Self-Publishing 101

This introduction to self-publishing originated as an email to a friend wanting to step into the self-pub ocean. But I think other people might enjoy it, too!

So: Self-publishing is hard, in that it involves a lot of tiny details to manage, and all of those details actually matter. But it's not hard in that you don't need to be a rocket scientist to work your way through it, just... a lot of diligence.

Let's assume you've already written what you want to publish, so your first step is quality control -- getting the material edited. If you're reasonably literate you might be able to skip this step, but it's always best practice to get another set of eyes on the material. I've been a professional editor and I still hire someone else to read behind me, because you can't always see your own mistakes.

Then you need a cover. Cover art is your #1 most important marketing tool, so you're going to need something that looks great, has a feeling in keeping with the genre of book you're putting out there, and is legible and eye-catching even at thumbnail size. Here's some cover design advice ...but unless you are yourself a designer already, you're best off shelling out some money to someone else to make one for you. Find one through your friends or through a service like Bibliocrunch.

Next comes figuring out how to get that into an ebook format. All you need these days is an .epub file. Kindle sells .mobi, but you upload to them as .epub. Apple have their own proprietary format, but if you work with an aggregator like Smashwords or Draft2Digital, you provide them with an epub and they'll do the conversion. Epub is all you need.

There are a bunch of ways to convert. Pay attention to formatting paragraphs and chapter headings the way you want them to look, but less formatting is better than more. You CAN insert art as custom scene breaks and so on, but images make the file size bigger, and Amazon in particular sometimes charges you bandwidth fees for image-heavy books. Including art or photography inside your book is advanced stuff and not recommended.

Remember to put in a cover page, copyright notice, a dedication if you want one, a table of contents, an about-the-author section, and links to anything you'd like to cross promote (website, social media, mailing list, other work). 

I like to use Scrivener to export my epubs, because it's easy and mostly foolproof. Instructions on how to do that are here. You can also Google around to find instructions for MS Word and so on. But Scrivener is rad and you should give it a try anyway.

Next, you choose where you want to publish and your pricing strategy. You have to be on KDP, which is Kindle Direct Publishing, which is Amazon. The lion's share of self-publishing sales come from there. There are other stores, too, most notably B&N, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play. There are also a few genre-specific publishers, though the only ones I'm aware of are for romance and erotica. 

If you want, you can open an account and publish to each of these stores directly, but that becomes a huge pain in the neck to manage. You can also use an aggregator like Smashwords or Draft2Digital and manage everything from one account. Smashwords has very onerous formatting requirements for their books and I've never been able to figure them out, so I use Draft2Digital and have been very happy with the service. Note that an aggregator takes a small percentage of your royalties, above and beyond what the store takes as their share. Decide if it's worth your time to make those extra couple of cents per sale by setting up multiple distribution accounts. Lots of people split the difference by having an account on Amazon for KDP only and then an aggregator elsewhere.

It's ALSO a good idea to provide a venue for readers to buy from you directly. There are a number of services that let you do this, like Gumroad and Payhip. The benefit here is you keep a much higher proportion of the money that you would through any store. Some writers I know actually do the bulk of their sales direct-to-reader in this way.

You should also know about KDP Select. This is a program Amazon runs for publishers who promise them exclusivity. In return, you get the ability to run a couple of kinds of promotions -- like putting your book up for free or at a discount for a few days each quarter. This used to be GREAT for producing a sales spike but isn't really worth it anymore; Amazon has changed its ranking algorithm, so free book offers tend to result in less-flattering reviews and no additional sales. And the opportunity cost for the sales you're not making through other channels is too high.

On the other hand, there's Kindle Lending. This is something you can opt into or out of. It's a very, very good idea; the royalty you get from a borrowed copy is historically much higher than the royalty you get from a direct sale, so it's a win all around. Opt into that like whoa.

