Over the next few weeks I’m going to host a handful of guest posts from writers, publishers and booksellers talking about the new face of publishing. The world is changing and all aspects of writing and publishing are being affected by the increased digitisation of all aspects of the craft and business. I thought it would be interesting to hear from people about their thoughts and experiences along the way. First up, I’m pleased to present this guest post from author Angela Slatter. You’ll probably remember me gushing about her book Sourdough & Other Stories not so long ago. Here she talks about her experiences using Smashwords to put her published work out in ebook form. There’s a full bio at the end of the article. Take it away, Angela…
The Smashwords Experiment
When I first decided to upload a couple of my books to Smashwords I promised I would document the experiment. Time got away on me, so luckily Al Baxter asked me to do this guest blog specifically about my Smashwords experience. And so, here it goes.
I have two short story collections out this year, Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press, UK) and The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales (Ticonderoga Publications, Australia). I also have the collection of short stories I wrote for my MA a couple of years ago, Black-Winged Angels, most of which have been published in a variety of magazines, journals and anthologies, but the whole collection hasn’t been published all together.
My boss, Kate, is the Queen of All Things on the Bleeding Edge of Digital and she said, “Why don’t you put Sourdough up on Smashwords? Then, why don’t you put each individual story up, too? And you should have a big enough backlist of short stories by now that you can upload them all.”
And I thought, “Why not indeed?” Keep in mind that I am lazy and dislike change, so for me to take this step was quite big. Kate also made the point that, in general, hard copy books make their biggest sales mostly post-launch (any later award-generated sales can change the equation). With ebooks, things tend to be reversed: small sales at the beginning and then increasing as word gets out. Realistically, this is not a money-making venture for me, but it is a really useful experiment.
Reading Time is Essential
So the first thing you need to know about Smashwords is that you have to do a lot of reading before you start uploading anything. Read the Style Guide, the Marketing Guide and the extensive FAQs. It’s not annoying, nor is it a waste of time – you just need to be aware that in order to do things properly and save yourself time later, you need to make a time investment at the beginning of your Smashwords journey. If you don’t make the time to read all of the documentation, trust me, you will have a bad experience because preparing a document to become an ebook is very different to preparing one for traditional publishing methods – for instance, leaving more than 4 spaces between paragraphs will equal a blank page in an ebook. Your Smashwords doc is pretty plain compared to how you set up a doc for a printer. It’s not difficult to do, but if you’re taking a file that you’ve previously used as a print file, then it’s a labour of love to get it all correctly converted.
One thing that would be useful would be a checklist in the Style Guide for when you’re going to upload a second or third book – you’re likely to be familiar with the ins and outs, but a checklist would act as a handy tool rather than having to work your way through all the many steps of the Style Guide.
You need to follow the guidelines for the copyright page. If you’ve got more than one book on Smashwords then make sure you put links in to that book – cross-promotion wins! You need to make sure you bookmark and hyperlink your chapters – it’s not hard but you need to pay attention while you’re doing it. Trust me, I’ve had to fix up the ToC links on Sourdough twice. You don’t need page numbers – they’re not really relevant if your book’s been bought for, say, an iPhone.
You’ll also need a cover – make sure your cover is (a) indistinguishable from a traditional cover (author name and title, nice image), and (b) the text is big enough to still be read when it’s thumbnail size. Hopefully you’ve got a friend or partner or someone you can pay or barter with for a cover design. I’m fortunate in that my best friend, Lisa L Hannett (who also did the cover for The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales), did the ebook cover for Sourdough and Other Stories, and my partner, David, did the ebook cover for Black-Winged Angels.
Depending on when you upload your file – and how many other people are uploading their files at the same time – you may find your book moves super-duper quickly through the meatgrinder (“You are # 70 in the queue”) or you may find it takes quite a while (“You are # 340 in the queue”). This can make your teeth grind. I’m currently still waiting after 3 hours for the newest version of Sourdough to upload (after fixing – I hope – that ToC issue).
Keep in mind that you need to ensure your book is as well-edited and proofread as a book produced by a major trade publisher. People are still buying a product and they want it to be worth the money they are spending on it. Invest in getting your work at least proofread before you upload it.
