My Experiences in Self-Publishing, Part 4: Format and Production (Choices, Choices, Choices!)


Readers are looking for awesome books, regardless of whether they’re printed by one of the Big Traditional Presses or if they’ve been uploaded by the author. A great book is a great book. Our job is to offer our readers the greatest book we possibly can.

The best (and sometimes scariest!) part about self-publishing today is that us writers have all kinds of options. In fact, even with a pretty solid vision of what I wanted my book to be, I was a little intimidated by the number of choices to consider.

To bring your book to life, you’ll need to make choices in three areas:

Format: The format is the final product your readers see. The most common types of format include physical books (hardbacks, trade paperbacks, mass market paperbacks, large print books), eBooks, and audiobooks (mp3 downloads or compact discs).

Production: The production of your book is the process of making your book.  This will include editing, cover design, file preparation, layout, galley proofs, etc. It will include choosing paper and cover stock for physical books and a performer/narrator for an audiobook. You’ll also need to decide if you want to set up your own imprint/press. No matter what formats you choose, you’ll need to edit your text and design a cover.

Distribution: Once you have your book, you need a way to get it to your readers. You’ll need to decide if you want to sell the books yourself, through online retailers, or independent bookstores. You’ll need to decide if you’re willing to do consignment sales. Because Distribution is such a big topic, we’ll talk about it in a separate post.

Let’s take a look at the different types of formats and some of the basic elements of production. (We’ll talk about expenses later.)

I also recommend that if you’re hiring a company to print or upload your book, shell out some cash to buy some examples of their work. You’re far better off losing $30  to discover that the publisher can’t deliver a quality product than $300 or even $3000 on your own book.

Physical Books

Physical books come in many shapes and sizes, including but not limited to hardback, library bound, trade paperback, mass market paperback, pocket, large print (hardback or paperback).  The most common size for a self-published book is some version of the pocket or trade paperback. It has the substance of a hardback book but is a more cost-conscious. It is my experience that most readers who want a physical book are willing to pay between $10 and $20 for it, but they get a little squeamish at the idea of pay more than $8 for a mass market paperback (when mass market books typically cost between $4 and $8 for traditionally published books), and they tend to shy away from paying $25 to $40 for a hardback book for an unknown author. Self-published pocket and trade paperback books tend to end up with price tags commensurate to those of traditionally published books of similar size and shape.

Production

No matter what type of physical book you choose to offer, you’ll need to edit your text and come up with an awesome cover. I repeat:  EDIT YOUR TEXT AND GET A GREAT COVER. For most readers, a lackluster cover and bad editing, along with poor font choices, are the trifecta that announce the book is a bad self-published work, regardless how brilliant your story might be. Don’t let that happen to you! 

Printing Options

You’ll need to decide if you want to print your books up front or print them as you need them.

Traditional Press: A traditional press will print a larger quantity of your books all at once. In order to get a reasonable per-book price, chances are good that you’ll need to print in quantities of 500 to 1,000 or more. This is a good option if know you’re going to sell a lot of books or if you’re creating a book for a special occasion (like a church history book to celebrate a centennial).

This is not a good option if you don’t think you can sell 1,000 or more books, or if you don’t have a place to store them. (To give you an idea of how much space books can take up, my books come 24 to a box, and each box is 8 inches x 8 inches x 12 inches. A thousand books would fill 42 boxes and take up about 19 cubic feet of real estate.) Another challenge is that they’re harder to sell through the big online retailers.

Print on Demand: I’m a big advocate of print on demand, especially as POD has become sophisticated enough that POD books are almost indistinguishable from traditional press books. I also approve of only printing a book when it’s actually wanted and needed. If you’ve ever walked into a big-box bookstore and seen table after table of heavily marked-down books, you’ve seen the waste that comes with overprinting.

Most POD books are distributed through online retailers. The downside: not all independent bookstores will work with POD books because, depending on your distribution, they have to buy them at full cost, leaving no room for profit. (More on that later.) Some POD companies will give you, the author, a price break for bulk orders.

There are also POD-like companies that are print-on-demand to you, but do not upload to online retailers. This could be a great option if, say, you just needed 100 copies of a commemorative book you wanted to give to people attending a 50th high school reunion.

Production Choices

Beyond editing and cover design, you’ll need to choose who will do the layout and printing. You’ll need to set prices and acquire ISBN numbers if the press doesn’t do it for you. (More on that later.) You’ll also need to make choices about the physical product itself, like the kind of paper you’ll use and how much artwork you’ll include.

Establishing Your Own Press

Establishing your own press does not mean setting up a printing press in your basement. It means creating your own imprint. If you look at any book, it will have some sort of brand or imprint…traditional imprints include Random House and Penguin and LoveSwept. If you want to create a press called Cartwheeling Buffalo Press, you can! Your books will still need to be printed either by a traditional press or a POD. It will just have your awesome logo of a cartwheeling buffalo on the back cover. If you want to distribute directly to Lightning Source (instead of through another press) you’ll need to create your own press.