On to pricing strategy! Many of the ebook stores require you to give them the lowest available price, so it's best practice to just use the same price everywhere. But what should that price be? Note that Amazon gives you a 70% royalty on books above $2.99, but only a 30% royalty for lower price points. So $2.99 for a full-length book is probably your basement. On the other hand, $7.99 should probably be your ceiling; I'd probably price a full-length book at $5.99 to split the difference. (On the other hand, novellas and short stories can do booming business at .99 and 1.99). 

Cheaper is not necessarily better for sales, believe it or not! Readers have become very cautious of poor-quality, cheap ebooks. Be confident in your pricing strategy!

Once you send everything up live, be sure to get your friends and family to leave reviews for your work! The biggest obstacle to sales is obscurity, and the more reviews and sales a book has, the more visible it's going to be on Amazon.

There are other issues you need to also be aware of, or at least look into: marketing and promotion, making and selling physical books, and if you're lucky enough to sell well, self-employment taxes. But each of these is an enormous topic in its own right, annnnnnd I think that's about enough for one day. Good luck to you, and many happy sales to come!

I'm on Patreon!

I'm trying another new thing!

In the spirit of relentless and bold experimentation, I've started up a Patreon. "Wait, what?" you ask. "What's that? And why do I care?" I will tell you!

I'm posting my very first story to Patreon late this evening on April 1; likely around 8pm Eastern time, child obligations permitting. (I know, I know, but no foolin'). If you'd like to read that first story, chip in your dollar while the gettin' is good. Not so sure? Let me give you a piece of the first story. A taste test, if you will, so you know if you're getting broccoli or pie.

For one shining moment on her two hundred seventy eighth birthday, Neria Ciao was the most important person in the world. That was the day her level-500 Seelie Huntress ascended into the Keep of Eternal Silence to do battle with Zirnitra, the Black Dragon of Sorcery. 

It was a difficult fight; she used every hard-won trick and trophy she'd ever earned, spent all her potions and salves, used up her last precious Wish and cracked her lone Egg of Eritanus. Her heart beat faster; her muscles burned; sweat trickled down her ribs from beneath her breasts. She nearly died four times, saved only by luck, timing, and an incredibly rich supply of Sacred Essence of Golden Lotus.

In the end, it was all worth it. Zirnitra went down thrashing and wailing. It fluttered its wings once, twice, struggled back onto its hind legs. It collapsed again. Spears of light pierced through the spaces between its scales and then consumed its husk from the inside out.

Neria Ciao was the first to ever defeat it.

She posted the video of the fight before the dragon could even respawn. Predictably, her views and comments went wild. "Incredible!" "Great work!" "Never thought I'd see someone take down old Zirny!"

She even got a personal congratulations from The Vanished Lands dev team in Finland, who, it turned out, had checked in to watch her battle as soon as Zirnitra's health dropped below thirty percent. That had only happened twice before. 

By the time she went out to treat herself to birthday cake, she'd received three hundred million views, forty thousand messages and comments, nine hundred interview requests, and alerts that her name had appeared in four hundred news articles.

Not all of this feedback was positive, of course. Usually her systems would filter out the worst of it — the vitriol for its own sake, the jealous rage, the troublemakers looking for any soft target. 

One, from a stranger, slipped through her filters because it wasn't offensive. Not… exactly. It troubled her all the same. "You have all eternity before you," it said, "and this is how you choose to spend it?"

I'd be super thrilled if you decided to support my Patreon. Thanks so much for your time!

Let He Who Is Without Sin

Let's talk about Jonathan Ross and the Hugos. He was announced as the host of the Hugos at Loncon3, there was a Twitter uproar, and then he stepped down, all over the course of a few hours. This incident has left many people uncomfortable, and I'm one of them. 

I woke up one fine Saturday morning to discover that Farah Mendlesohn, a member of the Loncon committee, had resigned because a misogynist, racist, all around offensive fellow had been tapped to host the Hugos. (That would be Jonathan Ross.) I read her post (which has since been removed). I did a bit of light double-checking. I saw his controversies section in Wikipedia. I saw the Mirror article of his top ten most controversial moments.

