Today’s post is a collaboration with Matt Bloomingdale, another member of the student affairs self-publishing tribe. He jumped into the self-publishing pool just before I did, editing and compiling the 2014 Student Affairs Feature. If you’re interested in self-publishing, or just want to learn more about the process, I truly hope you’ll enjoy this. It was a pleasure writing with you, Matt- thanks for the inspiration! As always, I learned something from you in the process 🙂
Unlike more traditional forms of publishing, electronic publishing has an ever-decreasing barrier to entry. Essentially, if you write it, you can publish it. The advantages are obvious. Not only does electronic publishing remove the need for agents or publishers, but can be the preferred delivery method for longform writers, editors, and experts in a particular subject matter.
Recently, we both dipped our toes into self-publishing – Amma recently published The I’s Have It (Illustrated by Sue Caulfield) and Matt recently published The 2014 Student Affairs Feature. As we’ve emerged at the other end of this journey, we thought we might share our experience, decision making process, and tips and tricks for those that might be interested in self-publishing.
Before we begin, our assumption is that you have already written your selected work. We don’t know that either one of us is qualified to provide insights on writing other than (1) do what works for you and (2) write. If you find yourself here and are looking for more expert advice, we suggest On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
Creating Your eBook
The most common file format for an ebook is an epub. The epub file is the standard among applications and ebook distributors and can be read on any ebook reader. Kindle will require you to convert the file to .mobi. The apps you use to layout and create your book are dependent on a couple of factors including where you plan to distribute your book and how much control you want over the details.
Kindle Direct Publishing
Amma: Kindle Direct Publishing is an online platform through Amazon that hosts your publication for free – it will take your work, translate into an HTML format, and publish it to their online store. The formatting from the original source (I worked between Google Drive and Microsoft Word) is minimal and the result is a file that can be read on the Kindle e-reader or on other devices using the free Kindle app. However, if I had to do it over again, I would have worked with someone to professionally format the content as well. Sites such as Elance and Fiverr can help you find someone to do this for you. Similarly, if you have graphic design students that you know or work with, you can work with them to format your work.
Creating an EPUB
Matt: Pages for Mac (free) is an easy way to export your text document to an epub file. This is an excellent option if you want to write and work in a familiar environment and have few non-text elements (photos, illustrations, tables, videos, etc.). If you are creating a more interactive text, filled with videos and photos, take a look at iBooks Author for Mac (free). It can be somewhat cumbersome to work in, but once you familiarize yourself with the application it can be quite powerful for novice users. The catch-22 to iBooks Author is the end user license agreement as it does limit your distribution options. Though, it is still the preferred application if your book is going to be heavy on interactive elements and you’re not to keen on writing code.
If you are a Windows user, I suggest taking a look at Calibre – which will allow you to take text documents and convert them into some of the most popular ebook files.
Multiple and Varied Platforms
Matt: If you are planning to publish on multiple platforms, and want control over every aspect of your ebook, take a look at Scrivener. Scrivener started as a Mac application but is now available for Windows as well. The application provides an all-in-one solution from creating outlines, taking and organizing notes, writing your book, creating table of contents and indexes, formatting text, editing, and exporting into every conceivable ebook format – from .mobi to .epub to .pdf. The application does cost $40 but comes with a true 30-day trial (meaning 30 days of actual use) which is more than enough time to complete your first ebook if you have already completed your writing process. Furthermore, unlike using KDP or iBooks Author, you can distribute your book anywhere.
Amma: The Kindle store was a natural option for a book published via Kindle Direct. It allows users to download (as a loan or to own) content and allows the author to run promotional discounts if desired. It also includes opportunities to promote the book on their website and in emails when people make purchases on Amazon. I liked it for its ability to raise awareness of the book beyond people I know and whoever they told.
Matt: It was a difficult not to offer a version of The 2014 Student Affairs Feature on Amazon, but the pricing model (discussed later) eliminated this as an option. However, the iBookstore has a large advantage over most online distributors – the entire Apple ecosystem. Smart banners allow you to put a banner on your website with a direct link to your book for those on iOS devices. Apple itself prompts its users to download the iBooks app which means readers with iOS devices likely already have the app installed. The ease and familiarity of iTunes makes it easier for most readers to purchase an ebook on iTunes than Amazon (though, it’s not terribly difficult to purchase a book on Amazon). Finally, the iBookstore, being less crowded than Amazon, makes it easy for your book to stand out.