Layout

Someone–possibly even you–will have to take that document you have stored in Microsoft Word or WriteWayPro or Google Docs and massage it into a format appropriate for a book. Depending on who you choose for a printer, it could be you, it could be a professional designer you hire to prepare the book to upload to a press, or it could be a layout person who works for the press. Basically, this person’s job is to turn your manuscript into something “print ready” so that it will flow correctly on the page. Many of the POD online sites have tools that let you do this yourself.

Part of layout also includes the design of the headers (does every page have the title and your name at the top?), the location and style of the page number, and the way the first page of each chapter appears. Here’s an example of a guide that shows several some of the kinds of layout choices you might make.

Finally, you get to make font choices for both the interior text and the elements like chapter headings and headers and footers. These choices can be inspired by your book–for example, the chapter titles in a nice, Art Deco font would be awesome for a novel set in the 1920s–but stick to the basics when it comes to the actual text. There is a reason why a font like Times New Roman remains a classic choice. It’s easily readable, and the little ticks that make up the serif font gently connect words together to make your eye connect letters into words. You may be tempted to use Comic Sans for your funny romance or Chiller for your haunted house book. DON’T DO IT.

Paper

This is a good time to look at your own bookshelves and really examine the paper your books are printed on. What do you like? What makes you cringe? You’ll need to make choices regarding the paper inside your book as well as the cover.

Paper Color: Many companies will let you choose the color of your paper, usually white or cream. Many will argue that cream paper tends to look more professional, and I agree with this. (Go open up some of your hardback and trade paperback books and you’ll see very few of them are bright white.)

Paper Weight: If you have the option to choose weight, ask for samples. Weight refers to how thick the paper is. If you think about standard photocopy paper versus the paper greeting cards are printed on, you’re thinking about the weight. If it’s too thin (like phone book paper!) it will tear easily and the print on one side will permeate the other. If it’s took thick, it’s going to be heavy and expensive. Slightly heavier weights are appropriate if you’re printing a book heavy on artsy photographs (think: coffee table book). Most novels don’t need an especially heavy paper. You WANT your cover to be a heavy weight or it will curl with humidity and be damaged more easily.

Paper Finish: Matte finish (not shiny) or glossy (shiny) are the two main choices. When it comes to covers, you’ll also have the choice of coated matte. The finish will affect the way any artwork looks. Uncoated matte paper tends to absorb inks more and can make the images look duller. Most artsy books use glossy or coated matte paper because the images pop out better.

Pros and Cons of Physical Books

Physical books are still the superior choice for libraries, collectors, and hand-selling at events. However, they cost more to produce, it’s harder to gauge how many you’ll need, and they can create storage and shipping issues.

EBooks

In many ways, eBooks are far simpler (and the decisions are far less permanent) to produce than physical books.

Just like with physical books, you’ll need to edit your text and come up with an awesome cover. I repeat:  EDIT YOUR TEXT AND GET A GREAT COVER. (I really can’t mention this often enough.) Bad editing and a yucky cover are two of the three parts of the trifecta of a crappy eBook, the third being glitchy formatting that makes the book not flow correctly.

Even though there are a boatload of ways to read eBooks, they eBook files themselves come in three formats:

PDF: The old standard for documents downloaded from the web, very commonly used for forms and instruction manuals and usually read on a computer.

MOBI: The proprietary format for the Amazon Kindle.

EPUB: The most common eReader format. If you’re downloading to a Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble Nook, iPad, Android phone, or pretty much anything else, you’re probably downloading an EPUB.

The lovely thing about eBooks is that you don’t have to worry about most of the production issues that come with a physical book. You don’t have to stress about paper choices because there is no paper. You don’t have to worry about physical storage space because there is nothing to store  beyond the electronic files. You don’t really even have to worry about font styles (except for PDF format) because eReader users can pick the font style and size that they find easiest on the eyes through their reading device.

Production

Once you have your text edited and a snazzy cover for your book, your main concerns include where you’re going to sell your book (which we’ll talk more about in the post on distribution) and to make sure the book functions correctly from a technical standpoint. Anyone with an eReader has seen how books can hiccup, how some characters can be replaced by gobbledygook, and how images and line breaks can end up in weird places when people adjust the font size and layout on their eReaders.  If you’re book is straight text, you’ll have an easier time than if your book is full of illustrations.

Still, someone has to prep your manuscript and convert it into an eBook. You have choices:

You can upload your own eBooks. Many of the major distributors of eBooks have tutorials for how to upload your eBook, and you don’t have to be a programming genius to do it. Some writing programs, like WriteWayPro, have built in conversation tools, as well. You have complete control over the product and can take it down on a whim if you choose to.

You can pay a flat fee to have the eBook uploaded by a pro. There are many affordable professionals who will, for a flat fee, take your manuscript, prep it to make it eBook friendly, and upload it for you. Note: They are only being paid to handle the technical aspects of creating the eBook and generally won’t look at or fix typos, misspelled words, or the fact that your main character’s hair inexplicably changed color in chapter six. They focus on making the book work correctly. Once the book is up and running, you and your pro part ways.

