Big round of applause, please people! The year’s still in its infancy and I’ve already achieved one of my aims for 2020. On the other hand, in terms of literary or commercial benefit, I’ve spent way too much time putting together my little e-book of short stories as a giveaway for subscribers to my newsletter. But, once I got going, I enjoyed most of the twists and turns of the journey, with even the hairpin bends and U-turns a chance to admire the view. As a small-press published inbetweenie author, I’ve always tried to stay abreast of what’s happening in self-publishing, but there’s a huge gap between reading about something and doing it yourself. Let’s see if I can consolidate my learning by describing the process and perhaps helping others to reach the destination without too many wrong turns.
Firstly, I wanted this little book to showcase my writing and perhaps bring new readers to my traditionally published books. So it couldn’t be a dumpster for those hard-to-place stories, tempting as that might be. Instead, I picked out three that had won first prize in competitions, one of which was only my second published piece.
It wasn’t obvious initially what these stories had in common, but they did all feature a daughter even if, in one, she’s present only in the narrator’s mind. Concerned three free stories might not be sufficient, I added two more on the topic of daughters, both of which had been published in prestigious magazines.
Polish those stories again and again
Three of my selected stories were prize-winners; two had benefited from editorial input before being released into the world. And, of course, I’d self-edited every one before submitting them. So they wouldn’t need much polishing, right?
Wrong! As I’ve become a more experienced writer, I’ve become a better editor, as well as a fussier one. Every time I cast my eyes over a piece I see ways it could be improved. A better word, different punctuation, a sentence added or deleted for clarity: even when it’s published, the process doesn’t end.
Thus I’ll just … morphed into hours, then days, then weeks of obsessionality, and it still won’t be perfect. I have to reassure myself that nothing is. But I dread embarrassing myself with undetected word-echoes or phrase-echoes, not only within individual stories but across the collection as a whole. With the help of CONTROL F, I track repetitions through the document. (If you think this looks a lot of work, wait till you see what I’ve done for my next novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.)
Test your title and blurb
If I were sensible, I’d have invited others to help me play around with titles. But somehow my e-book didn’t seem important enough to take up others’ time. Instead, I juggled the word daughter and its synonyms plus or minus various embellishments and tested them on Lulu’s title scorer. (You’ll find links to the resources I used at the end of this post.) Once I found a title that scored significantly better than the others – the software informs me that Somebody’s Daughter has a 61% chance of becoming a bestseller – I decided it was good enough.
You can also test your title by seeing what Amazon’s search engine throws up. Mine showed 98 other Kindle Somebody’s Daughters so, if Lulu knows her stuff, around sixty of those should already be bestsellers. No, I didn’t bother to check. My title might not be unique, but it chimes with the title of my 2018 collection, Becoming Someone.
I structured my e-book blurb around the blurb for my collection and tested it for readability. With the original blurb for my debut, Sugar and Snails, scoring at college student level, I’m chuffed my e-book is pitched at 7-8th grade, making it much easier to digest. (Although I might change that last line!)
You can design your own cover (although it’s not always advisable)
You can showcase good writing behind a sloppy cover, but why would you want to? If your product doesn’t look professional, a reader is unlikely to give your words a chance. However, if you’re strapped for cash, artistically inclined or like a challenge, Canva is a good place to try designing your own.
That’s how I managed to come up with a cover for free. I like it, and the feedback’s been good – so far! But I’m not yet ready to set myself up as a designer! I think I struck lucky this time.
Canva has hundreds of images and templates to choose from, but I was lucky to hit upon a great background after considering a lot of good-enoughs. I was encouraged to believe it might work because of the similarity to the background to the cover of my “proper” collection, Becoming Someone, with its palette of colours and geometric shapes. I was lucky also to come up with a simple but bold concept in the female-figure (toilet-door) motif.
Amazon makes it easy for authors*
It can’t be that many years ago that I attended an e-book publishing workshop that led me through the palaver of removing all formatting from a document and putting it back in again. Well, it seems that self-publishing is a whole lot easier today. It did take me a bit of time to navigate the site initially, but Amazon will coach you through the entire process, and even supply the ISBN.
You can upload a Word or PDF document directly, but I’d recommend going through Kindle Create. Once you’ve downloaded the (free) software you can test how your book will look on different devices and correct any anomalies before you press publish. I found the financial side (bank details and tax declaration) the scariest part, convinced I’ve signed myself up to be trailed by the American Internal Revenue Service for the rest of my days.
But, while Amazon might have almost achieved world domination, there are still other kinds of e-readers that don’t take Kindle files. If you want to reach beyond Amazon, you need to supply your book in more than one format.
You need to produce your book in different formats (mobi for Kindle, epub for other readers, plus PDF)
Fear not, dear author, the Internet is your friend! You can find various free or low-cost conversion programs online. I might not have gone about it in the most efficient manner but I chose Reedsy to create mobi and epub files to give away as a supplement to selling through Amazon.
But, as these things do, it works differently to Kindle Create. Reedsy requires you to upload your document chapter by chapter and images separately too. As well as the contents page, it can generate front and back matter, although with little flexibility in terms of style. Its PDF option is developed for print-ready proofs and comes with blank pages so I created my PDF from the Word document instead.
Internal images are attractive but add complications
Both Amazon and Reedsy require you to upload your front cover separately, but what about images inside?
