PUBLISHING E-BOOKS FOR DUMMIES. Ali Luke. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. 296 pp. 2012. $24.99 soft cover.
E-publishing has come to the fore online. There are public libraries offering e-books for checkout. Many subscription-based repositories offer access to a wide range of e-books. Many higher education courses use only e-books, delivered on various e-reader platforms. In the physical bookstores, most print books have accessible e-versions for purchase or rent. (This is understandable since all print books go through an electronic processing phase, so outputting that is just accessing a byproduct of the print publishing process.)
Traditional proprietary print publishing has a reputation for being highly competitive. Contracts are hard to come by. There are apocryphal stories of editors holding giant bonfires of unread unsolicited manuscripts on the beach (more likely, they are just recycled). Many prospective authors have signed contracts to have the books never appear because of a change in the marketplace. The average profit from print books are $1,000, and it is said that some 328,259 titles appeared in the U.S. in 2010. Many do not offer advances. Royalty rates have been falling. Finally, a majority of the earnings go to a few star writers (in a clear reflection of the “power law” curve ).
E-publishing has enabled a new generation of would-be authors to indulge their book authoring dreams by lowering the costs of entry. Back in the day, those that wanted to engage in “vanity” publishing would have to front funds in the low five figures in order to get a thousand books out into the world, and many ended up with moldy books stuck in storage lockers or garages. Now, in the age of e-books, such authors may end up with e-texts uploaded on websites and maybe a sales rate of n= however many family and friends one can get to buy the text. That’s my cynical take.
For my optimistic take, e-publishing has enabled numerous new voices to enter the public realm and to share their knowledge—for both formal and informal learning. Expertise is critical in most fields, but expertise does not always have a dominant hold on describing reality. In that sense, having many others publish is a reflection of the Long Tail, which many niches for information. There’s something alluring about DIY culture even if the fruits of that movement are not always as high quality as one might want. The structure of the book with its hundreds of years of history offers a structure and formality to contents that may not be achievable otherwise.
Fortunately, Ali Luke’s ”Publishing E-Books for Dummies” takes a more optimistic approach while staying grounded in the realities of publishing. This text is practically grounded in the technologies for writing and revising the e-book; designing its cover; outputting the book to the proper format; marketing the e-book using blogs and websites; signing up for shopping cart services, and receiving online payments from book sales.
For motivated potential e-book authors, the highly readable “Publishing E-Books for Dummies” offers a primer on how to get started. The text takes readers through the steps of writing an e-book all the way through the point-of-sale and then on to opportunities that may have been created with the publication of that text. There are screenshots of various tools that help readers set up the necessary accounts and access to achieve particular aims. There are bulleted points highlighting main ideas. There are real-world tips now and again. These are all expectations from the “For Dummies” series.
There are two broad categories of e-books: mass market (defined as “genre fiction and popular nonfiction”) and specialist (“nonfiction that appeals to a niche audience”), Luke writes.
The author provides an overview of direct publishing and some of the main technologies involved early on. She points to Amazon’s Kindle Store and other lesser-known outlets for e-books, like the indie outlet
Smashwords. She highlights some e-book readers that self-published e-book authors may have to version files for, such as the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble NOOK, Kobo eReader, and Sony Reader.
Early on, she mentions some stars of e-publishing who have made names for themselves (J.A. Konrath, Holly Lisle, and Amanda Hocking) and one who has made the cross-over into the popular print publisher market with a rumored six-figure contract. There are mixed genres, like “paranormal romances.” Ali Luke uses the inspiration of these success stories to rally others to pursue possibilities. (She suggests that selling hundreds of e-books might be sufficiently positive to go pro—for those who are so inclined. “Bestsellers” are understood as those selling 10,000 copies or more. The “sweet spot” for most e-books is $.99 to $2.99, with only a percentage of that going to the author. The publisher / distributor, the sales site, and others, all take a cut. Those are low price points but also what the market will bear.) Still, for all the Long Tail niche markets of a majority of e-books, there is the persistent dream that a work will suddenly catch fire and resonate with a paying audience and maybe catch the eye of a roving editor.