Now here's the thing: when this began, I didn't know Jonathan Ross from Adam. I'd never heard of him before and had zero cultural context for understanding just how controversial he might be. Given the outcry, I assumed that must be pretty awful. I prepared to join that general outcry.

Within moments, my friend Naomi Alderman reacted to this question with utter bafflement. She's in the UK herself, and familiar with that media landscape. She's also as staunch a feminist as I know; indeed, she's habitually more sensitive to these issues in media than am I, and can't watch or read some things I enjoy because of their misogyny. Other UK friends soon corroborated: Ross was not a controversial figure in the UK, no more than Jay Leno. 

I found myself searching for reasons to defend the outcry. He must be an inappropriate choice, I thought. The internet had told me so. A bad fit for the event. Nothing to do with genre. We didn't need yet another white dude. And anyway look at how pissed off he is at all of these people calling him a sexist douchebag! Nail in the coffin!

It's important to recognize what happened in my head right there, and probably in others' as well. I, having no direct knowledge of the merits of the matter at hand, heard an accusation that appealed to my politics and sense of justice. And I leapt to a conclusion. I was willing to go to the mat for that conclusion. It turns out I might've been wrong.

Ross is married to a Hugo winner, so I'm thinking he knows the magnitude of the award. He's spoken at other genre events before. He's a steady advocate for SF/F in the mainstream. He's said some off-color stuff from time to time, to be sure, but looking at the grand arc of his career, it doesn't appear to be characterized by raunchy humor and exploitation.

People make mistakes, and the truth is often more complicated than something as straightforward as "Ross is a misogynist, homophobic, racist jerk." Ross has spent a lot of time in public life. He's going to screw up and say the wrong thing from time to time. I can't help but notice that most of those wrong things he's said happened several years ago.

For lo these many moons, we in SF/F circles have been fighting the good fight against all of the -isms. And we've made great progress, I think. As a community, we've become much more sensitive to offering perceived affront. Our literature is becoming more diverse, more representative, and richer and broader for it. It's been a good and necessary effort.

But meanwhile... I've seen a lot of discomfort from the SF/F men in my Twitter stream the past few days, a reluctance to talk about this issue in public.

I can't blame them. Suddenly we've created an environment where a high-profile individual saying the wrong thing at the wrong time risks being devoured alive, with no judge or jury. No benefit of the doubt. No pause to step back and measure the magnitude of the offense. Forget the ridiculous Truesdale petition about censorship -- but there is a real chilling effect going on here. People are afraid to disagree with what happened.

Fear doesn't make for good discourse.

Even saying "Hey, I think the accusations against Ross were overblown and ultimately wrong, we should chill out a little bit," could risk a dude losing friends or fans because suddenly they can be cast in the light of anti-feminism. Even good men, strong allies, active feminists. 

But you know what? I think the Ross-Loncon3 situation is a sign to us that maybe we should chill out a little bit.

...Because this isn't how I want my community to be. The shift from "this person is doing something objectionable right now and we have to stop it," to "this person said some objectionable things some years in the past and so he's not welcome among us," is one that gives me great pause. You know who else has said some objectionable things in the past? Me. You know who else? You.

I'd like to be in a community that practices forgiveness, that educates instead of excoriates. A community that gives second chances. That says, "Hey, that was wrong, you should apologize and this is how you can do it better next time," and not, "Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out." 

I'd especially not like to be in a community that says "You've screwed up before, so you're definitely gonna screw up again next time. Get lost, asshole." Which looks to me like what ultimately happened in the Ross situation.

I am by no means suggesting we stop advocating for equality, for representation, for moderation in public venues. I want these things to continue, and in spades. We want to create a safe space for all people. We want to discourage hateful speech and action. 

But we can't demand perfection. There are no perfect people. If we can't allow room within our community for people to screw up and get better, or for people to thoughtfully disagree, then eventually all the flawed people will be gone. And nobody will be left at all.

