Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 1

Desktop Publishing (DTP) is the creation of print-ready documents using page layout skills on a personal computer. That is to say, a person sitting at her personal computer can use her word-processing/layout program to create a document that can be printed as a newsletter, or a greeting card, or a book. She can most likely print the newsletter or greeting card directly from her printer. But in order to print/publish the book, she will have to submit the document to a publisher.

That publisher can be an ebook publisher such as Kindle or Smashwords; it can be a traditional publisher which uses traditional printing presses; it can be a Print On Demand (POD) publisher such as CreateSpace or Lulu, which sends the document to various POD fulfillment centers who print and ship the book.

The kind of self-publishing I have explored and used is the POD kind in which the author creates the page design and cover, determines the price and distribution, and is responsible for the marketing. To date I’ve self-published ten books through CreateSpace, and I’ve turned all ten of them into Kindle ebooks after first publishing them as softcover books.

Bloomingdale Public Library

Selling my self-published books at the Bloomingdale Public Library, with Phil Passen

I first became interested in self-publishing in 2009, probably as a result of the fact that editors were taking way too long to respond to manuscript submissions. Also due to the fact that some of the rejection letters I received stated that the story was wonderful but, in the publishing house’s opinion, the book would not be profitable. So I reasoned that in addition to submitting manuscripts to traditional publishers, I would try to self-publish those stories which editors at mainstream publishing houses did not or might not want.

Back in 2009 I did a bit of research on the various self-publishing options. Lulu and CreateSpace (CS) seemed the most usable at that time, and I chose CreateSpace because marketing my books through Amazon (via CS) would be both easier and more profitable.

CreateSpace charges no setup fees: thus it’s possible to publish a book at no cost on CreateSpace. This is how I published each of my ten self-published books: at no cost.

No financial cost, that is. I confess there was definite wear and tear on me as I worked to conquer the difficulties of formatting manuscripts into facing-pages book form. In my public presentations (“How to Self-Publish on CreateSpace at No Cost”), I guide the attendees through the CreateSpace process step by step, from set-up through finished book. However, I find it more interesting to look at my experiences in chronological order: what I learned, book by book.

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1987, hardback, Contemporary Books

From the get-go I realized that self-publishing a book would most likely result in my making a few mistakes. If I were going to make mistakes, I would prefer to make them on a reprint, not a new book. The rights to She’s on First, my first novel, belonged to me, so I decided I would reprint it myself, as my first CreateSpace book.

I began formatting the manuscript in early November, 2009. That’s when I realized that even though I had been working with documents for decades, an 8.5″x11” manuscript page was N.O.T. the same as what was required for self-publishing a  book. After perusing the various book trim sizes that CS offered, I settled on the 6″x9” size. I guess my choice was a good one: two or three years later CS made the 6″x9” size its default selection.

I tried to create 6″x9” pages on Pages (Apple word processing software), but couldn’t. My attempts frustrated me for days and days. And days. Admitting defeat, I stuffed my MacBook into a backpack, hoisted the pack onto my shoulders, and walked to the Apple store on Michigan Avenue. There I explained my problem to the first person who offered assistance. He showed me how to set the page size in about, oh, three minutes.

Creating a 6″x”’ template was the single biggest problem I had to solve in formatting my first manuscript. At that time, CreateSpace didn’t offer templates. They do now, but because they didn’t then, I had a lot to conquer.

The second most difficult problem for me was figuring out how to make my word processing program show one header on a left-hand page and a different header on a right-hand page. Specifically, I wanted the title of my book to appear on the left-hand page and my name on the right-hand page.

I absolutely could not do this, and so She’s on First was published with the same header (the title) on both the left-hand and right-hand pages.

SOF Sample copy

My template, showing the layout of two facing pages

The typeface I chose for She’s on First was New Peninem, which no longer looks anything like it looked back in 2009: it was a serif font back then (as you can see in the pages above), but now it’s offered only as New Peninem MT, which appears to be a sans serif font. I have no idea what intrigued me about it back in 2009, because after my novel was published I realized that wherever I had used italics, the New Peninem font didn’t look good. It especially didn’t look good if there were Arabic numerals involved. Maybe, some day, I’ll go back and convert the entire document to a more readable typeface, such as Palatino or Times New Roman.

I think that by 2010 (if not even earlier) CreateSpace offered Cover Creator as a way for its customers to easily create book covers. For my first book (in fact, for my first nine books) I didn’t explore this option. That was because I wanted a really great cover for the reprint of She’s on First, and I didn’t particularly want a cover design that would look exactly like other cover designs. So I asked friend Robin Koontz, a writer/illustrator/designer, if she would design the cover. I paid Robin for her design, so, while I published for free on CreateSpace, I did lay out some money for the cover design. And I also paid for the cover photo. I’m both glad and grateful that Robin took care of dealing with the cover template that CreateSpace allowed me to download after the interior was approved.

SOF-COVER-FINAL-JAN16-2010 copy

The cover template, created by Robin Koontz, who, just before publication changed the color of the black line to a striking orange-red

Back in 2010, if you wanted to self-publish through CreateSpace you had to order a physical proof of your book and examine it. This later changed so that now you can proof your book online, without ever holding a physical copy in your hand. Even though I’ve published ten books with CreateSpace, I always order a physical copy. When I received my proof copy of She’s on First, I opened the book to the middle and saw that the interior margins I had created were too narrow: I had half-inch interior margins, but after seeing how tight they looked, I changed them to three-quarter-inch margins.

