Formatting for Dummies

In three days, I will self-publish my second book, Bone Girl.

Unlike Celebration House, this novel required much more of me than just writing and editing. Because it’s self-published and I have a budget of, oh, let’s see, NOTHING, I did all of the work myself. When I say work, I mean writing, editing, revising, proofreading and my least favorite activity of all time, formatting. In fact, I’ve spent nearly every free minute of the last week learning to format my book. (Note – the amazing cover art was the work of Jason Gurley. Wouldn’t it make a great movie poster? I think so too).

Because I am naive. I believed all of the websites when they said how simple it is to self-publish an e-book. Easy! Just download your manuscript in a .doc or .docx format. Yeah. Well, no.

You start with Smashwords because they will distribute your e-book to many of the major retailers, such as Apple, Kobo, iBook and Nook. But Smashwords’ “meat grinder” as they call their computer program and no, I’m not making this up – forbids any extraneous formatting in the document. Thus, the first thing you must do is copy and paste your manuscript to a Notepad document, then copy and paste it back to a word document. The nearest I can figure, and I read those instructions many, many times, this “nuclear” treatment removes any underlining and thus problematic formatting. But it removes a few other things too like indents, italics, chapter breaks, line spacing, etc.

Then there’s Kindle. Be sure any words you want centered do not have an indent or they will look, well, weird, and, uh, off-center. Also, pages must be separated by a hard return, a page break.

Not so on Nook Press, which is Barnes & Noble’s self-publishing platform. Nook requires a section break, so kindly delete all of the page breaks from the manuscript for Kindle and insert section breaks for the manuscript for Nook. My Aunt Mary Rose is waiting for this book to be available on Nook, so by golly, I’m gonna make sure it’s there.

Oh, and then there’s the print version. That manuscript must be in a .pdf file. I haven’t even started on that project yet. You see, creating a print version takes money and I’m rubbing two nickels together. Because honestly, I could have paid someone to do much of the work for me. But, no. I’m too cheap.

Or perhaps, to be brutally honest, I’m too broke. Three days ago, I tiptoed into my bedroom and as my husband was just starting to wake, I whispered in his ear, “Honey, I just spent $275 on our ISBNs.” His response: “What’s an ISBN?”

An ISBN is a number assigned to every book, fiction or nonfiction, to help booksellers keep track of inventory.To clarify, Bone Girl requires three ISBNs: one for the e-book, one for the print version and one for the audio book. Oh, yes, it’s going to be available in audio format also. Exciting, isn’t it?

I know I sound whiny as I relate the ugly albeit boring details of how I’ve spent the last week, but I take this treasure away: I can do this. With patience and perseverance, I can learn to format an e-book. Maybe you can too…

Bone Girl is not going to be perfect. At least, not this first edition. There may be too much white space or a chapter heading that looks a little drunk, but my hope is that readers will be too engrossed in the story to say, “Holy buckets! She’s got an extra return on this page.”

And this sense of accomplishment, wow! It’s like a drug. Forgive me for tooting my own horn, but every time I learn one more technical step, even if it’s a basic one like composing a page on my blog with one column rather than two, well, I just glow. I’m so proud that this 45-year-old dog learned a new trick. I hope you feel this way when you overcome a tech challenge.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon templates that authors can purchase to help format their e-books and print versions. I plan on using one for the print version of Bone Girl. They’re fairly inexpensive – about $30-$40. Sounds like a real timesaver. Ah, heck, where’s the fun in that?

Hands and arms inside the cart, please. Next: Letting it go.

Hugh Howey! My hero…

Recently, I stumbled onto the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest. A young, good-looking man stared back at me and I saw his name: Hugh Howey. That name was familiar.

I turned to page 34 and read. What I learned may change my life.

In July of 2011, Hugh posted an e-book novella of “Wool” online. In October, he realized the book was selling about 1,000 copies per month. He compiled all five sections of the book, and three months later, he was selling 20,000-30,000 copies of the book. “Wool” went on to become the Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Best Indie Book Award in the Sci-Fi/fantasy category. By the time the book had been out for about a year, Howey was selling 20,000-30,000 copies of “Wool” a month. His monthly salary: $150,000 from e-book sales alone. He quit his day job. The offers of representation poured in, as did the offers from publishers. But Howey did an amazing thing: he only sold the hardback and paperback rights to “Wool.” He kept the e-book rights for himself. This is revolutionary for authors.

I know it’s ridiculous to compare “Bone Girl” to “Wool.” They’re different genres. “Wool” is science fiction, and as near as I can figure, “Bone Girl” is a middle-grade novel.

But one Sunday night a few weeks ago, the financial pressure cooker that is my life darn near exploded. In desperation, I thought, hell, let me see if I can put “Bone Girl” on Kindle. And guess what? I did. I put together some cover art and lo and behold, I downloaded the first three chapters. Why not? That was the same amount of material I sent to all of the agents and publishers who rejected the book. How many rejections exactly? About 22 now.

Howey self-published his books because he was impatient. I am the queen of impatience. My former journalism professor, Les Dunseith, told me I was the most impatient person he had ever known. Flatterer.

But there was more to it than that. Howey wanted someone to read his work rather than let it languish on the hard drive of his computer. Me again. That was the reason I put Bone Girl on the Authonomy website. I never intended to fight my way to the top so an editor at HarperCollins would read it. I wanted anyone to read it, regardless of whether it propelled my writing career.

Here’s the scary thing about Bone Girl: it’s the best book I’ve written. I don’t know if I will ever write another book with such an amazing main character, and I can’t sell the darn thing. My rejection count stands at 22.

Self-publish it? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m sure thinking about it.