Tag Archives: TWDY

Time to Breathe and Reflect – the Frantic Art of EPublishing

Wow. Just wow. This week has been a blitzkrieg of editing, formatting, reformatting, pouring over documentation, and last-second editing again. Publishing takes a lot out of me. It’s finally done, though, and Shelter From the Storm is live on Smashwords now. It’s eligible for the premium catalog, and will ship to iBooks, Nook, Aldiko, Sony, and Stanza after that. It’s not quite live on Kindle yet, but it’s in the “publishing” phase where it is reviewed for about 24-48 hours, after which it will be available there.

Now that I finally have something in the market I can look back and think about what was hard, what was easy, and things I could do better. The first thing that stood out for me is that I was still editing – but I don’t think that was from procrastination. I got lots of reviews and crits on Shelter. It was a constantly morphing, breathing work that it immensely better now than it was a month ago, and light years better than it was a month before that. I’m proud of it. Despite all that prep work, I was editing right up until the final check-in. I was well beyond the point of spelling errors and such, but nontrivial changes were made in the story on publication day. I like all of the changes that went in, and I’d make them all again. Why did those particular changes wait so long? I really can’t say. They came to me as I was doing final formatting edits, and they were worth the hassle of making the changes. Shelter is 2000 words shorter because of the last change I made, and any time you can cut from your book, you should. My philosophy of self-editing has long been that if you catch yourself explaining the point of the scene as “it really shows the characters’ feelings/development/interests” then you need to cut it. Every scene should advance the plot somehow. Show those feelings as you’re moving along; don’t make the reader stop so you can beat him over the head with them.

Somewhere in that paragraph I went out on a tangent… but the point I was getting to was that I edited up until the last minute because (I think) you can always edit. There’s no such thing as a perfect work. I probably should have come to a “ship” date earlier and had a code freeze where I was only doing formatting and bugfixes (spelling, plot holes, anachronisms), but I’m not upset with myself for making the story better even at the last minute.

Formatting was another thing entirely. I had two very different experiences in the two places I published – Kindle and Smashwords. Both places had very powerful strengths and very powerful weaknesses. I’ll start with Smashwords.

Mark Coker & Co. over at Smashwords have the best-documented, most delightfully user-friendly site I’ve ever seen for publishing. You have a convenient Dashboard that you can always look at to manage all your books on Smashwords, edit which channels you want to be distributed through, and handle book updates, coupons, price changes, and basically anything else you want. Their tools to manage your works are powerful, easy to figure out, and wonderful to have at your fingertips. The ability to upload once and have your book be distributed to so many different locations is simply amazing – and the even better part is that at many of them you can get paid more if you distribute through Smashwords. This is particularly true on Nook; Nook has a 40% commission rate on books priced below or above the magic $2.99-$9.99 range that gets you the higher rate. I’ll be taking home nearly 60% via Smashwords even though Shelter is $0.99. That is a very important point, so I’ll say it again: you can get paid more (sometimes) if you distribute through Smashwords. This is the #1 reason I’ll be switching to distribute my Amazon books via Smashwords as well as soon as they can distribute through the Kindle store (which is already in the works). The #2 reason I loved publishing via Smashwords is that you get a FREE ISBN. That one was so important I had to put italics and make it all-caps, and I hate all-caps. ISBNs are required for distribution in iBooks and the Sony store. Neither of those markets are as large as Kindle, but I’d hate to miss out on them. ISBNs are really expensive, upwards of $100 for a single book, unless you want to buy them in book (get 1000 for $1000 at that site… egad). If you’re spending $100 on your eBook and you’re an indie author, you’d better be spending that on a world-beating cover artist (and you can get great stuff for much cheaper – I did).

Other things I loved about the Smashwords experience so far: thorough, detailed instructions on how to get things formatted and set up for publication in the premium catalog, clearly explained legal rules, and a generally friendly and beautiful site. I say this as someone who designs software user interfaces for a living – Smashwords has a fantastic and useable interface. Better than Kindle by a long shot.

