Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Make your own eBooks: Simple, Fast, and Free!

It doesn't take a genius to format a manuscript into an eBook. Yes, you can pay someone a few hundred bucks to do it for you, but if you know the basic operations of a word processor (like Microsoft Word) then you can do it yourself for free. The first question you have to ask yourself is whether you have the time and patience to learn this. It's not hard, but it will take a few hours of your time. When you're done, you'll have to check the results and make sure they're satisfactory. For some, that extra work is worth saving several hundred dollars per manuscript (which could add up to thousands by the time you're publishing your twentieth novel!). Others may prefer to hand their work over to a pro and fork out the cash, hoping their book will eventually sell enough copies to pull a profit.

What it really comes down to is this: Are you independently wealthy, or do you have to count every penny? Do you have a trust fund or other inheritance with which to finance your writing hobby, or are you trying to make a business out of this writing thing?

Okay, that was a little tongue in cheek but you get my point. I've heard far too many complaints from people who've paid for multiple rounds of professional editing, professional cover art, and professional formatting only to realize that it might take ten years for their novel to earn out the production costs. If you're spending thousands of dollars just to get one book published, you're doing something wrong. That isn't what being a writer is about. The old rule that Money flows to the writer, not the other way around, still applies. If you want to make a profit at this, you're going to have to balance the value of various services against your own time and abilities. E-book formatting is a good place to start, especially if you write basic fiction.

The first thing you should probably do is to surf over to Smashwords and download their Style Guide. The reason I say this is because out of all the eBook converters out there, I've never found anything more finicky than the Smashword's Meatgrinder.The Style Guide will teach you to format a spotless, almost worry-free manuscript from the moment you start typing. As with many things in life, good habits now can save a lot of work later. If you decide to publish through Smashwords, you'll be way ahead of the game.

Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started:

First of all, Keep It Simple! Everything you add that goes beyond a basic manuscript makes this process more complicated and unreliable. Want to add a bunch of art or graphics? Drop caps on every chapter opening? Hyperlinks to each chapter, or to various parts of the book? Each of these will add to the learning curve and increase the likelihood that your book won't appear correctly in one or more formats. The goal here is to make one basic manuscript that converts correctly to every format, and that is an excellent place to begin.

There are five simple rules to create a clean manuscript that can be translated into just about any format. Start with these: 

1) If you're using Microsoft Word or a similar word processor, disable smart tags. Select the Tools menu and go down to Options.  Select the View tab and uncheck "smart tags." This will save you all kinds of headaches later. Also go into Tools, Autocorrect, Smart Tags and disable the "Label Text with Smart Tags" option. Without getting into too much detail, smart tags are something used by Word that other word processors and programs don't always understand. You're better off not having them at all. This process may vary with different versions of Word or other programs, so further investigation may be necessary.

2) Use a hard "return" at the end of chapters. You do this by pressing "ctrl" and "enter" keys at the same time. This starts a whole new chapter on a whole new page, and signifies to e-readers and eBook conversion programs that this is a new chapter.

3) Use bold type on chapter headings. This tells some eBook converters that this is a new chapter. On others, it shouldn't do any harm, so you might as well practice it.

4) Do NOT use extra returns. In other words, don't hit return at the end of sentences and don't double space between paragraphs. In fact, some programs believe that three "enters" in a row should mean a new chapter. You don't want that. Instead, set up your word processor to automatically indent 3 spaces at the beginning of a new paragraph.  Do this by choosing the Format, Paragraph menus and under Indents and Spacing go to the Indentation section and select "special." Set "first line" to 0.3 and save. Now, your paragraphs will automatically indent to a reasonable-looking three spaces instead of the default 5. Every time you hit "enter" you will start a new paragraph with indentation, as it should be.

5)  Don't justify your text or hyphenate words between lines. Most e-readers do this automatically, and if you try to force justification, you're just asking for problems. (For example, people can choose different fonts and font sizes on their Kindle. If you set up justification and hyphens based on a certain font and page size, these variables will change from one reader to another, causing your text to come out in a jumble of typos and misspellings. Remember, just keep it simple!)

Conversion & Publication: 

Now that you have a clean manuscript, how do you format it for different programs and e-readers? The easiest answer is to set up an account at Draft2Digital, otherwise known as "D2D." You can upload your Word compatible document as-is, and their program will automatically format it for Kindle, Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and many more. It will also automatically add hyperlinks for the chapter sections at the beginning of your book, and you can add your bio, copyright, and/or website link if you choose.

They don't even mind if you download a copy and use it at those other places without using their services, although I highly recommend going through their automatic submission service. (D2D will charge a small fee based on your book sales. If you can't stomach that, you'll have to set up accounts at all those other stores and then manually upload and manage those accounts. Most of us sell very few eBooks in markets outside of Amazon, so it really isn't worth the trouble unless those sales take off in an extraordinary way.) Amazon is the one service where I highly recommend you publish directly. You'll have much greater control over your publications, real-time info on sales, and the option to download spreadsheets on previous months' sales data. Even so, you can still use the Kindle version created by D2D, and then upload it through your Amazon KDP account.

Other conversion options:

There are various software programs that can convert your document into various formats. Calibre is a nice one for Kindle conversions because it's free, efficient, and allows you to add those little HTML touches like Drop Caps, hyperlinks, and images. However, you should probably convert your Word doc into an HTML file before taking these steps and/or making the conversion. Simply go into Word's File menu, choose "Save as" and in the drop down box for file type, choose "Web Page, Filtered." The new file you save will be a fully editable HTML file, without all of Word's extra and unusable fluff.

Amazon's KDP also offers a relatively easy and consistent conversion, but remember that this will only be for your Kindle version. And of course, you should always view the converted file on the e-reader device or program for which it was intended, just to be sure your formatting remained intact.

This should be more than enough to get you started. The nice thing is that regardless of which publishing option you choose later, your manuscript should already be optimized by following these simple steps ahead of time. You can even set up a blank document with all these settings stored as a template. Name it something like "New Project," and use it every time you start a new book. After typing a few words, you can save again under your working title, and the "New Project" file should always be there for you.