This week, my good friend and author Liz Funk agreed to guest post. She has just written a great new ebook, Coming of Age in a Crap Economy, available here. I read an advance copy and loved it; Liz offers relevant advice and support to anyone dealing with fallout from the Great Recession. I have been very curious about e-publishing lately, and asked her to share her experience. So, without further ado, I turn the blog over to Liz.
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It made perfect sense that my next book would be an ebook. At the risk of sounding annoying, my first book was a non-fiction look at how many of today’s young women attempt to emanate constant, effortless perfection in the form of nice clothes, acceptance to a brand-name college, and fancy jobs (even if they’re secretly anxious, self-loathing, and exerting an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to excel at everything they attempt). It had a too-cute pink-and-yellow cover, it was published by Simon and Schuster, and they paid me a lot of money to write it.
My second book, Coming of Age in a Crap Economy, looks at how the bad economy has really hampered opportunities for young adults, and is a self-published ebook available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. In the context of what the book is covering, it makes sense that my book is an indie, DIY title without a big advance or a publicity budget or a team of people in charge of doing the stuff I didn’t know how to do, because my book covers how the recession has limited opportunities for young adults so young people need to create their own opportunities!
I had come up with the idea for a book about how the quarterlife crisis experience is different in the context of a recession in February 2010. I actually articulated the idea in my head in the public bathroom at the beach in Santa Monica, CA, where I had taken a six-week working vacation (to Santa Monica, not to the ladies’ bathroom, of course). I graduated from college in May 2009 and in the ensuring seven months, I was increasingly realizing that it was only going to get harder to support myself as a full-time freelance writer/author/speaker and I knew I didn’t want to be an English teacher or go back to grad school (which seemed like the two logical options for me and the two roads that virtually everyone in my professional network was choosing to avoid donning a Starbucks apron by day to write by night). So I took a vacation and realized that I really wanted to write another book.
Alas, my editor at Simon and Schuster liked the idea, but the sales of my first book were modest and my editor also pointed out that it was hard to picture unemployed 20somethings freely purchasing shiny, new $15 paperback books. I agreed. Another publisher offered me a contract for the book, but it was a really shitty, almost exploitative deal, and I decided that, in the spirit of encouraging 20somethings to create their own opportunities—one of the main messages of Coming of Age in a Crap Economy—I’d do it myself.
It was a long process, especially because just after I decided to write the book and I gave myself a publication date (and told people the publication date!) so I’d stick to a self-imposed deadline, I got a big flux of freelance work that resulted in me working around 50ish hours a week on various writing/ PR consulting projects and trying to write the book in my free time (I ended up pushing back the book deadline a month, one week at a time). But still, I did it, and I wrote a 30,000 word ebook in about three months, plus did all the work that went along with publishing it. Here’s what the process looked like:
1) Write book. It was little harder to find sources to interview for this book. I found that people leaped at the opportunity to be interviewed for my first book but it was harder to find sources willing to dedicate about a half hour for a phone interview for an ebook. So the book didn’t have any of the economics/ recession experts that I wanted to interview weighing in, but the book offers lots of candid anecdotes and advice from 20somethings and a small handful of psychologists who were happy to help. It was also hard to write at night and to turn down social invitations to finish the book, but I had that deadline!
2) Design book cover. I was going to hire someone but ended up doing it myself. I searched around the web for stock art of a graduation cap and then added the text for the cover by using the postcard maker at Vistaprint.com. Then I saved the mock-up images of the postcard to my desktop and then changed them into jpegs.
3) Buy ISBN Expensive! I bought 10 for $250, instead of one for $125, because I figured that I’d probably do more ebooks in the future. If anyone wants an ISBN, email me through my web-site and you can have one of mine!
4) Kindle formatting This is the second least favorite thing I’ve done in the course of my career, namely because I didn’t know how to do it. Now that I know how to do kindle formatting, I think I’d see it as a much less miserable, if tedious, task if I had to do it again. Again, if you want to do an ebook and need help with the formatting, email me and I can give you a quick rundown. Regardless of how not-fun it was (my drunk, 2am tweets as I worked on the formatting as evidence), I ended up being glad that I didn’t pay a professional to do it, because it was do-able.
5) PR The really fun part! Writing press releases, emailing the reporters I know, hitting up my friends to let me guest blog! The book got a front-page mention in the business section of Albany, New York’s daily newspaper on Sunday (I live in Albany) and it was crazy to think, That’s an ebook! I did literally every part of it!
Other notes on doing an ebook:
Get friends to help you edit. My best friend sat at my dining room table with me one Friday night last month and went through the manuscript line-by-line with me and one of my longtime writing partners did a really thorough line-edit for me. Check ten times for typos; it’s crazy how they slip by you.
I don’t recommend using Smashwords. If writing an ebook can feel a bit anti-climactic, Smashwords definitely makes it worse. The first night I uploaded my book to Smashwords, I was so pumped to be self-published that I was awake at 3am on a Saturday morning ready to make the final version of my ebook go live. Yet each time I uploaded the book, it didn’t look right. To the best of my knowledge, Smashwords doesn’t have the functionality to let you work on the formatting so you can see exactly what you need to do to make the book look right in their sample pages; it’s all trial-and-error, and you have to upload your book over and over again until you blindly guess the right way to fix it. After six attempts and still not getting the formatting to look like what I wanted it to look like, I was frustrated and I finally went to bed.
The next time I tried uploading a version of my manuscript with corrected formatting, two days later, I saw that there was a queue to have your manuscript uploaded—and I was number 761 in that queue. I did about five hours worth of work and finally I was number 200 in the queue. It was like trying to connect to AOL circa 1997, when it was horribly slow and thus best to try to get online around 1am.
(To my embarrassment, I clicked on the customer service box at the top of the Smashwords screen and fired off a curt message complaining about how unsophisticated the Smashwords technology was, especially given the significant commission that Smashwords collects on the books that they publish and distribute. The next day, I saw I had a surprisingly polite response from the CEO of Smashwords in my inbox. I was too embarrassed to respond, but I do maintain that Smashwords takes too large a commission for simply converting your ebook into a clunky format. But I wish I had calmed down a bit before airing my grievances).
The funny thing is, when I figured out the kindle and epub formatting and finished it, every minute of it was worth it. And ebooks are worth it. There is something so satisfying about knowing that you—YOU!—have the agency to write something, publish it, and have it sold on a national online retailer’s web-site and it can happen as quickly as you can make it happen.
Before, the road to a published book was a long one with several steps—pitch agents, pick agent (and pray you picked the right agent if you had more than one offer), agent pitches publishers, you go to church more often than usual while publishers consider manuscript, you get offer, agent negotiates offer, you sign contract. And there are predators the whole way—scam agents, scam freelance editors who offer to spruce up your manuscript, scam vanity publishers. Even when the book is published, you still relinquish a lot of control over the book.
Today, the process is much more fluid; write book, do the formatting, publish your book. The biggest reward is that those who write ebooks today are really the ones blazing the trail for the future of publishing. Obviously ebooks are a part of today’s publishing landscape, but it’s still largely a course of trial-and-error; the big publishers can’t figure out how to price ebooks so they make a profit without turning readers away because of the price over five dollars. I sense that the main struggle for indie authors is figuring out how to reach enough people so they can capitalize off of having an ebook priced attractively under five dollars. The cool part is that the only way we’ll figure is out is with more people writing ebooks and figuring out what works!