Where Smashwords fell short was in the lead-up to one of their strengths; formatting for the Meatgrinder, their signature file.doc – to – file.*  converter. To be clear, the instructions for formatting your document are first-rate and easy to follow. The process itself, though, still takes a long time. I’m thankful I was doing this with a 39K-word serial issue instead of a 150K-word novel. The safest way to get things started is to use “the nuclear option,” which is to copy your entire book and paste it into Notepad, then take the raw text and put it back into MS Word. The worst part about this is that you lose all in-paragraph microformatting, like italics for emphasis. You lose macroformatting as well, but it’s easy to fix your chapter headings again. Hunting down every place you used to have italics is a painful time sink. The most disappointing part about the Meatgrinder experience is that you can’t force page breaks. I used the triple paragraph return followed by “****” and another triple paragraph return (recommended in the style guide), but all that had the effect of doing in the ePub file was to put awkward spaces between my chapters. My ePub I created using Scrivener looked much better. To be fair, Coker mentions on Smashwords that they are going to have a Meatgrinder-bypass soon, so those of us who have invested in useful writing tools like Scrivener can just use the pretty formatting that they come up with instead. At the end of the day, I’m not angry at how it turned out format-wise, but it could have been better. I would prefer to have the ability to format on my own using tools that don’t rely on starting with a manually formatted Word document.

I did my Kindle publishing second, and it felt (at first) like it was a much better experience for one and only one reason – you can upload your own damn .mobi file if you want. Scrivener compiles to .mobi. Click, boom,  upload, DONE. I almost couldn’t believe it. Seriously, Smashwords – If I could get your attention for a moment – You absolutely positively need this feature. It is absolutely worth the $50 for a fantastic tool like Scrivener that, besides being awesome as a writing IDE (Integrated development environment – give me a break, I’m a software guy), has the ability to very carefully format everything you need, and can do so from a place that Meatgrinder never can, a carefully formatted set of classes that it creates. Don’t get me wrong – Meatgrinder has a massively more difficult job than Scrivener – but Scrivener takes advantage of its resources to format better. I think it would be well-worth Smashwords’s time to implement even a weak version of the bypass as soon as possible, perhaps one that only works for low-to-no-images all-text no-tables works, a sizeable chunk of their portfolio.

Anyhow, that single luxury alone made Kindle feel much easier. It’s a gold star and a half that nearly gives Kindle the edge all by itself. That being said, Kindle has some drawbacks. There is no free, universal equivalent of the Smashwords Style Guide for Kindle that tells you absolutely everything you need to know. Now, Kindle has huge forums support and I doubt if it would be difficult to find all that information, but the fact was that for a first time author like myself, it was massively easier to find the directions on how to do everything just right on Smashwords than it was on Kindle. In particular – Kindle’s directions never say what to put on your copyright page. Do you need a licensing statement? Smashwords provides one for you. Is it important to say Kindle edition? What are the rules to linking out of the book to your other Kindle books? To your own blog? How do you edit your Kindle profile page that the public sees? All of these questions have answers that can be found with patient googling and searching through the forums, but searching forums and googling is harder than reading a single, clear, authoritative guide that tells you everything you need to know.

The other big place that Kindle looses out on is their royalties. If you’re outside the magic price range of $2.99-$9.99, you can only get 35% of the purchase price. Period. If you are in that sacred range, you can get up to 70% (though they then may take off some for “delivery” which may actually be a valid bandwidth charge, but who knows). Kindle can do that, though, because they are the biggest game in town, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. If you are an indie publisher, you would have to be insane not to be on Kindle. You don’t need an ISBN to publish on Amazon, nor do they give you one for free.

At the end of the day, both systems had their strengths at weaknesses. Kindle felt like a breath of fresh air when they didn’t make me go through formatting hell again, but their help sections were harder to find and their royalty rules weren’t as generous. I haven’t looked hard, but I didn’t see any way to give Kindle coupons for your works (it’s probably there, but the point is that it isn’t as blatantly obvious as it is in Smashwords). Kindle is also a little less clear about the rules of publishing – what is allowed and what is not? Again, all of the information is there, but they really need one style guide that is the authoritative guide to publishing on Kindle: do this and your book will be fine, do that and your book will get bounced.

