Self-publishing an ebook

East Asian girl holding a mirror

Photograph by Panorama Media/PanoramaStock/Getty Images

 

How to self-publish an ebook

1) Write an unsellably self-indulgent story at an awkward length. (The jabs at colonialism were as much self-indulgence as the swoony romance.)

2) Fail to sell story to romance e-publishers.

3) Self-publish as web serial and ebook.

4) ????

5) PROFIT!!! –> Note: I haven’t actually profited.

Why I did it

I wanted a “proper website” mostly because my bibliography was getting too crowded and messy on my blog sticky post. Also, I’d self-published a couple of short stories which I wanted to make available as ebooks, and I thought having an FTP I could keep ’em on would probably look slightly better than using a free file-sharing site. I figured there was no real reason for people to visit the new website unless I offered something new to look at, and Bloomsbury Girl (previous title of The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo) was just sitting around on my hard drive doing nothing, so why not publish that as a web serial?

I also decided to publish the novella as an ebook, on the basis that in the current publishing environment “knowing how to self-publish an ebook” is probably quite a good skill for a writer to have, like taking constructive criticism and refusing to comment on reviews.

I decided to charge for the ebook instead of giving it away for free just to see if anyone would pay for it. I thought people might, because there’s actual value in having an ebook even if the story is free to read online — I mean, I’d pay US$0.99 to be able to carry a story around in my Kindle.

I set the price at US$0.99 because my aim was to get new readers. I’ve seen arguments that books are undervalued at US$0.99, but if you think about it from the perspective of a reader in a world bursting at the seams with books, an unknown book by an unknown author is worth less than US$0.99. Heck, even if it was free I’m not sure it’d be worth the effort of hitting a button so it’ll download direct to my Kindle. That would mean I’d have get up and turn the wireless setting on my Kindle back on! I haven’t even started reading the book I bought yesterday by a massively well-known author whose stories I know for certain will give me pleasure!

So I set it at US$0.99 based on what I’d do if I’d never heard of me.

How I did it

I prioritised a) decent formatting and b) a cover I found aesthetically pleasing. I succeeded on the second point and think I succeeded on the first, but do let me know if you notice anything wonky with the formatting or typos or anything like that.

The formatting

Producing an ebook was no more difficult than uploading a story to ff.net. In fact, the Smashwords interface reminded me a lot of ff.net, though Smashwords is slightly more user-friendly. You put your story into a Word document (if it wasn’t already in one), do some only slightly esoteric stuff with styles, and Smashwords turns it into an ebook for you. Amazon does pretty much the same thing, except you have to do slightly different esoteric things with styles.

If you turn a story into an ebook with Sigil that is even easier. I don’t know if you can upload an already-formatted ebook to Smashwords and Amazon, though; I decided to go through their processes to familiarise myself with them, and make sure the format was exactly what the site wanted.

The cover

I also did the cover myself. I spent a lot of time on stock photo websites gnashing my teeth. You would not believe what a pain it is trying to find a picture of an East Asian woman where she looks lively or sensible or at least to some tiny extent in control of her destiny, and I also had the inconvenient desires that:

a) the picture have a retro/vintage sensibility — since, y’know, it’s a period romance; and

b) the Asian lady wear something an Asian lady living in London in the 1920s might conceivably wear.

I did end up staring wistfully at Of Another Fashion a lot. If Asian women ever wore anything but hanfu or kimono before the 1970s, you wouldn’t know it from looking at English-language stock photography sites. Panorama Stock was a godsend. When I found it it was like the sky had broken open and showered down chocolate and there were angels singing all around me. The lady even looked a bit like how I imagined Jade (though Jade is not as conventionally attractive in my head). And she’s looking directly at you! Score. I paid £40 (including VAT) for the largest resolution I was willing to pay for.

Here’s where I’m going to get a bit technical. When you Google ebook cover design tips lots of people tell you it’s got to be a certain number of pixels in size. I did not get a picture that was that number of pixels; I got one that was smaller because the correct sizes were too expensive. I know you’re not supposed to size up pictures because then they go all grainy and horrible (<– graphic designer jargon), but I figured most people will only ever see the thumbnail version anyway, so I went ahead and did it.

On a tangent, I actually got so despairing in my search for a non-horrible retro-feeling picture of an Asian woman that at one point I dragged out my granddad’s old suitcase, stacked a couple of old-looking book-like objects on it (a National Geographic leather folder and a tattered hardcover Chinese dictionary) and put a black & white picture of my grandmother as a young woman on top. I took a photo of that. It looked pretty good, but I decided to save it for the collection of amusing yet poignant short stories about family drama every Asian female writer is probably required to write.

How I marketed it

I cross-posted the story on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, mentioned it twice on Tumblr, and tweeted a lot. I think Twitter worked the best. Some people I didn’t personally know retweeted links to the story, which is pretty cool! I’ve really, really appreciated the links and reviews and tweets people have done — I mean, I don’t want to go on too much about this because then it sounds like I think it’s all about me when it’s really about the story, but people have been very kind and I’ve appreciated the goodwill friends and readers have shown.

