Guest: Simon Cheshire
Some say that publishing is dead, that mainstream book production is fast going the way of the dodo, and that we should all be in a state of cultural panic. Others say that there’s never been a better time to be a writer, and that we’re living in a publishing renaissance on a par with the days of Gutenburg.
I’m not quite sure I agree with either scenario. Making money from writing is now, frankly, every bit as hard as it’s always been (and I’ve been in the business almost thirty years), but on the other hand the opportunities open to an entrepreneurial author today are mouth-watering. And most of those opportunities revolve around ebooks. Here are my personal Top Tips when it comes to the e-publishing revolution:
1. Keep that code clean!
Although you can upload Word documents to the likes of Amazon or Smashwords for auto-conversion into various e-formats, I’d say don’t. You’ll spend days re-uploading them over and over again, as you try to iron out the weird layout glitches. You almost never get a good result first time, and if there’s one thing ebook readers absolutely hate, it’s typos, formatting oddities and layout glitches. Even the most up-to-date and expensive ebooks can be riddled with little errors.
Ebooks use a version of HTML, and if you want your ebook to look good you should start with an HTML file, with the text derived from a format-stripped, plain TXT source. Everything, from paragraph marks and italics to chapter headings and em dashes, should be individually coded. Yes, that means a lot of work, but clean, clear HTML code is at the heart of the ebook ecosystem.
2. Don’t take sides in the format war
Like a lot of ebook readers, I wish the industry would make up its mind and settle on one standard ebook format. However, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Should you go to the time, trouble and expense of producing your ebook in both MOBI (for Kindles) and ePub (for everything else) versions?
The short answer is yes. Both formats claim the biggest slice of the market. You need to keep a spoon in both pots, as you might say. However, one word of warning: while both Amazon and the ePub stores issue detailed guidelines on how to submit ebooks to them, Amazon’s ‘DTP’ system is by far the more user-friendly. Apple and Kobo in particular are very, very picky about the files they accept – and I don’t mean picky about formatting glitches (as in item 1 above), I mean picky about such things as encoding files with BISAC codes and using a lower case ‘a’ if the title includes the word ‘and’. If you want to get into the iBookstore, for instance, you’re far better going via one of their official aggregators than trying to upload to them direct.
3. Never underestimate the value of your work
There’s great debate all over the ebook world about pricing. All to often, the advice is: make it as near to free as possible. While this does entice some readers, it also badly devalues the long hours of work you’ve put into your book. You wouldn’t get Gordon Ramsey flogging dinners for the same price as a Big Mac, would you? Or Apple doing iPhones for the same as an entry-level pay-as-you-go? Almost all ebook stores let you sample before you buy. If the book is good, readers will pay a fair price for it. I’d say a fair price is a few dollars less than the print equivalent.
Simon Cheshire is one of the UK’s leading children’s writers. His bestsellers include the Saxby Smart detective stories for older children, and You’ve Got To Read This: A Beginner’s Guide To Great Writers And The History Of Books, which is read by as many adults as kids, and which is rapidly becoming a standard text in many schools. He learnt about coding ebooks the hard way – through trial and error while preparing over a dozen of his own titles for publication via Kindle and the iBookstore. He’s recently started sharing his knowledge of ebook setup by offering fellow writers an ebook formatting and design service at www.bookdesign.me.uk