Take it for what it is. I like the Smashwords interface, but I’d give my left pinky to be able to utilize Scrivener to make my Smashwords experience better. Still, I’ll probably move all my publishing over to the Smashwords system when they get integrated with Amazon; the convenience is too much to pass up. I just hope they let me do my own formatting when that time comes.

Update – One killer feature that Amazon makes easy and Smashwords lacks: the ability to group books into a series. Amazon has a nice little check box asking whether or not the book is in a series. If so, what is the title of the series? What is this book’s place in the series? It’s simple and incredibly useful. Shelter From the Storm is Book 1in the series Those Who Die Young on Kindle. Smashwords… completely lacks this feature. I was actually a little confused as to what I would consider Shelter’s title. Is it Shelter From the Storm? Those Who Die Young Issue 1 – Shelter From the Storm? I ended up going with Shelter From the Storm, which makes me ever so slightly nervous about the “rule” they have where your title page must match the title on your cover, as mine technically doesn’t (the series title is bigger on the cover and sits on top of the issue title). Hopefully the human reviewers will understand what I was trying to do.


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Victory is mine!

August 3, 2011 12:33 am by MRM in Uncategorized

Shelter From the Storm is officially available for download in friendly DRM-free format on Smashwords. I’m getting the Kindle formatting up and ready to go; there aren’t too many kinks left to work out.

I only barely met my goal; it was first available just before midnight on the 2nd. Smashwords does a lot of wonderful things for you, but you have to pay attention to all the little formatting details, and you absolutely have to do it in MS Word format, which renders Scrivener (my preferred writing software) considerably less useful. Fortunately, Amazon appears to take .mobi files, so I should be able to have things up and running there without too much fuss.

Been a hectic week getting this thing ready for the final push, but I can now happily say I’m out there. I’ll have it in the Kindle store soon, and I should be distributed (via Smashwords) just about everywhere ebooks are sold, including on Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Stanza, and all the usual suspects. You can even read it in your browser (just go to the book’s Smashwords page and buy it in that format) if you are particularly cruel to your eyes.

I’m sticking with $0.99 per issue for now; we’ll see how things go at that price point. Everything’s up in the air (including any sense of writing style I have in my blog – it’s after midnight and I haven’t seen this early in the AM since grad school).

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A Quick Update

August 1, 2011 11:12 pm by MRM in Uncategorized

Shelter From the Storm is happening. I’m making all the last-minute formatting changes right now, and barring disaster it should be in the Kindle store by tomorrow evening. Adoption there is not instantaneous, so it could technically not be available until August 3rd, but if I click publish on the 2nd I’m calling it a victory. I’m nervous, but it looks like things are coming out pretty well. I’ll keep you posted if there are any delays. Nook/Smashwords should be up shortly afterwards.

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Deadlines, plot, and action

July 18, 2011 11:13 am by MRM in Uncategorized

Epublishing is a funny game. At the moment I have a certain amount of freedom in my "deadlines." I consider my web site as being in beta, although it is certainly available for all to read. Without anything in the market, though, I can safely assume that changes aren’t going to be noticed. My original slide said that Shelter From the Storm would be out on July 14th. As you may have noticed, it now reads August 2nd. I expect to actually meet this one.

It’s a bit terrifying to realize that once it’s out there, I’ll actually have to stick to it. People might even care. If I do my publicity right, people will really care.

So why did I change? My target for what’s important in a serial changed. I was okay with the pace of the story. It was roughly equivalent to the pace of my novel, and in many ways was a fun and action-filled introduction to my characters. The problem was that in that first issue, the big plot of the story didn’t get advanced very much. You met people. Stuff happened. It was interesting. But I realized that the ending of just that section wasn’t particularly satisfying. You didn’t get to see the really big plot point move forward. It happened about 7000 words later.

The solution, of course, is that I needed to move those 7000 words into the first story. Stuff the reader needs to see now happens in that part of the story. And that’s what I’ve decided is a key to serial fiction. Every single part absolutely needs to have a portion of the central plot of the whole story. Just because a section is interesting, funny, or action packed isn’t enough. It needs to move the story forward. This is the difference between chapters in a book and issues in a serial. Chapters in a book should move the plot forward as well, but you have more time to expand upon your characters. You can be forgiven for showing this really interesting part that truly defines the protagonist because the plot-moving happens only a few pages later. If something happens in the next issue of TWDY, the reader might decide that it isn’t worth buying and never find out. With a book, you have that same reader “captured,” in that she already has the whole thing. You’re not counting on her to keep coming back to the well.