Where I Succeeded
•  Creating a 6×9” Template
•  Creating Page Margins
•  Inserting Headers
•  Inserting Page Numbers
•  Choosing Fonts
•  Examining the Proof Copy and Correcting It

Where I Failed
•  Creating Distinct Headers for Left- and Right-Hand Pages
•  Choosing a Problem-Free Font

In February of 2010 I published She’s on First as a softcover book. A few days later I submitted a PDF of the document to Kindle for publication as an ebook. This means I accomplished my goal of self-publishing a softcover POD book — and ebook! — with about three months work on my part. At this point I was already thinking about self-publishing a second book. My goal was to reduce my formatting time from three months to maybe three weeks.

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Read She’s on First and decide for yourself if the New Peninem typeface should be replaced with a different one.

How Many Unpublished Works?

Recently I was a guest lecturer at a college class in writing fiction. Toward the end of the class, after all the students had asked questions, the instructor who invited me (she’s a writer as well as a teacher) asked a question nobody had ever asked me before. Yet it’s one I think about several times a year. The question was: You have published approximately 200 books. How many unpublished books do you have in your files?

Published and unpublished manuscripts

Published and unpublished manuscripts

To answer the question, I had to think quickly and calculate just as quickly. I write adult fiction and nonfiction, middle grades fiction and nonfiction, picture books, beginning readers, early readers. And poetry. How many of these various manuscripts are in my files, still unpublished? I answered that there may be as many as 25. And then I took the question a step further by saying that of the 25, I hope and expect that 7 or 8 will be published.

Now that I’m home in my office, let me walk to my file cabinet and examine my unpublished manuscripts, just to see how accurate my reply was. Here’s what I have:

        2 adult novels — one mystery, one thriller
        1 adult nonfiction — anthology
        1 YA novel — it’s a work in progress
        2 Middle Grades nonfiction
        3 Middle Grades fiction
        7 Early Readers
        2 Picture Books, poetry
        6 Picture Books, prose

That’s a total of 24 unpublished manuscripts: very, very close to my estimate of 25.

When I look at them now and evaluate them, and know which ones I can and will rewrite, my guess is that 7 of these can and will be published. Sooner or later. That, too, is close to my original guess.

This doesn’t mean that I rule out the possibility of publication for the other manuscripts. The manuscripts I no longer think worthy of continued rewriting are long gone from my files.

The ones I keep around still speak to me in one way or another — it’s up to me to find the heart of the story in each of them and, with luck, publish them for the world to read.

Desk Impressions and the Writing Life

 

Although I’ve never participated in NaNoMa (National Novel Writing Month, held, of course, in November), I received an interview request from Webucator Training Services, who do participate, and I agreed to answer the interview questions. The Q & A are below.

Photo by Southwest Spirit Antiques

Photo by Southwest Spirit Antiques

What were your goals when you started writing? I think my first goal in writing must have been to make an impression. Not necessarily on people, but on something. I say that because when I was seven years old my mother bought me my own desk, a kid-sized maple roll-top one. My very first day at the desk, I wrote the word hill so hard that my pencil pressed through the paper and into the desk surface. Forever after, the word hill stared at me from the desktop.

It was, I now realize, a sign that the road to publication would not be easy. For that — publication — was my goal when I started my first novel. This was in the late 1970s, and the novel was about a female major leaguer. I titled the story Bases Loaded, but when the book was published in 1987, the publisher titled it She’s on First.

Contemplating goals, 1986

Contemplating goals, 1986

What are your goals now? My goals now are the same as they’ve been since I first started writing books: to write the kind of stories that speak to me, and to have them published so that others can read these stories.

However, today writers have publishing opportunities that didn’t exist in the previous century. We have the opportunity to self-publish beautiful-looking books and market them to interested readers. So my goal of getting published now takes two different paths. I submit books to traditional publishers, and I also self-publish.

What pays the bills now? Savings from past work-for-hire jobs help pay the bills, as do teaching gigs and public speaking. Although I taught English at a junior college years ago, I now teach only on a freelance basis: various classes on subjects such as “How to Write a Novel” or “How to Self-Publish through CreateSpace.” In addition, I turn many of my book topics into presentations for the public. Two examples. My best-known book is Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball (Harcourt, 1993), which happens to be nonfiction. Twenty-one years after its publication, I’m still giving talks on various stories from the book. One of these talks, “When Women Played Baseball: The Story of Margaret, Nellie, and Rose” was chosen by the Illinois Humanities Council as a Road Scholar topic in 2014.

My most recent book, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies (CreateSpace, 2014) also affords me many opportunities for giving classes on the mystery novel itself as well as on writing the mystery novel. Both of my examples of income-producing work come from nonfiction books, but each of these nonfiction books actually stems from the novel that preceded it —  Women at Play came after I wrote the novel She’s on First, and Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel came after I wrote the mysteries Dirty Proof and Sound Proof. Even if you think you’ll never write anything but fiction, you may find that looking at the nonfiction angle of your novels helps produce steady income.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing? The answer to this question is very short: I could not “not write.” The world offers limitless topics and possibilities. I am a writer, and writers write.

What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing? Read books, particularly the kind you want to write. Never stop reading books! Take classes in writing, go to writers conferences, meet editors, and at the same time explore self-publishing — having more than one iron in the fire is good business sense. Join a critique group of trustworthy writers who will help you say what it is you’re trying to say.

 

If by chance you want to write mysteries, check out Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. Wishing you a smooth and steady path to your writing goals.