You can pay a distribution service. There are many distribution services that will prepare and upload your eBook to far more markets than you can likely reach yourself. They can also handle making repairs to the book if you catch something and will often handle the accounting.

Ta-da! We’ve just had an entire conversation about eBook production.

Pros and Cons about eBooks

EBooks are far superior when it comes to impulse buying. There’s something magnificent about being able to open my Nook, say to myself, “I want that book!” and in a couple of finger taps, a book is downloading to my Nook and my credit card is charged. INSTANT GRATIFICATION.  One of my friends (who has pushed my book with a zeal that would put a drug dealer to shame–I call her my book pimp) told me when she was talking about my book with some friends, they whipped out their phones and eReaders and downloaded it on the spot. No time to forget the title, no chance to think about it…they just bought the book. On the downside, it’s harder to have a book-signing, and libraries are not really equipped yet to take on your eBook because most libraries offer eBooks through major distribution services like OneClickDigital and OverDrive.

Audiobooks

Not everyone has time to actually sit down with a book and read, but many of those busy people listen to a good story while they’re in the middle of a 30-mile commute or folding laundry. Audiobooks used to be very cumbersome to produce and store when they were still on record albums (remember those little children’s books with the 45 rpm tucked into the back flap?) or cassette tapes (not ideal for leaving in the car in the hot summer sun). Fortunately, I’ve never seen one on an 8-track.

Most audiobooks today are either on CD or mp3. CDs are easier to put on library shelves, but there is more cost to producing them: the CDs and the packaging. They are, however, friendlier for car stereos (especially for anyone driving a car more than three years old). The other option is a downloadable mp3. The biggest distributor of downloadable audiobooks to a mainstream audience (as opposed to libraries)–and the friendliest toward self-published authors–is Audible.com.

Production

Once you’ve edited your text and created an awesome cover, your biggest challenges and expenses include choosing someone to read the audiobook and uploading it to a distributor. The hallmark of a badly self-published audiobook are a bad cover, bad editing (which you can hear if not see), and a bad narrator. Don’t let this happen to your book!

Picking a Narrator

Audiobook narrators are a special group of people. They have the ability to create voice inflections that make the listener feel like they’re following an entire cast of characters–male and female–even though you might have only one or two readers.

You might be tempted to read your audiobook yourself. “I can read,” you say to yourself. THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT THIS. Are you actually an actor? Can you keep track of the different voices you use for each of your characters? Would a listener from the UK buy your London accent? Read a few chapters into a recorder and listen to it and honestly ask yourself: “Would I pay $20 to listen to me talk for seven hours?” I frequently sound like an asthmatic eight-year-old. I love my readers WAY TOO MUCH to do that to them.

Hiring a narrator can get expensive. Most charge by the “finished hour,” meaning if the final audiobook is seven hours long, you’re paying for seven hours of their services. Narrators can charge anywhere from $25 an hour to $2500 an hour. Some can be hired by the project or for a percentage of the sales.  A typical 300-page novel translates into an audiobook that runs about six to nine hours, depending on your text and the speech patterns of the narrator.

One company that specializes in the creation and distribution of audiobooks by authors self-published and otherwise is ACX (which distributes to Audible and iTunes). You can entertain yourself for hours listening to the audition clips of various narrators.

Recording an Audiobook Yourself

So you sound like Morgan Freeman and you’ve decided to record the audiobook yourself. You’re going to need some decent recording equipment and, most important, a soundproof place to record it. This is probably not going to be in your house. Think about it…what may seem like quiet to you really isn’t that quiet when a listener is trying to listen to your book. Our homes are infiltrated by the sounds of birds chirping, cicadas buzzing, ambulances roaring, and neighbors slamming car doors. You don’t want that in the background. Even a recording in your basement will register water running through the pipes and the furnace firing up. You need a sound-proof room. Many communities have someone who runs a recording studio for local bands and will charge a by-the-hour rate for using their professional equipment facilities.

Pros and Cons about Audiobooks

Audiobooks can reach a completely different audience. There are a lot of people out there who claim they “don’t like to read” or “don’t have time to read,” but they’ll happily listen to an audiobook while doing other things. MP3 formats mean that they can be affordable for the consumer to download instantly to an mP3 player or iPod. The downside is that they can get expensive to produce if you have a particularly long book and most libraries won’t be able to distribute an mP3 (though some will buy a CD). Also, they’re generally not a good option if your book depends on illustrations to tell the story.

My Choices

As mentioned back in the post about your book’s vision, my vision was to have books in libraries, books I could sell at events, and eBooks.  I’ll talk about my choices for distribution in a later post, but I chose to work with a POD book press that helps self-publishers distribute their books through the major channels so that it could easily be ordered through bookstores as well as online. The physical book is printed on cream-colored paper and the cover has a wonderful coated matte finish that is almost velvety to the touch, a lovely thing for tactile people. I chose to work with an eBook distributor who has made my book available all over the world.

My one regret? Not having given more thought to creating an audiobook. At the time I was planning my book’s release, I didn’t appreciate that an audiobook version was an accessible option.

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