Matt: If your are offering your book for free, there is always the option to self-distribute your ebook simply by linking a pdf document or epub file on your website. This allows users to open your book on almost any device. If you plan on charging for your book, self-distributing is still an option (and negates revenue sharing with an online distributor), but means implementing a payment system that can either require an upfront cost or hours of headache in implementation time.
Amma: One limitation of the version of Kindle publishing I selected is additional distribution options. Presently, the only way readers can partake in The I’s Have It is through a Kindle platform. Thankfully, there are Kindle apps for nearly every platform, but it is still a limitation. Additionally, a program I opted into with Amazon means I can’t distribute the book in other venues for 90 days. While I gained in ease of publication, I lost a little in terms of flexibility of sharing. This balance is definitely something I will think about for future writing projects. Matt can be assured I’ll be borrowing pages from his playbook for any forthcoming publishing projects – properly cited, of course!
Matt: I decided to offer The 2014 Student Affairs Feature for free for two reasons. First, I wanted the ebook to be a resource for all professionals and by offering the book for free it removed yet another barrier for readers. Second, the book is a compilation of articles written by 54 authors and it didn’t seem ethical to charge for their work. Finally, by offering the ebook for free, I was able to distribute it on our website by simply linking the files. The catch is that’s incredibly difficult to offer a book for free on Amazon, which was a contributing factor in offering the book on the iBookstore. However, I do think it’s more than fair to ask people to pay for your writing if you put the necessary care and attention into it.
Amma: This was, without a question, the hardest decision I made when contemplating the release of the book. It should be noted that if the file a book originates for exceeds a certain size, a price is mandated. However, I opted to charge slightly more to be consistent with my overall goals. A long term professional goal of mine is to be paid for my writing; as such, at some point you have to simply charge for your writing. I didn’t want the cost to be prohibitive for anyone interested in the content, and I am not looking to live on the profit from this work, so I chose to charge, but keep the price low. Further, I plan to offer promotions on it periodically in hopes of continuing to keep it accessible.
If you are going to offer your book for a price it’s import to remember that you will need to share your profits with your online distributor. Amazon offers authors options as to how profits are shared, but the guise of “free” publication does in fact incur a cost to the author. As Matt said, if you wish to charge but don’t want to use Amazon you can; however, it will create a need for an alternate payment platform. If you use the iBookstore, Apple will keep 30 percent of each sale.
Amma: Because my book also featured several pieces from an illustrator, there was no question as to who was going to provide the cover art for my book. Sue had been intimately involved in this project from the start, and for that reason it made absolute sense for the book to start with her. Because she had access to content before the book was complete, she was able to conceive a cover that fit the spirit of the information covered. It’s whimsical but instructive – precisely what I wanted for the book itself.
Matt: Certainly, you cannot judge the content of a book by its cover. However, for an ebook, often times the only thing you can judge a book by is its cover. Cover design is like art and people with different tastes will have different ideas about what looks good and what doesn’t. The only advice I have is to make your cover look polished. Whether you are using text or illustrations, make it look like you put effort into it. If your cover looks sloppy readers will assume the content is sloppy as well. If this isn’t your forte, ask a friend to help you out.
Amma: I imagine both of these publications benefitted from the fact that they featured contributions from friends and colleagues in the field. As I mentioned earlier, Kindle Direct has some promotional features built in to hosting a book on its platform. However, the majority of my promotion came from letting contributors know the book was complete, and the generous sharing of links by my friends, family, and colleagues.
Matt: As mentioned earlier, being on the iBookstore allowed for some platform-based promotional options such as Smart Banners, etc. However, I think the most beneficial thing I did was email 4-5 people that I thought might be willing to write a review or help support our efforts on social media. Many were kind enough to do so. I’m rather quite shy and a little timid, so emailing others and asking them to help support was a little outside my comfort zone, but this is one of those times when it’s okay to ask others for support. Having a prominent link on your website will also help drive traffic. About half of all ebook downloads have originated from the link on our website.