Juvenile Glaucoma, Health Insurance, and the New New Year

When we rang in 2014, it wasn't a fresh and optimistic start like one might hope. I had two big problems that needed immediate attention. First, as of Jan. 1 we were switching to a new insurance plan, and we didn't have membership cards or even numbers yet. When we called the new insurance company to try to get that information ourselves, they'd never even heard of us. We were functionally uninsured.

Second? A routine optometrist visit the day after Christmas had ended with an urgent referral to take my younger daughter to the ophthalmologist. She showed some concerning signs of juvenile glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a progressive disease; it slowly steals the sight from your peripheral vision, hair by hair, until you see the world through a tiny window. One day, even that window closes. It's slow but relentless. The vision glaucoma takes can never be recovered.

So for a short time early this year, I got some firsthand experience with the terror of knowing your child requires immediate medical care, but not knowing how to pay for it. Our choices were: wait until the insurance issue was sorted out -- which could take weeks -- or pay for a visit to the ophthalmologist out of our own pocket and cross our fingers that it might one day be reimbursed. That would be $250, the office staff told us.

They urged us not to delay.

Our insurance was held up by paperwork; the insurance broker hadn't submitted our enrollment in time, or maybe the enrollment hadn't been processed fast enough by the insurer. Nothing to be done, it was an act of god and government.

We were by no means alone. With the ACA coming into effect, insurance companies were overwhelmed with a glut of new enrollments, but we would be covered retroactively. In theory, anyway; in practice, the inability to get an insurer-approved referral from a primary doctor might nix the chances of reimbursement. And the process of actually getting that money back could take as much as six months.

We're very fortunate that in this case, we could afford the financial hit and see the ophthalmologist anyway. Even so, the days before that appointment were harrowing.

The Appointment

There was an examination. The doctor, whose manner with children is so playful that he's very nearly performing a standup routine, turned to me with a sober expression on his face. Her optic nerve was enlarged, just like the optometrist had said. He explained the cup-to-disc ratio to me.

"In a healthy Caucasian," he said, "it's normally 0.1 to 0.2. In an African-American, you expect 0.2 to 0.4. Your daughter's is 0.9."

He told me not to worry. It's never glaucoma, he said; in his 30-year-career, it had only turned out to be glaucoma once, and that had been effectively cured with a simple surgery. The odds were overwhelmingly in our favor. "Don't be worried," he said. "You can't be worried if I'm not worried, and do I look worried?" But his face was somber, his tone grim, and he pressed me to promise I'd wait no more than three weeks to bring her back for follow-up testing. Promise me, he said. No matter what.

Those tests would be expensive, he added. So very expensive, in fact, that insurance companies themselves will balk at paying if you perform more than one of them on the same day. I scheduled the follow-up appointments (at a potential $250 a pop, plus unknown additional fees for testing, with intimations that they'd run into the thousands of dollars.) I crossed my fingers hoping the insurance company would come through before then. What other choice did I have, after all? In a pinch, well, there's credit, or family. We could find the money. It would be OK.

Meanwhile, she needed glasses immediately. Not for her vision -- she only has a mild astigmatism -- but to protect her freakishly enlarged optic nerves from impact damage.

Even if it was glaucoma -- and it probably wasn't -- we could treat it. The equation for us was more one of managing discomfort and inconvenience than walking the line of catastrophe.

Still, these days in January were agonizing. It becomes difficult to concentrate, to sleep. In such a situation, you run through a million scenarios. What if it is glaucoma? What if one surgery doesn't do the trick? What about complications? How will she endure that? What if we really don't have insurance, and something has gone so horribly wrong that we won't be covered in time? And what if it costs so much that we can't find the money after all? 

A tightness settles into your chest. You cry more easily, you snap more easily. Perhaps you can keep it together during the day, when you're soothing worried relatives, when you're shuffling children off to school and cooking dinner and signing homework sheets. Mustn't frighten the children; they can't see you worry. 

It erodes at you, this worry. Maintaining the illusion that nothing is wrong nibbles away the edges of your ability to cope. If it keeps up long enough -- well. There are marks.