You also need to treat your readers differently. I’m not just chopping up a book and selling the chapters the at a time to make more money. Each issue has its own arc, tells its own story, and could (in theory) stand on its own. A serial has the added advantage of being able to change directions mid-stream. Reader feedback could very well change the outcome – I don’t know how it ends.

That’s the big one. I know the future of the tale, but nothing is written in stone. A hundred comments for more Quinta and Roland could result in more Quinta and Roland – it’s interactive in a way that a full-length novel never could be, and I hope to connect with my readers that way. That’s what this story is all about, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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Ship It! The Rookie Writer’s Dilemma

When I’m not fighting crime writing fiction, I’m writing code: good old-fashioned, rocket-fast, wicked cool code. Also, sometimes boring code and long tech specs. There are a startling number of parallels I’ve found between writing fiction and writing code, and one of the biggest ones of them is the “Ship It” urge. Some background is perhaps in order.

I used to work for a little software company in Redmond. You may have heard of it. That company is known for a high level of polish on its code; say what you want about its programs, haters, but for huge software products that are used by almost everyone on Earth, very few real bugs are found. They have perfected an iterative cycle of code and test, code and test, code while testing, that successfully cranks out very solid products. To give you an idea of how big a deal this is, imagine publishing the most popular book in the world. Imagine that it’s over 1500 pages, and before you ship you need to know that there are absolutely no typos, no logical flaws in the story, that you got every detail about ships and horses right, that there are no anachronisms (Anyone have zippers on pants in the 1700’s? You fail.), and that the style is consistent and engaging throughout. Now imagine that half the planet is going to read your book, thousands and thousands of people are going to critique its every nuance, and the future of your company depends on you writing that solid a book. It can be done, but it’s not easy. It takes a process, and my old company has one.

Most other software companies imitate that company’s software engineering method to a degree. It is very deliberate, and I learned early on that the biggest “company secrets” I was ever privy to were planned features and release dates. If you are selling software, those are the last two things you ever want to tell the public (if they are paying attention to you). Another little software company in Cupertino has perfected the art of telling the public nothing until the product is already on the assembly line. They do this for a reason – if you say you’re going to have feature X in the product shipping in October of next year, it may be the case that come next May, you find out that feature X is very, very hard to do, and the product needs to go on without it. Feature X may cripple your product because of how big or slow it is, or it may not be as cool as you thought, or you may just not be able to figure it out. All of those things happen in software. Hence, the process goes like this. On day one of product planning, you (or a room filled with blind monkeys marketing professionals) make a list of all the features you’d like to have in the next release, and pin a date down for when you’d like to release it. You also pick a series of “measurement dates.” As you get to each of these, you look at your progress and find what is and what isn’t working. For the things that are behind where you’d like them to be (and again, you can often only guess at how hard it is to write a feature, much like in fiction you can only guess at how easy writing that fight scene will be), you ask yourself – “Do I really think I can catch up?” Better yet, you assume you can’t catch up, and instead you ask yourself, “Is it worth delaying either the release or other features to get this done?”

You do these measurement steps as often as you can (though there is a point at which measuring is taking more time than it is saving), and eventually you’ll find that you can’t quite get to all the features you had planned for the next release in time for your target release date. You then decide to either delay the release or drop/pare back the feature. When your release candidate does roll around, you almost always find that 1) it took longer than you had hoped, and 2) it doesn’t have all the features you planned. This is why you never tell the public which features you are adding (unless you really need to, and then those features can’t be dropped, which is a dangerous attribute for a feature) and you never tell them when you plan to release until you are really, really sure that you can make the date. This should generally be whenever development is winding down and you are mostly in bug-bashing/user testing mode.