I also emailed one romance book blog about reviewing it, but have had no response. I intend to email more ebook sites (and do let me know if you know any book blogs I should submit it to!), but haven’t got around to it yet.

How it did

It’s hard to tell! I think the only reason why anyone’s bothered visiting my website is probably because of the story. I do think a few people who hadn’t read my stories before read Jade and liked her, so I’m counting it as a win.

As for figures, which are the really interesting part and what I always wish people would post about, to date I have sold 43 copies and earned about US$20. (NB. I’m writing this on Wednesday 27 June.) In total there have been 52 downloads (including of samples) via Smashwords. Only 15 of the sales were via Amazon. Unsurprisingly most of the sales happened within a few days of the launch of the website/serial. I expect them to tail off, though if I manage to get the book on a couple of review sites hopefully that will lead to a couple more downloads, if not sales.

If the ebook ever makes back the cost of the cover I will count that a huge triumph and spend the proceeds on a celebratory bottle of champagne, thus putting myself in the red again.

Conclusions

Self-publishing an ebook is pretty easy! But it probably won’t make you rich unless you’re Amanda Hocking or the Fifty Shades of Grey person. If you want your book to do well I imagine the following things probably help:

1) Social capital.

2) A clear niche.

3) Having written something at least a subset of people will consider ideal light/comfort/beach reading –> I think this is the most important factor.

But those are all things you could’ve guessed hor. And lots of other people will have said it already. Two things I’ll say, about self-publishing generally, and about my work:

1) One thing fanfic fandom has taught me is that if you yourself really, really enjoy something — a style of writing, a trope, a narrative kink — then there’s bound to be someone out there who wants precisely that thing too. Probably several someones. No matter how obscure it is — in fact, the more obscure it is, the more people who love it will love you for producing it. (Also, I think fanfic writers have the skills and experience to exploit the bleep out of self-publishing. Idfic seems to be where it’s at.)

2) Jade was super easy for me to write because it is totally my idfic. It’s exactly the kind of thing I would’ve gobbled up as a teenager reading Austen and Wodehouse and Saki and Heyer. So I’ve suspected — though of course it’s hard to be sure — that somewhere out there is my ideal audience, one that wants exactly this sort of thing and can’t find anything like it. I still have no idea how large this ideal audience is, but Jade‘s reception has tended to confirm its existence, so I’m glad I ventured on this experiment for that alone.

11 thoughts on “Self-publishing an ebook

  1. confluence

    The two biggest factors that influence my decision to buy an e-book are the availability of a DRM-free version and the ability to read a sample of the author’s writing.

    As far as I know, all the books on Smashwords are DRM-free, so that was not an obstacle — and I snapped up your book as soon as I heard about it, although it was outside my usual reading genres, because I had already read some of your short stories and really liked them. :) I think it’s useful that Smashwords offers free samples.

    Reply
    1. Zen

      I hope you enjoy it! I’m obviously not too bothered about DRM, since I use the Kindle (I would prefer DRM-free, but indolence and therefore convenience is the main motivating factor for me). But yeah, samples make a big difference to me as well, and I’ve been known to buy a book I didn’t initially think I’d buy/pay more for a book than I would’ve thought I’d pay based on a really good sample.

      Reply
  2. Shannon Phillips

    This is a fan letter. I don’t write many of them, so I may be awkward at it, please forgive.

    I read “The House of the Aunts” when Karen Healey linked to it from LiveJournal. I was absolutely blown away. I immediately tracked down everything that you’ve written (that I could easily buy).

    I bought “Crossed Genres” and “Fantastique Unfettered” and “Steam Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories.” I bought “Heiresses of Russ 2011” and “The Perilous Life of Jade Cho” and TWO issues of “Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine” (because I bought the wrong one the first time).

    The conclusion I have reached is that you are fantastic. You are an Ursula K. Le Guin-level genius. I mean, you’re a *young* UKL. What you’re doing now is easily on the level of, say, “Rocannon’s World” or “City of Illusions.” You’re within spitting distance of “The Left Hand of Darkness.” I can’t wait to see what you’re writing in twenty years.

    You’re one of this generation’s greatest fantasy writers. I feel incredibly pleased with myself to have “discovered” you so early. I sent Neil Gaiman a link to “The House of the Aunts”: I’m sure if he just found the time to read it, he’d blog you and suddenly your career would take flame. But he gets sent thousands of links every day, I’m sure.

    It will happen, eventually, anyway. Not Neil Gaiman, but someone like him — some door will open, some award will go to you, and suddenly you’ll have an audience of millions. And I will say, I was reading her *when*.

    Reply
    1. Zen

      Thank you, Shannon. As a writer yourself you’ll know that this is the kind of reader response that justifies all the hard work! I’m super glad the stories worked for you and very grateful for the time you’ve taken to tell me so.

      Reply
  3. madscientistnz

    Added this to the TBR – looking forward to it.

    Have you submitted to Dear Author for a review? It sounds like the sort of story many of the reviewers there would enjoy.

    Reply
    1. Zen

      I have indeed sent it to Dear Author! No response, but I’m not too surprised — I expect they get a lot of requests for reviews.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: Review: THE PERILOUS LIFE OF JADE YEO – Zen Cho | downforthebarbecue

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