Saturday, May 31, 2014

Self-publishing in print: Biting the technology bullet

From Wikimedia Commons: by Daniel Maclise_-Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster

I recently (as in yesterday!) retired from a legal and regulatory publishing company where I worked in systems support. I also recently attended Balticon, where I attended panels on self-publishing.

The thing about self-publishing is, the author is the "publisher" but not generally the distributor. He or she decides on the content of the book, but rarely does he sell it directly to readers. For self-publishing in ebook form, there are many places on the web that an author can go to to upload their book for sale to the public. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and iBooks all have platforms that allow an author (or someone with rights to publish) to create an account, upload a file, and start selling ebooks. I have used Amazon KDP, B&N Nook Press, and Smashwords, and they were all pretty easy. Smashwords also pushes the book out to the other other retailers, as most of their authors sell more books on those platforms than on Smashwords itself. I have heard good things about Kobo Writing Life but I have never used it because my Kobo sales are so small it hardly seems worth it. My understanding is that Apple is the most difficult to deal with because for one thing, it requires you to download their ebook producer app, which runs only on a Mac. I am also ignorant of Google Books, which seems to be a thing unto itself. Even Smashwords cannot publish to Google Books.

On all platforms, what the author has to provide to publish an ebook successfully is usually a file with the text of the book (the formats accepted vary) and a file for the cover, plus assorted bits of information collectively known as metadata (data about the book), such as author, title, ISBN (in some cases), and genre/tags.

If you're willing to accept the platform's standard conversion, some platforms allow you to upload your book in MS Word, but the problem with that is, the conversion is not great at maintaining the style and features you want. The standard format for ebooks is ePub, which, like Mobi (the format on which Kindle books are based) is simply a set of HTML tags that are used in an agreed-upon standard way. Even KDP will accept ePub, although Amazon does not like advertising that fact. I have been relying on a conversion house to produce the files I needed; the ebooks look great-- nice style for scene breaks, consistent chapter title pages, and working table of contents-- but they are not that cheap and they can only be edited by going into the HTML, which is tedious.

To self publish in print and sell on the web easily, (Lighting Source and Amazon CreateSpace are the two most popular venues), what an author/publisher needs is a PDF of a file laid out in pages, with headers (and possibly footers) and all the standard info a book needs about copyright and such. Strictly speaking, you can do this layout in MS Word, but that is not only incredibly painful, it's also very time-consuming, as Word tends to decide what it wants to do in some circumstances, and wresting control from it takes knowledge and the kind of patience of a Dalai Lama.

Having decided to take the publishing plunge and move into print (now that I have more time), I just ordered a copy of Adobe InDesign, the premier desktop publishing application, which will produce well formed pages, and also ePub files. The advantage to doing this is that I pay for it once, and then I can also use it will all my books. Adobe also offers a cloud-based monthly subscription service, but they had something of a security scandal with that, so I don't want to go that route.

Assuming I can learn to use the software, I am hoping it will provide a solution to the problem of corrections. Once I put a book into InDesign, I will proof from paper copy, make corrections, and then make the software spit out the ePub file. I realize I might have to do a few tweaks in ePub, but it should still be better than my current workflow. And this way, I get two birds with one stone; you can never have too many dead birds!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Publishers: Be bold or go bust

Amazon and Hachette, a Big-5 publisher, are having a very public spat over terms.  Amazon has always operated with very tight (for years nonexistent) profit margins, keeping prices low in order to gain customers. This kind of trade-off of short-term profit for long-term growth can work in a big corporation, but sooner or later, investors want dividends, and that money has so come from somewhere, so Amazon has decided to try squeezing the middle man, which in this case is a publisher.

As this Publishers' Weekly post makes clear, lots of people have a dog in this fight. Authors feel threatened, agents are wary, and publishers and booksellers are all claiming Amazon is the bad guy who is out to destroy them. As a self-published writer, I'm less affected by this; my dog is more of Tamagotchi.

The PW article says publishers are worried about bookstores, but I doubt that comes from their goodness of their hearts. Basically, everyone is worried about their own best interests. The real problem publishers have is that they need their enemy. They can't refuse to do business with Amazon because that's a huge percentage of the market. At the same time, what's clear to me is that in the very long term (as in 20 years into the future), things may be very different.

Until the web came along, print books have always been sold almost entirely in retail stores. This was true of other goods, too--furniture, clothes, pet supplies--but now consumers can order books and other things while sitting at home or travelling on a bus or anywhere else they can pull up a browser or an app and click a button.

Some goods are less vulnerable to online erosion. I have not had much luck buying shoes on the web because I have a high instep. On the other hand, brand name pet supplies are the same thing whether I drive all the way to the store or order them online. Some products, like books, are ripe for online selling; there are so many, many titles a bookstore has to stock, that it's hard to compete on price and selection when the competition is a series of giant warehouses. eBooks have upped the ante considerably, but even before the Kindle, bookstores had a handicap.

The digital transition made things worse for bookstores, and to some extent publishers, but for publishers, there is some light at the end of the tunnel if only they could be more agile and less resistant to change.  Jeff Bezos, love him or hate him, is a true visionary. He recognized very early on that the internet was going to radically change the way business is conducted, and he jumped in with both feet. Publishers have (so far) mostly refused to leave their comfort zones. What they should realize is that change also brings opportunity.

Being a retailer of digital books takes money and expertise, but it does not take the same amount of capital as huge chains of bookstores. eBooks provide publishers with a chance to finally, at long last, make the reader their customer. Right now Amazon and Barnes & Noble and smaller bookstores are their customers. They have no way of knowing who the readers of their books are.

But they could. If they dare.