Tips for Writers


What do you do with all those books?
Going indie
Print on demand
Getting Smashed


What do you do with all those books?

The rhetorical question was posed by a woman who attended my recent author talk at a council library. I was there spruiking about ‘the story behind the story’ of my latest release, The Scarlet Key, a crime mystery about death and tattoos.

A self-confessed reading addict, she congratulated me on a fascinating presentation and then apologised for not buying a copy of my book.

‘I’ve got that many books: entire series collected over a lifetime. And then I inherited hundreds more when my mother died. What do you do with all those books? Honestly, I can’t fit another one in the house.’

As an indie author trying to sell books, her question got me thinking.

The only time you actually notch up a payment for your writing effort is on the initial purchase. From there your book might be read once and then left to gather dust on a shelf, or it might be passed around between family and friends, or it might find its way into a second-hand bookstore or a charity sale, or it might simply end up as recycled paper or in landfill. While council libraries may purchase copies – and, if you’re lucky, you might get some royalties as compensation – they are but a small market for most writers.

So I started to examine my own book-buying behaviour.

Like many Baby Boomer women, I love reading and I also hate waste. There is nothing so lovely as the look and feel and smell of ink on paper. For the supreme reading experience, ebooks simply don’t cut it. However, for me it is a luxury to buy a brand new book from a bookstore. Instead, my books are swapped between friends, or borrowed from a library, or ‘rescued’ from cluttered tables at a Lifeline Bookfest.

As a result of what I do, the authors of most books I’ve read have earned exactly zilch.

Now, if you are like me, you write because you love writing. But, as an indie author, you expect to not only recover costs but to also get a few dollars for your hard work.

So, how do you overcome reader reluctance to buy new? What are your thoughts?
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Enemies_boxGoing Indie

Here’s what I’ve learnt so far about going indie.

1. Only proceed when you have a polished piece of writing.

  • It must have no spelling mistakes, no grammatical errors, no missing words, no typos, and no mystery formatting in the Word file.
  • Ask a writing buddy to proof-read it. If you have an eagle eye, file it away for several weeks then proof it yourself. There’s nothing more distracting than stumbling over a bunch of mistakes when you’re the reader. It gives the impression you don’t give a damn about your customers.
  • Hire a professional designer and make sure your cover looks amazing.

 2. Shore up the business side. You are no longer a hobbyist. You’re a writer and publisher.

If you aren’t a US citizen and you’re planning to use an American company like Amazon or Smashwords and their distribution networks, you’ll need to get:

  • An American IRS number or else send an IRS form with your tax file number to Amazon, etc. Otherwise you’ll lose 30% of any sales in withholding tax.
  • A Paypal account, or an American bank account, or a non-American bank account that can accept payments in $US. Your last resort is to be paid by cheque, because banks charge big fees to process cheques.
  • A suitable business name and matching email address. In Australia you may need to register as a business and get an ABN in order to deal with printing companies. Don’t think you can get away with just an ebook. Most of my friends, who range in age from early twenties to late seventies, want a ‘real book’.
  • For printing, you need to buy an ISBN and bar code. Ebooks don’t need an ISBN, though it’s better if you have one. You must use a different one for each ‘version’ of your book, ie one for the ebook, one for the hard-copy, one for a significant revision. If you use a free one from your ebook distributor, the distributor is registered as the publisher of the work (not you).

3. Work out a marketing plan.

Figure out how you’re going to tell the world (or at least your friends):

  • that you’ve written and published an awesome book
  • to buy a copy
  • to tell everyone about it and so they’ll buy one too.

 4. Last of all, enjoy the ride.

I’ve probably got it about 70% right, so don’t hold it against me if you follow this advice and it doesn’t work out. As Australian motor racing champion Peter Brock once said, ‘Bite off more than you can chew and then chew like hell.’

After all, that’s what life’s about.
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One of the most difficult things I did in this foray into indie publishing was to set up for print-on-demand.

First things first, what is print-on-demand?

The quick answer is: exactly what it says. You want a book. You order it. The book is printed. Simple.

What it means for indie publishers is you no longer have to purchase a garage-full of books in order to get a reasonable quote for printing. While there are some discounts for larger quantities, you can order 50 and pay not much more per book than you would for 1000. The difference for smaller quantities is the base cost of freight.

Here are my tips for print-on-demand, based on recent experience.

Plan A: Pick a company and go with what they want.

I stumbled upon an American company that offered lots of info and great templates for the dumb beginner. Exactly what I needed, so I signed up.

Bad move. After sinking a full day into formatting to their template, I hit a wall with the business end of the deal. First, I needed to quote an IRS number (American tax number). Weeks ago I applied for one but haven’t heard back.

