The publishing process seems mysterious, and perhaps it would have remained that way for me, shrouded in secrecy, if I hadn’t taken the decision to self-publish. Untold History would still be sitting on my hard drive, waiting for a chance to see the light of day and become what any story should be; read and enjoyed. Throughout this article, I’ll talk about what it took to get Untold History published — not got a copy yet? Head over to Amazon).
Everyone has the ability to write a book, because we all have stories inside of us. Whether it be the meandering of a memoir, walking us through a life and reflecting on the things we have learnt along the way, or a fictional tale of hobgoblins and wars, or something more factual and grounded in reality. We all have these abilities, even if you don’t see yourself as an eloquent ‘master of the craft’.
Ok, so you’ve written your book, and it’s the most amazing story in all the world and you want it to be enjoyed by millions of people around the world, what do you do next? Well the first thing to say is congratulations, and well done for the perseverance. You’ve got this far, that’s a great start! Keep going! The more you write, the better you will become at it.
Before you move on to even consider getting your story published, it’s worthwhile just putting your manuscript down, and leaving it for a while. Forget about it, this really helps when it comes to editing because you can come back with a fresh set of eyes once the adrenaline has worn off. If you rush straight into editing, you’ll view your story through rose-tinted glasses, congratulating yourself on how well you’ve done rather than reflecting on whether your narrative is amazing. I started writing Untold History in June 2002 and I didn’t begin editing it until August of 2006 — that was quite a break and the edit doubled the size of the story.
Here’s what I’ve learned; editing is important — no, it’s vital. Writing a novel is the first step on a long road and effort spent in the editing process could easily be mistaken for a waste of time because it’s so time consuming — but if your dream is to get your book out there for people to read and enjoy, then editing is the most valuable thing to you. Trust me, I know.
Untold History has gone through seven redrafts, and at least five of these were significant revisions. Two of these revisions are so notable that the story itself is a fundamentally different one to the one that I started out with.
You might think this is bizarre, surely I meant to write the story in a particular way to start with. You’d think that, but when you set out to write a story, you as the author are much more in control of the narrative and the words flowing onto the page than your characters are. When you relinquish control and let your characters develop their sense of identity, the story takes a different form. Importantly, there is nothing wrong with that — and although it can be disheartening to cut page after page, or indeed whole sections of your manuscript, it is an important step in the process.
While Stephen King’s On Writing contains a great deal of useful advice for anyone setting out on the road to becoming an author, one thing stood out to me above all else.
“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in [their] toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible… No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses.”
The point that King was making is that if you approach writing in a similar way to archaeology, you start to think about the tools you use. While you can extract a fossil from the ground with a pneumatic drill, you’ll end up with a crude story.
This for me is the art of editing. First you use your big tools — you get your story ‘excavated’ and written. But then you start using smaller and smaller tools to reveal the details. And if you combine this with your characters coming to life and driving the narrative along, then you can’t go far wrong.
Isn’t this just another form of editing? Well, yes, but once you’re happy with you story and you’ve revised it through the editing process a couple of times (remember though, there is no set formula to how many drafts you should get through), you’ll want to do some proofreading to check for errors — no matter how good you are at typing, or how well you know your language, you’ll undoubtedly still prone to typos and unnecessary repetitions. But there may be other details that a reader would stumble over that you don’t know — you’re too close to be the best judge and (constructive) feedback is your friend!
I’ve found that the easiest way to find errors like this is to ask someone to read your manuscript for you. I have done this a couple of times in preparing Untold History — and if you intend to self-publish, you’ll definitely need to take this step as nobody else will do it for you (unless you pay a professional editor).
But if you don’t have a friend, relative or partner that you would trust to read and give you honest feedback (as much as we love people that give us glowing praise, sometimes this isn’t helpful as a writer), there are other ways of gaining feedback. If you’re feeling pretty flush, you can pay an editor to give your novel a once over. They should give you feedback about how your story works as well as corrections, and most importantly they should help you understand how saleable your book would be.
An alternative way to gain feedback is to join a writing group (there are plenty of them online) and give feedback to others — what I mean by this is that you can join a collaborative effort to support other writers, and in return they support you. In preparing Untold History, I used my membership of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) and subscribed to one of their Orbit groups. Not only did I gain valuable insight from a number of readers, but I developed my skills in giving feedback and advice myself.
Decision time! To self-publish or not?
In years gone, there was only one real route to publish your book; the traditional way through a publisher. That requires a great deal of luck in most cases to grab the attention of an editor, agent or publisher — most receive a wealth of unsolicited submissions.
But times have changed. The traditional route is still there and it’s not going anywhere, but there is a whole range of options available to self-publish. This could be through a managed process, or something you do yourself, in ebook or paperback formats. The important thing to do is to do some research and work out what is right for you. I made the decision to use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing arm (KDP), which taps into the Kindle for ebooks as well as Amazon’s platform for paperbacks.