If this sounds complicated and easy to screw up, that’s because it is. Companies do it all the time. The company I worked for doesn’t do that very often, and the result is that when a product ships, it is a Big Deal. You have parties. If your project is big enough, you have parties that include people only tangentially related to the product, because, hey, you just shipped a terabyte of working, awesome, cool code that consumers are going to love. Often you’ve spent the last N years of your life working on just that code. It’s a good reason to have a party. When you “Ship It,” everybody involved gets a Ship It award. When I was there it was a cool plaque with the CEO and company founder’s signature on it next to your name. It’s a nice touch to celebrate a genuinely huge accomplishment. Shipping code is always an accomplishment.

Similarly, “shipping” fiction is a Big Deal. I worked on my novel for three years. There were points at which I didn’t think I was ever going to finish. There were other points where I thought it was crap that wasn’t worth finishing, and there were some where I just thought I was wasting my life. After all of that, though, I stuck with it and put together a novel that I am really, really proud of, and this past February, I got to write “The End,” (and then promptly delete it because nobody actually writes that in a book any more). City of Magi has been sitting on my virtual shelf ever since then, waiting as it cools for me to get some distance so I can come back and mercilessly edit it. I can’t deny, though, that there is a huge part of me that wants to just “Ship It.” I want to get to the stage where I’m shrugging off rejection letters, checking my mail hoping for that one agent to say that they’re ready to represent me, or better yet a publishing company that wants to put what I wrote on real, live bookshelves. But the fact remains, City of Magi isn’t ready. It needs an edit. And after that, it needs an edit. Maybe, maybe, after that it can go out to agents and publishers, who will of course say that it then needs an edit. I can resist the Ship It urge because I worked on City of Magi for three years and it is the coolest thing I’ve ever written.

While my novel is cooling, I decided to write serial fiction to be published in the great new world of epublishing, and that took off much faster than I ever figured it would. Now I’m sitting on two complete-ish issues of Those Who Die Young, and wondering… do I Ship It? How polished is polished enough? That’s the truly terrifying thing about epublishing: you are the publisher. Is it ready? Who do I ask? Ultimately – no one. I decide. And that authority is terrifying. The software engineer in me wants to cut any scenes that I’m not 100% sure of and publish, but there’s a risk. This is my first major foray into publishing fiction. Everything I do from here on out will be partially colored by this first attempt. Every rookie writer faces this dilemma. We want our names out there. We desperately cling to the idea that when our work hits the shelves, virtual or otherwise, it’s going to set the world on fire and we’ll be celebrity authors extraordinaire.

The realists among us understand how rare it is for that to occur. It’s actually quite difficult to make a living as a writer, even if you’re good at what you do and sell well. Books just don’t pay that much. The digital book revolution isn’t going to change that. Still, we do our due diligence and join writing groups and get all the feedback we can, and when we really think we’re ready… we’re not sure what to do. Say what you will about how unfair the traditional publishing industry can be. Plenty of great talent goes unnoticed, you’re never sure if you’re being paid what is fair, hell – you don’t even always know how many of your books are sold if you’re in print. Meanwhile, Pamela Anderson can “write” a book and it becomes a bestseller. No matter how difficult, at times insulting, unfair, and in many ways degrading to the writers the traditional publishing industry can be, it has the gift of telling you when you’re ready to be out there. More often than not, that answer is “oh hell no,” but you have an authoritative answer.

Enter the Kindle, et. al. Now I decide. Is 50000 words a good length for a 99-cent serial fiction? Is it enough to feel meaty, but not so much that I spend years of my life on it and sell it for less than a buck (and only get paid between 35 and 40 cents, depending on where you buy it)? I wrote each of the drafts for TWDY in a month, and I’ve spent about another month editing each. Is one a month a good rate? Can I keep that up when I start editing City of Magi next month? (Answer: no.) Should I have a bigger backlog of issues to keep me on a regular pace for a while?

There are a thousand questions that (should) come with the decision to publish, and none of them is more important than “Is this good enough to publish?” Am I ready to Ship It? We’ll see. I can still tweak; I can still rewrite. Unlike software, though, it’s never good form to publish “patches” for a book. Would you be happy buying a copy of Windows that can never get updated? I know I wouldn’t.

Shelter From the Storm will be out soon. But it’s terrifying to have that decision looming over me. Sooner or later, I have to pull the trigger and Ship It.

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