Second, I needed an American bank account to receive author royalties. They didn’t do Australian banks or Paypal. The only alternative was to get a cheque in the mail. My last experience with an international cheque involved a woeful exchange rate and big bank fees. It was scarcely worth the effort.

Third, although they advertised broad coverage for POD services, they didn’t distribute to Australia. Getting hard copies of my novel was the very reason I wanted to go this route.

Strike three, you’re out.

Plan B: Ask writer-friends about companies with a local presence.

There were two companies that came with strong writer-friend recommendations. Both are American print-on-demand (POD) companies that cater for Australian authors.

Be warned, you’ll need to get an ABN (Australian Business Number). If it suits your financial situation, you can register as a sole trader for taxation purposes and you can register a business name with ASIC for a small fee.

Setting up an email account in your business name is also worth a thought. Certainly it makes you look more professional than if you use a social media type email address such as sweetlips@hotmail (unless you write erotica).

If you want to go the whole hog, you can get a domain name and have your own website.

Your POD company will ask you for an ISBN (the international number that identifies your book). ISBNs can be purchased from Thorpe-Bowker (they’re cheaper by the 10). Register each book title against its unique ISBN. You’ll need a separate ISBN for each ‘version’, for example the paperback version will need one ISBN, and the epub version will need another.

Finally there’s the formatting. Oh, the formatting! Setting up your manuscript for print is completely different from an ebook. For an ebook, you strip out the formatting. For a hard copy, you have to put all the formatting in, including page numbers, headers and footers, margins that allow a gutter for the binding and a curious phenomenon called ‘bleed’.

My tip is to start a brand new Word file. Set your ‘styles’ first. Copy your manuscript into the new file. Then spend the next several days checking and rechecking it. Look for formatting errors, check the visual appearance especially of chapter beginnings and endings. Make sure you don’t have ‘widows’ (single lines that flip over onto a new page).

Before you can even get a quote from the POD company, you need to state with certainty the number of pages. But every time you change the font type, font size, spacing, or margins, it changes the number of pages. The number of pages also dictates the thickness of the spine. The thickness of the spine and weight of the book affects the cost to post.

It sounds like an easy question: how many pages? But for me, this was the most time consuming, frustrating part of the entire process and the most difficult to get right.

When you’re done, submit two PDF files: one of your cover image and one of the interior of the book. A few days later you should receive a ‘proof’, which may be electronic or hard copy. Check again for errors, and give the go-ahead when you’re satisfied.

There, how hard was that?
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Getting Smashed

Before starting, I should make it clear this isn’t about getting drunk. Though some days getting drunk would be infinitely more enjoyable than being locked away with a computer and an annoying cursor that keeps winking at you. This is about taking a leap into the unknown.

As a writer, you write. Right? 

Of course, you say. As a writer, what else would you do?

Let’s say you’ve written and edited – and rewritten and edited again – a story. Then what?
You cross all your fingers and submit to competitions, agents, publishers so that readers can enjoy your work. If you don’t, all you have is a bunch of electronic files cluttering up your hard drive.

Bear in mind that Australian writing competitions attract 300 to 400 entries, all of whom are good writers like yourself. Also remember there are usually between three and five winners. That’s a one percent chance of success. Better than Gold Lotto, admittedly. But for the 99% of entrants who miss out, that’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears down the proverbial drain.

Getting an agent, I’m told, is even harder. Getting published in traditional hard copy format is becoming an ever-diminishing prospect. So much for the good news.

I recently went to a seminar about indie publishing. It was very capably run and featured a Skype link with the founder of Smashwords, Mark Coker. According to Mark, 30-35% of book sales in the US are ebooks. In the Australian market that’s closer to 50%. And the ebook market is growing while the traditional book market is shrinking.
In a way it makes me sad. I’m an old-fashioned kind of girl. There’s nothing more scintillating than the aroma of a freshly-hatched book.

But it also makes me think opportunity.

With a shortlist of reject emails from various sources in my ‘saved’ box, there wasn’t much to lose. So I downloaded Mark’s do-it-yourself manual called The Smashwords Style Guide. It’s free.

Be warned, it’s long and a bit torturous. But it’s very detailed in a step-by-step way. He could have just as easily called it Smashwords for Dummies. It tells you exactly what to do and even gives screenshots of where to find elusive format settings in Word. If you follow his instructions to the letter, I don’t think you could go wrong.

Uploading the file onto the website is a cinch. All you need is a cover image (if you’re not a designer, get one done professionally) and a short synopsis or teaser.

I followed Mark’s instructions. And a few days later there was my book on electronic bookshelves right across the world. So, what are you waiting for?
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