out other ways to meet people in the industry). I queried forty agents or so before I threw in the towel and decided to self-publish.

Here's how it went for me. I...

  • Searched the internet for advice on how to write a query letter (there's a ton of it out there)
  • Wrote a query letter and let people read it
  • Got my first taste of real rejection when people told me the query letter was bad (and I'm like, Jesus, I thought I was done with agonizing over the writing part for this damn book)
  • Realized I was probably doomed because I had no references, no writing credits, and had written a novel in the genre with the smallest likelihood of getting published (general/literary fiction)
  • Finally had a query letter that I decided was at least half-decent
  • Realized I should have written it a long time ago, because it forced me to finally figure out what the book was all about
  • Found a directory of reputable agents (I used this one: and spent days going through it and building a spreadsheet of agents that seemed like they might be interesting in what I'd written (ordering them most likely to least likely).
  • Sent twenty emails, each with a customized version of the query letter and synopsis depending on each agent's submission guidelines
  • Waited six weeks, enjoying a steady stream of rejection form letters
  • Sent another twenty emails to the next twenty agents in the list
  • Enjoyed six more weeks of rejections
  • Decided to self-publish

I wasn't surprised or particularly disappointed by this outcome, since I knew the odds were long anyway, and I'd read engouh arguments by proponents of self-publishing to view it as a good option. For example, check out some of Hugh Howey's thoughts/stories on the subject, including being offered money by big publishing houses that was a fraction of what he was already making on his own.

Oh, and here's a fun word cloud of all of my rejection letters:


Advice for Self Publishing

Again, Use Scrivener

I talked about Scrivener in my last post, but I have to bring it up here because it was as helpful during this step as it was during the writing phase. It's not very expensive, and it's awesome. It's downright invaluable when it comes time to generate print or e-reader versions for self-publishing. The big win here is that it keeps most of the formatting of your book separate from the manuscript itself: you write it, and then compile it into a separate document formatted for print, or eBooks, or whatever you need.

It's the way to go.

Decide Where to Publish

I feel (and most seem to agree) that Amazon is a must. I used CreateSpace for the paperback versions, and KDP for the Kindle versions.

I also wanted Will to be available on Nooks and iBook readers, and I used Smashwords for that. Frankly, for me, using Smashwords was a gigantic pain in the ass. The hoops you need to go through to make it happy, and the confusing way it gives you feedback on where your book is in the process, were ridiculous compared to the process for CreateSpace and KDP. Now, to be fair, Smashwords is doing more work because they need to convert your book into multiple formats at once, something that would have been really hard to do on your own a few years ago. And they also take care of actually pushing your work onto Apple and B&N sites (plus many other smaller distributors). So, if you're not very technically inclined, maybe it's worth running their gauntlet once to get your book everywhere. But in my case, I think for my next book I'll try publishing to Apple and B&N directly.

In any case, you're going to need to be a little computer savvy if you plan to do it all yourself. At a minimum, you should be very comfortable with word processing concepts such as fonts, styles, margins, and the like. And you'll need access to an artist for the cover art (thankfully, I'm married to one). If either of these are going to be a problem for you, it might be worth finding someone to help you. Amazon has in-house services they'll be happy to provide, or I'm sure you can use Google to find others willing to help for a variety of fees (I'd recommend checking elance--which worked great for me when I needed editing help).

Use DiffPDF When Making Final Corrections

It takes a long time to get to where you're ready to pull the trigger and publish. In those final hours, someone is still bound to find a typo, or you may still stumble across a sentence that you think should be worded differently. This definitely happened to me, but I was terrified of making any changes at all because I was afraid I'd accidentally mess up the formatting or something. Like, adding a couple of words might push things down such that you get a single word by itself at the top of some page later in the chapter (a single-word "widow", or "orphan"--more on that shortly).

So, once I got to the point where I was uploading potential final documents to CreateSpace (the service I used to self-publish), I started looking for a reliable way to make sure I wasn't introducing problems from one "final" version to the next. I found DiffPDF and started using it to compare the last PDF I'd uploaded with the one I was about to, and it allowed me to carefully step through every difference to make sure all was well.

Decide How Hard-core You Want to be When Designing Your Printed Book

Speaking of widows and orphans, I realized late in the game that professionally published book designers go to great lengths to get each page of a book looking great. This includes removing widows and orphans (single lines at the top or bottom of a page). Furthermore, they use hyphenation to avoid

strangely   spaced  words    on lines ending in    long  words like    Mississippi.

Scrivener and Word have some automated tools to help with both of these problems, but both are imperfect--sometimes creating results that look worse than the original problem--definitely not something you want to screw around with in the home stretch. I think the only way you could fix all of this properly is to export to Word (perhaps using Scrivener's automated tools to get as close as possible) and then go page by page and deal with it manually. I didn't have time to do this, so my book has widows, orphans (although I did take care of the single-word versions), and strange spacing due to full justification.

I still sleep okay at night, but I might try and do a little better next time around. If you're going to want to go that extra mile, budget your time accordingly. 

Budget Some Time

Today's self-publishing services are amazing, but they still take a little bit of time. There are various approval steps that can take a few days, and it can take even longer for your book/ebook to trickle out onto various vendors' websites. Plus, when ordering a big box of books for yourself to give away or sell or whatever, be advised that getting them produced and shipped can take a couple of weeks. None of this should be a big deal in the scheme of things, but you should be aware of it so that you're not stressed out during that final phase (e.g. hoping that your personal copies of the print book show up in time for your first book signing!).

The first time around, I'd budget at least four weeks from when you think you've got your interior and cover production-ready to when someone can actually buy the book on Amazon, and another week or two after that before your first shipment of books arrives at your door. Also, if you're using Smashwords to hit other eBook retailers, be advised that it can take many weeks before your title shows up for sale on their sites.

Then What?

From here, your next step is to work on your next book while doing some marketing for this one. I tend to agree with those who feel that your best marketing tool is publishing more books, but you should probably at least set up a website and Facebook page. There are lots of resources on the internet for how to market your book, and I haven't put enough time into it to share anything from a personal perspective, so I'll leave it at that.

Oh, and don't forget to congratulate yourself. Finishing a book is a big accomplishment! I found it incredibly gratifying to get my book out there, and a huge weight off my shoulders to not be able to edit/revise it anymore. I also very much enjoy hearing from people who have read it (whether they liked it or not), and in fact have found that aspect of the whole process to be the most rewarding.