Toward the end of the month, the insurance came through, and the ophthalmologist scanned my daughter's retina with lasers. He was visibly relieved. The result was good -- so good that we moved additional follow-up testing to late May. We've since discovered that an older relative has a similar ratio, and no apparent glaucoma. So: a family congenital anomaly. No big deal. It's possible my kid has some field-of-vision problems, and she appears to have problems with color perception in one eye... but this is a hell of a lot better than surgery and looming blindness. We'll take it.

(And this isn't even including the almost-fire we had the first week of the year, which required we air the house out to eliminate smoke on the coldest night in twenty years. Which is its own blog post, in a way. Polar vortex, huh?)

Single-Payer

When I wasn't busy being scared, I thought a lot about fairness in that time. I thought about poverty and privilege and insurance. I thought about the role of government in society.

I thought about all of the families for whom it really was glaucoma (or cancer, or diabetes, or leukemia, or...) who didn't have the resources to pay out-of-pocket and damn the insurance. People who still have no insurance, or have a plan with such a high deductible as makes no difference. The ones for whom that decision would mean missing rent or missing meals.

I've always been an advocate of single-payer insurance. No family should have to weigh those factors. No child should suffer a treatable illness with permanent or fatal results because their family doesn't happen to be comfortably middle-class. Oh, sure, health care is available to everyone at an emergency room. But you know what? You can't get glaucoma (or cancer) treated in an emergency room.

In New York State, the Working Families Party is now pushing for single-payer insurance. I would urge you with all my heart to support such legislation in your own state (if you're American, anyway.)

This is not an economic issue, and it's not a public health issue. This is not a matter of controlling costs or ensuring a healthy workforce. This is a moral issue. 

The New New Year

Even with such a crisis averted, the parts worn away from you by stress take their time to regrow. I've been very fragile this year. It doesn't seem to be returning to normal as quickly as one might hope.

So on midnight going into March 1, I declared it a New New Year. It looks like 2014 has been really rough for many of us, not just me -- the relentless weather, to be sure, but there's also been a zeitgeist of uncertainty and fear. We're quick to anger. We're prone to falling victim to brain weasels. It's been a bad time.

But spring is right around the corner.

Apples, Oranges, and Author Earnings

I mentioned on Twitter last week that a recent update on Author Earnings comparing extrapolated Amazon data to Bookscan numbers is actively misleading. I thought it might bear unpacking that a little bit by way of analogy.

Imagine there is a grocery store selling both apples and oranges, and you need to figure out how many of each fruit is sold in a week (or at least which sells more than the other.) So you camp out in the store for an hour, and count how many of each fruit the customers buy. 

You're probably going to get some useful information from that, to be sure -- whether the ratio between apples and oranges is roughly comparable, for example. You can even extrapolate from that hour -- multiply by how many hours the store is open, and you might get a ballpark number for how much fruit is sold. But that number risks being wildly inaccurate, because you're relying on that single sample hour to be perfectly typical. But a store has busy hours and slow hours -- some hours nobody's buying. Some hours, maybe someone's buying fruit for a world-record-size fruit salad. Some hours, you get a run of people allergic to citrus. All you can get is a very rough idea.

You can also ask a couple of orchard owners how much they get, look at the prices in circulars, and try to work out how much money the grocery store is making off fruit. But it would be a terrible mistake to try to, say, calculate the orchards' operating income from that loose guess of yours. The picture is a lot bigger than that one hour at one store, and is influenced by a lot of other factors.

Now let's say you get your hands on another source of information -- maybe the inventory records of a competing grocery store showing how many oranges it sold that same week. That's hard data, and it's great -- you can learn a little more about the size of the orange market in town from that.

But you can't then combine those two kinds of information as if they were the same to make conclusions about, say, whether Grocery Store A sells more oranges than Grocery Store B, and certainly not about whether Sunny Orange Productions is making more money than Crisp Apple Growers.

One of them is a cobbled-together piece of data and guesswork; one is hard data, but for only part of the equation. Each one of them tells some interesting stories, to be sure, but it's just as important to know what information the data can't tell you.