Just because you’ve uploaded your book/s to Smashwords doesn’t mean you’re going to sell any. Traditional publishers have whole marketing departments to get the word out about your book. You need to utilise handy things like social media to get your own marketing done. Smashwords has its own Marketing Guide, which is filled with common sense suggestions for mobilising things like Facebook, LiveJournal, Twitter, MySpace, etc. to get the word out. Ask professional contacts if they’re willing to review, mention, promote, etc., your ebook (if they say “No”, be gracious). If you’re handy (or know someone who’s handy) make a book trailer to upload to the Tubes-of-You or your own website – did I mention you should have a website? To use to help promote your own work? We call it ‘author platform’ and you should create it and use it.
Tartarus Press, who produced the Sourdough collection, only bought rights to publish 350 hard cover limited edition copies – I retain the electronic rights. Before I uploaded Sourdough, I contacted Ray at Tartarus and asked if they were okay with me doing an ebook version. He and Rosalie continued to be lovely and said, “Sure, why not?” They’ve been thinking about doing ebooks of some of their collections and were happy for me to report back on my experiences. Thus the learning circle continues.
Why don’t I have The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales up at Smashwords? Well, out of deference to my publisher. I have the electronic rights, I could upload it at any time and I know from the sheer number of queries I’m getting from readers in the US that I would have a ready-made audience for an ebook version of that collection. However, I know my publisher is wanting to sell the hard copies he’s gone to the trouble of printing. The print run for this book was larger than that of Sourdough and Other Stories, so I know there is more product to shift. As I said earlier, the ebook experiment realistically isn’t a money-making venture, so there’s no point insisting on an ebook version at this point and damaging my relationship with a very nice publisher. My strategy is to maybe in August next year release an ebook version of The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales.
To date, I’ve made about eight sales – three of Black-Winged Angels and five of Sourdough and Other Stories. I kept the price on each book low in acknowledgement that (a) it’s been a hard financial year for a lot of folks who want to continue to buy books, and (b) most of the other books on Smashwords seem to be at the same costing. So, at $4.99 per book, I’m not gonna get rich quick.
The hard cover copies are artefacts, lovely books to read and keep and have on a shelf. The ebooks are – sure, ephemeral – but available in a variety of formats and portable. Basically, you’re covering two kinds of readers: those who like to read on screen and those who like to read and own an artefact that has a good heft in the hand and sits nicely on a shelf. More formats and a price range to those formats means you’re increasing the number of potential readers you can attract.
Sourdough and Other Stories can be purchased from Tartarus Press, or from Smashwords here. Black-Winged Angels can be purchased from Smashwords here. The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales can be purchased from Ticonderoga Publications.
Angela Slatter is a Brisbane-based writer of speculative fiction. For some reason, she has a Masters (Research) in Creative Writing, which produced Black-Winged Angels, a short story collection of reloaded fairytales, and she is now studying (very slowly) for a PhD in Creative Writing. During her daylight hours, she works at a writers’ centre, and she has been known to occasionally teach creative writing.
Her short stories have appeared in anthologies such as Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again, Tartarus Press’ Strange Tales II, Twelfth Planet Press’ 2012, Dirk Flinthart’s Canterbury 2100, and in journals such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer, ONSPEC and Doorways Magazine. Her work has had several Honourable Mentions in the Datlow, Link, Grant Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies #20 and #21; and three of her stories have been shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards in the Best Fantasy Short Story category.
She is working on various short stories and three novels at the moment. Novel the First: an historical fantasy set in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Novel the Second: Finbar’s Mother, a mix of Irish and Norse mythology. Novel the Third is an urban fantasy following the further adventures of Verity Fassbinder, the heroine of Slatter’s story in Sprawl (Twelfth Planet Press), Brisneyland by Night. She is also working on ways to find more time to write and is trying to stop referring to herself in the third person because it’s just weird. She is a graduate of Clarion South 2009 and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop 2006. 2010 saw the publication of two short story collections, Sourdough & Other Stories with Tartarus Press (UK) and The Girl with No Hands & Other Tales (Ticonderoga Publications). In 2012, she will have another collection of short stories, a collaboration with friend and writing-partner-in-crime, Lisa L Hannett: Midnight and Moonshine will be published by Ticonderoga Publications.
Visit Angela on the web at http://www.angelaslatter.com/