Today I am pleased to bring you a guest post from my old friend (and sometime co-writer) Jeff Phelps.
Jeff is a widely published poet and novelist, and this year published his novels Painter Man and Box of Tricks on Kindle for the first time. In his article he talks about the experience of formatting and publishing his novels as Kindle ebooks, and some of the lessons he learned from this.
Over to Jeff, then.
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My two novels, Painter Man and Box of Tricks were published as paperbacks by the Birmingham-based Tindal Street Press in 2005 and 2009 respectively. They had never been issued as electronic books, which I always thought was a pity.
By early 2015 the paperbacks had all but sold out. Profile Books, who had taken over the lists when Tindal Street Press closed, were not printing another edition. Painter Man and Box of Tricks were becoming rarities.
For my own use I managed to buy a few copies at cover price from Waterstones in New Street, Birmingham before they cleared out their old stock and moved to High Street. Even now you can get new copies from Amazon for around £150 or used for a penny. Such are the unfathomable vagaries of the market.
There had been some excellent, enthusiastic reactions to both books. Among the most memorable was from a man for whom Painter Man had fitted his situation perfectly and a readers’ group in the north of England who had chosen Box of Tricks as their ’book of the year’ from among others they had read, including luminaries such as Daphne DuMaurier, Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel.
So when the rights to the novels reverted to me in late 2014 it seemed like the perfect opportunity to relaunch the titles in a new format. There seemed to be so much life still in them.
So where did I start?
I’d recently installed Scrivener on my computer. It’s the ideal word processing package for a novelist, indeed for anyone attempting long or complex pieces. Scrivener’s ‘bells and whistles’ could easily be (probably have been) the subject of lengthy articles on their own. Scrivener has templates for drama, non-fiction and short stories and innumerable tools for keeping track, outlining plots, comparing versions and so on. Text can be written in a format that’s easy to view and work with (Courier font, for example) and then compiled in a form to suit whatever is needed – with a few clicks to specify or confirm font, paragraphing, titles and so on. I soon discovered there was a simple choice in the compile menu which could format a novel into a file ready-made for Kindle – a .mobi file.
I already had the text of the novels in Word so it was a fairly straightforward task to import each novel to Scrivener, breaking it down into chapters as I went. It’s necessary to divide them in this way as chapters are automatically recognised and separated in the final version and given page breaks and chapter numbers, or titles if preferred.
I did spend time making sure the spelling, spacing and titles were consistent, that there was the same indent for paragraphs throughout and so on. A lot of the fine editing had already been done for the paperbacks so I had a head start. I knew the text was generally in good shape.
I revised and updated the acknowledgements and was able to add a few more complimentary comments that people had made – another advantage of the books having been previously published. In Scrivener these pages are simply added in as part of front matter, from where they are automatically compiled in the right place.
It felt like a good opportunity to look at the book covers again, too. I gave this a lot of thought. Experience told me that book covers didn’t always look good on Kindle devices. The screen is small and the detail can get lost, especially on older models. It also struck me that a cover isn’t permanently visible, the way it is in a paperback. When you close your book on a Kindle device it just shuts down and when you go back to the book it opens at the page last read. You might only ever see the cover once. Even when a book opens for the first time on Kindle it tends to default at the first page of text and miss out the cover and the title pages. I wondered whether I could describe the covers of any of the electronic books I had on my machine. I don’t think I could. All this led me to conclude that the cover of a Kindle book is rarely seen so is not a big selling point, except maybe as an ’image’ that goes with the title on websites and social media.
I considered using the original cover designs from the paperbacks, but my permissions only extended to the text, so I decided to start again with something I had clear rights to. After several false starts I found a striking image of the Perch Rock lighthouse in New Brighton where Box of Tricks is set. The photograph was taken by a relative, Robbie Girven, and he kindly allowed me to use it. I was able to add titles and text using Picasa. Painter Man uses a photograph I’d taken myself in Plymouth, UK, of a peeling face on a wall by the remarkable artist Robert Lenkiewicz, who specialised in paintings of vagrants and outcasts. Check out his amazing work if you don’t know it.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Paul Johnson who worked valiantly to design both covers and whose witty drawings I found on Facebook and instantly loved, and to the consummate artist Robert Perry whose nocturnes of the Black Country partly inspired the scenes and characters in Painter Man. Neither was used as it happened. If Monet was alive today I believe he would have been painting the Black Country exactly as Rob Perry does.
After that the rest seemed straightforward. My good friend Nick Daws had given me lots of advice from his experience. He recommended some of the self-help guides that can be downloaded to Kindle, usually free or at low cost. I used How to Create an Ebook with Scrivener by James Gill and Building your Book for Kindle (Amazon kindle). Both guided me perfectly well through the technical aspects and included the invaluable advice to download free preview programs to view the books as they will appear on various devices. This allowed me to check everything before publishing. Sure enough, on my first attempt the front matter was missing, italics were shown as underlined and chapter headings were repeated. I only had to go back into Scrivener’s compile menu to correct these and resave the file.
Uploading to Kindle was straightforward, too. I set up an account with Kindle Direct Publishing and followed the guidance. There was even a useful graph for choosing the price that will work best, based on past sales of similar titles.
One thing the guide hadn’t told me was that there’s a place in the Kindle publishing process to insert the front cover (and even a cover designer) – so I had to go back, take the cover image out of Scrivener’s front matter and insert it here instead. It only took me a matter of minutes.
After that I simply pressed publish and waited for the novels to appear on Amazon, which in my case they did after about an hour.
One can go back and change things after publication – not only the sales price but the text or the details. For instance, Nick Daws suggested I add more detail to the book description which I was able to do easily. It is the main selling point – the first thing that’s seen on Amazon. There’s a character limit of 3,000, so plenty of space to describe the books and put a few good quotes and recommendations in.
That felt like the end of the process but of course in many ways it’s just the beginning. One needs to keep putting the books in front of people, encourage friends to buy, promote reviews (good ones, naturally) on Amazon and elsewhere and request shares on social media… and, of course, write about the whole process on websites such as these. Please share!
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Many thanks to Jeff (pictured, right) for an interesting article that I am sure will be helpful for anyone who is considering publishing a Kindle ebook in 2016.
If you have an e-reader, tablet or smartphone yourself, incidentally, I highly recommend both of Jeff’s novels. To my mind Painter Man has the greater emotional impact, while Box of Tricks has a bit more humour. If you like well-written, literary (but unpretentious) fiction, I promise you will enjoy both. If you do, please take a moment to review them on Amazon.
If you have any comments or questions for me (or Jeff), please do post them below.