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On Self-Publishing: E-Books through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing

I’ve spent a couple weeks now talking about self-publishing. This week I promised to talk about my actual experiences with the process, and so I started that yesterday with a little bit of a grumpy glimpse into CreateSpace’s print-on-demand operation.

I still use CreateSpace, though, and I still recommend it. You should go in with eyes wide open — that’s why I took the time to complain yesterday — but all of their problems are understandable. They’re trying to find profit margins while also opening up the market to writers in a way we’ve never seen before, and at the same time they’re wrestling with all the punishing old physics of real things.

The Problem with Paperbacks

CreateSpace is fun. Print-on-demand publishing can now get you a souvenir copy of your novel that looks like it was printed by a traditional publisher. That’s cool. Your friends and family will order a bunch of copy, and even hand them out.

But when it comes right down to it, we’re not going to make it as self-published writers in the real, physical space. That market still belongs to bookstores and traditional publishers. The thing is…that market is shrinking. It’s failing. Major bookstores have spent the last two decades putting all the indies out of business, and now the major bookstores are starting to shut down.

And at the same time, the market for e-Books is exploding. And that’s where things get interesting.

Kindle Direct Publishing

Kindle Direct Publishing allows you to create an e-Book project, provide a title and an author name, a content file and a cover image (and here it really is just a 600×800 jpeg image), and then name your price. Click “Publish” and your book is for sale on Amazon, right next to Dan Brown’s and Stephenie Meyer’s.

There are several catches in the process. First, you’ve got to have a good book, and you’ve got get it formatted so it will work on the Kindle (or other e-reader). You can usually just upload a Word document, or even a PDF (if you made the PDF right), and when you do, their software will do its best to convert that into the proper digital format.

Anyone who’s spent much time doing automated digital conversions can tell you that’s a tricky process, though. It’s worse, too, if you’re working with MS Word files. If you did anything tricky in your book, chances are good it’s going to look weird on the Kindle. Even if you didn’t, you might have trouble.

That’s where our custom publishing software, BookMaker, really comes in handy. But I’ll talk more about that later. In the meantime, you can do a few things I’ve been recommending for a while, like sticking to standard body and heading styles, and keeping your formatting to a minimum. Put your story in the words, not in the fancy designs on the page, and everyone wins.

Product Pages and Bestseller Lists

Once you have an e-Book, it’s easy enough to share it with the world. As I said, all you’ve got to do is give it a price and a name, and Amazon will give you a product page. If you’ve got a paperback copy of the same book out, you can even contact Amazon and ask them to link the two up (so customers can easily see the other options, and reviews for one version will show up for both). This process can take up to a week to resolve, though, so plan ahead.

Some of the other information you can supply for your product page includes a product description (which is considered just as important as the quality of your cover art for determining success), and up to two “categories” for your project — what you might think of as genres. For Ghost Targets: Expectation, I listed it under “Science Fiction > General” and “Mystery and Crime > Women Sleuths.”

And that’s where some of the magic happens. See, Amazon is in the business of connecting buyers with things they’d like to buy. In essence, the company is as much an advertiser as a retailer, and with a little bit of luck you can get a lot of free advertising out of them.

When it comes to books, Amazon keeps Bestseller Lists. So let’s imagine you’re a big fan of Science Fiction, you’re a Kindle owner, you’re sitting in line at the DMV with another hour’s wait ahead of you, and you’ve just finished the last book in the last series you had planned to read.

The Kindle makes it incredibly simple to pull up the top 100 bestselling Science Fiction titles, and browse until you find one that catches your eye. It provides an overall Top 100, too, but that’s intensely competitive. Once you get down to a narrow subcategory, though — say, for instance,

Books > Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Technothrillers

suddenly it’s not too hard to get noticed. (Gods Tomorrow, which I somehow got to list under five sales categories, has spent a total of twenty days so far on the Technothrillers Top 100.)

The trick  is to get on one of those narrowly-focused lists, get noticed by some new readers (which should get you new sales and move you up higher on other lists), and then eventually move from “Books > Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Technothrillers” to “Books > Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers” to “Books > Mystery & Thrillers” to “Books.”

And “Books” is a very nice place to be. Once you’ve got a book on that list, you can quit your day job. In the meantime, your job is to write a good story, design a good cover, come up with a good description, and among them find the audience to start your book moving up the lists.

One Response to “On Self-Publishing: E-Books through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing”

  1. Dave Doolin says:

    Aaron, I know just what you mean about formatting trouble with digital conversions.

    The irony is that electronic publishing *could* provide unbelievably cool interactivity… and that’s important for the kind of technical material I work very hard to make accessible.

    Unfortunately, getting electronically published too often means dropping back down to the lowest common denominator. In this case, very little functional difference between dead tree paper and electronic paper.

    And that’s a real shame in my opinion.