That said, there are a range of motivations for writing and publishing e-books, Luke observes. There are those who want to leave a written record. Sometimes, bloggers collate their online musings into e-books. Some organizations use e-books to promote other products or services (like trainings or consultations). Some use e-books to establish their expertise in a field. For some, publishing is a form of self-affirmation. An e-book may be used to pad a resume before reaching out to print publishing agents or publishers. And then there are the bragging rights.
Per the basics of writing, Luke does suggest that authors should write from a point of strength—or what the writers themselves know. She does offer a tip, lightly phrased, “Avoid slavishly creating a distilled version of all popular e-books—it would be no fun to write and would likely be perceived poorly by readers. Instead, learn from what’s being done well, and figure out how to improve on it. Ditch anything that feels clichéd or less than useful. If a particular topic or theme comes up a lot, don’t simply look for ways to include a similar topic in your own e-book—try to take the idea further.” (p. 31)
This author does not buy into the mystique of writing or publishing, which is good. For example, she advises at one point: “Don’t go it alone. If you’re short on time, expertise, or inclination, you can bring someone else on board to write or co-write your e-books.” (Some big names in publishing are ghost-authored.)
This author approaches e-book publishing with some four years in this field, according to the introduction. She writes with a sense of how good intentions for writing may not often translate to actual writing. At one point, she calls writing “a high-resistance activity” and then follows up with tips on how to stay on course. There are the perennial favorites—avoiding distractions, setting up a comfortable place and situation to write, setting aside time to write, expecting reasonable amounts of writing, and even delinking from the Internet while writing.
She identifies some common problems in writing e-books, such as realizing that a final manuscript is much shorter than expected; losing enthusiasm for the work part-way through; lacking information to fill in certain gaps of knowledge; having life events intrude on the writing, or feeling unsupported by family.
About the last point, for example, the author writes empathetically: “It’s quite discouraging when your spouse believes that you’re wasting your time or your kids roll their eyes at you or your friends laugh at your dreams. Explain your motivations to them, and if they then realize what your e-book means to you, they might be more supportive. Sometimes, though, you need to seek support elsewhere, by looking for a group of writers locally or for an online forum to join.”
Ali Luke refers to various features of Microsoft Word for writing the manuscript. (As a small quibble, she refers to
Apache’s OpenOffice (which was at least temporarily replaced by LibreOffice. This is probably splitting hairs since OpenOffice is once again open-source after a foray into the commercial realm.)
She highlights the Style features to format the text, duly noting that writers should save a backup copy before working on the revisions. There is a short section that deals with only three punctuation marks (quotation marks, periods, and dashes), which left me wondering about common writing challenges: run-ons and comma splices; the misuses of commas and semi-colons; capitalization errors; and others. She suggested that there wasn’t a need further for double spacing after punctuation marks because of common fonts today that provide a sense of visual spacing.
As for the e-book cover, she advises against using clipart by noting: “It makes your design look amateurish and makes you look lazy.” Cover images need to reproduce well as thumbnails as well. While Luke emphasizes the need for a professional look-and-feel, she allows for a range of possibilities, including authors drawing their own cover image using freeware at paint.net.
In this text, it is clear that there is some sort of cottage industry that has sprung up around supporting self-publishing. The author mentions various freelance designers to work on cover designs and even suggests a price range of between $200 - $300. Further, she even suggests going to discount designers or current students who may be willing to do the work for free. She encourages the trading of skills as well. She does note: “Assume that the designer won’t read your e-book.” To that end, an author needs to describe the contents sufficiently for appropriate cover art.
One feature that really helps make this book more real-world is the inclusion of a range of quotes in a sidebar box at the ends of some chapters identifying common mistakes. For example, covers may leave the wrong impression or haphazard designs that show unprofessionalism.
(Part 2 addresses issues of transcoding the book into various formats for delivery, marketing the e-book, and moving forward after its publication.)