For the rest of this article, I’m going to talk about my experience of the self-publishing process through KDP. If you make a similar decision to self-publish through KDP, hopefully this will give you some useful insight.
Ok, so I’m imagining that if you’ve read this far then you’re likely to be an avid writer. You’ll undoubtedly have done your research on how to lay out a manuscript in preparation for finding an editor/agent/publisher to take on your work. If you’re like me, you’ve stuck rigidly to the principles you’ve learnt about layout. Some of these are useful like chapter titles, the way you set out dialogue and paragraph indents, but others are useless. Forget about double spacing and Times New Roman — they won’t make it into your book.
First things first, decide if you’re going to publish just an ebook, or if you want a paperback edition too. If you’re only publishing an ebook, then I would recommend using Amazon’s own software, Kindle Create. It takes all the effort out of laying out your book. You can set chapter titles/pages, a table of content and add drop caps to the first paragraphs of your chapters. It’s a powerful tool, but it has it’s limitation as I found out. If you intend to produce a paperback version, then I highly recommend laying out your book as you want it in Word first (especially useful for manuscripts with images). Word can produce the print-ready PDF file you need for the paperback, and you can import the Word doc into Kindle Create when you’ve got it looking just as you want it.
For the paperback, first decide what size book you’re wanting to print — Amazon lists numerous different ones — and then use the Word template file for that book size. You’ll need to decide on your fonts, I went with versions that were similar to the Kindle Bookerly and Ember fonts. Using the Kindle Create app will do this automatically, however I found when I exported from here for the paperback that the margins on the right side of pages was set to the minimum. There appears to be no way to change this within the app, however using the template you have absolute control of what the finished article will look like.
The other benefit of using Word over Kindle Create is that you can add your own headers and footers, and you can set them to your heart's content. You’ll need to use Section Breaks to better control where and when your headers and footers appear.
I would also highly recommend adding any images into your Word document rather than adding them via the Kindle Create app. You can control the size of the images too (don’t forget to hold down Shift when you’re resizing images to preserve the size-ratio). You’ll need to ensure that any images are 300dpi or greater and that you turn off picture compression. If you don’t do this, you may find that your images in print don’t look as smooth as you expect, are pixelated, or otherwise have strange defects.
Amazon says that you don’t need to include a copyright page, but it is recommended that you do this. You can find templates online, or take a look at some other books. I went for a fairly standard set of text, and I also included credits for the cover image.
Amazon’s KDP site includes a Cover Creator. It’s relatively simple to use and basic. If you’re not experienced using the likes of Photoshop to create images, and you’re not getting someone else to produce you a cover, then this is going to be for you. You can also use this for paperbacks, however if you’re creating your own cover, then you need to grab the template file for your chosen book size and adhere to the guidance.
I made the decision early on that while I have the technical capability to use Photoshop, I don’t have the skill without asking others loads of questions, taking months to produce the final image with countless hours reading tutorials. I therefore looked to my husband who does have the skill to do this for me, and who I’d already asked to produce the artwork that the cover would be based on.
This is one of the downsides of self-publishing. While you have complete editorial and creative control of your book, you also have the bare the financial burden if you want to produce a professional looking cover. Everything comes at a cost, but it may just be worthwhile. For me, I wanted to do justice to the images I’ve had in my head over the last 17 years. I’m really pleased and proud of the cover for Untold.
Paperback books must have an ISBN, and KDP gives you the option to get one for free. If you’re minded to buy your own, then you can do this. I opted for the free one as it seemed like more hassle than required to organise my own. What I did do however was generate my own barcode to be printed on the back cover. Why? Although KDP does this automatically for you (and places it in the same place on every book), the price code reverts to the default of 9000, and I felt it was more useful to list this correctly at the UK RRP 01199. To understand the codes, I read up on this site which explains the price coding.
One thing I learned, a proof copy is important. Even if you’ve got the designs and formatting right, seeing the finished product makes the whole thing more real, and it allows you to check for defects and make alterations before you press the all important button to publish. Following receipt of a proof-copy, we decided to lighten the cover image as it came out too dark, and also made the switch to the glossy printed cover (the matte version was good, but prone to unsightly marks and scrapes).
How do you decide what your book is worth and how much it should sell for? Well, this is a tricky one. KDP explains the minimum and maximum prices (the minimum price is the actual cost of printing your book which KDP will set out to you). What it doesn’t help you with is deciding the cost for your book. I found that choosing a price for the ebook was much simpler — I guess in part because it is much cheaper and doesn’t include any actual print costs, the delivery costs are minimal.
The important thing to remember is that the price isn’t a fixed price forever — so if you decide to change the price, or indeed to run promotions from time to time, you can do and are in complete control of that.
Hopefully this article has given you some insight into the thoughts and efforts that go into self-publishing a book. There are numerous choices you need to make that you wouldn’t ordinarily be aware of if you were publishing through a traditional route. But this is self-publishing at its best, you become involved in the process and are the director of everything that happens.
I just hope that your enjoy reading Untold History as much as I have enjoyed writing it (and rewriting it!).