On a roll after producing my front cover, I designed pretty title pages for each of my five main stories. I also wanted to showcase my published books with images of the gorgeous covers. As the only images I’d ever come across in an e-book were on the front cover itself and perhaps an author picture at the back, I didn’t know whether this would be possible. I was rather chuffed when my first attempt with Amazon showed that it is.
But there were problems. My published book images wouldn’t stay exactly where I wanted them (at the end of the story with a related theme). Also, at more than 10 MB, the file was too cumbersome for easy download. Somehow the Reedsy version came out at a more reasonable size (albeit mobi is twice the size of epub for the same material because it seems the latter is automatically zipped), but that wouldn’t let me place the image before the story title, and putting it afterwards didn’t look right. So I had to compromise, prioritise and play around, but perhaps my own fault for letting myself get carried away.
You can distribute your freebie via your newsletter
Although I’ve used Mailchimp to host my newsletter, I thought I’d have to send my readers elsewhere to pick up their books. I’d uploaded images to brighten up my posts, but didn’t realise I could upload other types of files. You can!
Go to the Content Studio, which you’ll find located under Brand in the toolbar, and upload your e-book file in the same way you’d upload an image. (Unlike an image, however, you can’t distinguish the different files visually, so it’s worth saving to a subfolder which you can then name.) When that’s done, click on the file, go to VIEW DETAILS and select COPY URL. Then in the campaign editor, add a button and paste this into the slot for the web address. The address will start with https://gallery.mailchimp. It’s probably easier to do than to describe!
But size matters. If, like me, you’ve splurged on images, take care to keep your files below 10 MB or Mailchimp will reject it. This is particularly relevant for the larger mobi files.
*Be prepared for a last-minute glitch
If you want to be pedantic, I didn’t achieve my goal in all respects, having set out to
Self-publish an e-book of prize-winning short stories as a promotional giveaway on 02.02.2020
I soon realised that, much as I wanted to celebrate the palindromic date, other commitments on the 2nd would prevent me from fixing any unforeseen errors on publication day. So I scheduled my newsletter for two days before – and hopefully readers received it as at least one good thing happening on Brexit day – and the Amazon release for that magic combination of zeros and twos.
Then some nice person at Amazon emailed me – or one of their bots. My book was barred because it “contains content for which you may not hold the necessary rights. Some or all of the content within your book(s) is freely available on the internet”. Given that the submission process required confirming I held the rights, I was confused. And further confused by their proposal of one solution if I was the rights holder and another if some of the content was already available. No advice on what to do if both applied.
A couple of emails, and moral support from various Facebook groups, got it passed, but the upshot was that I’d missed their deadline to ensure publication on my chosen date. By that point, sick of the whole thing, I ticked the virtual box for publish now, expecting it to be confirmed in a couple of days. No, it went through in a couple of hours and was available for purchase the day before it went to my newsletter subscribers. No big deal, but it would have been a hassle if I thought it worthy of a publication day fanfare.
Nevertheless, a timely reminder …
There’s no such thing as a free lunch/platform
Self-publishing gives the author more control than traditional publishing, but you’re still a hostage to other entities whose aims may overlap with yours but don’t perfectly coincide. Reedsy automatically adds an attribution link to its website (and emails regular reminders of the editors and designers showcased in their online store). If it should sell, Amazon takes 70% the price of my book, and it won’t let me give it away unless I do so exclusively through the. Anyway, that’s fair enough and not far off what I’m trying to do myself in distributing free stories in exchange for an email address.
Want to see how it turned out?
You can buy my book from Amazon (UK or US here) for the princely sum of 99p (of which I receive 29p or equivalent in your currency) but I’d much prefer you to subscribe to my email newsletter and get it for free.
If you’re a novice e-book freebie publisher, you might find some of the following resources useful. If you’ve self-published an e-book giveaway already, what advice would you give a first-timer?
My steepest learning curve was in the area of tech, but I also drew on my own past experience of producing a collection with a publisher: Greater than the sum of its parts? Assembling a first short story collection. I also drew on my recent learning regarding battling with blurbs: The trouble with blurbs.
Lulu’s title scorer
Wordcounter to test readability
Canva for cover design
Amazon KDP publishing
Reedsy to create mobi and epub files
I’m old enough to marvel at the ease of electronic communication and to appreciate my good fortune in accessing a mail system that’s postage and paper free. Some of my recent reads set on islands, such as The Island Child and The Mercies, are reminders of the challenge of delivering mail to remote areas in days gone by. One of these novels inspired a 99-word story for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge.
Charli’s steered her troops onto similar territory this week, with a historical and Valentine’s-day twist. Who knew that the mail received from their sweethearts by WWI soldiers in the trenches was known as the sugar report? My muse refused to play in the noise and mud but escaped to the ups and downs of my dusty solo travels and the pleasure of picking up mail from home.
She basked in the cultural difference. She dodged the landmines of Give-me-pen and What-is-your-name? She swapped travellers’ tales over masala dosa. She pulled the dupata over her head and slinked away. She wandered blissfully through cities where no-one knew her. She felt so lonely she cried.
She re-read the letters on blue onion-skin airmail paper. The sugar reports from home. Relived the joy of leaving the Poste Restante with a stack of reminders she was more than Anonymous Westerner. Some days she’d queue at the office knowing there’d be nothing for her. In towns she’d never planned to be.