Monday, November 10, 2008

POD Publishing: how to get your book ready

I've been fielding questions lately on the subject of "how do I make my book publishable?" So rather than getting into politics, human rights issues and the inequities of the system world-wide, let's give the heavy stuff a miss today and talk about something more peaceful.

POD publishing is what you make of it ... I've said this before, and it's so true, it's safe to say it again. At the level of the written word, your books will be as good as your skills can make them -- and, unless your grasp of the intricacies of the language is 110%, your work will be as well edited as you can afford.

Which is to say, editing costs big bucks! It would be perfectly possible to sell five thousand copies of a POD book, and juuuuust about break even on the costs of having the book edited. So, why not learn the language properly, as part of the task of learning how to write, publish, and market your work?

This is easier said than done, I know. Quick courses will only skim you over the surface. What you can get out of a five hundred dollar online tutorial is not actually enough to get you there -- but it's a hulluva lot better than nothing, and could cut your editing bill by two thirds. Go ahead and do the course; just be keenly aware of the shortfalls.

Can I tell you how to edit your work? Sure. But it'll take 300+ book pages to impart what you absolutely, positively need to know. Such a book wouldn't "teach" anyone how to write. The purveyors of books like, "How to Sell Everything You Write," and "How to Write a Bestselling Novel" won't like me much for saying this, but here it is anyway...

FACT: nobody, nowhere, no how, can teach you how to write. You can either string words together, or you can't ... and if you follow the $49.95 cookbook methodology of some online guru, you'll come up with cookie-cutter storytelling. 95% of the skills of the successful writer cannot be imparted. They're discovered "within," and honed, polished, perfected, by writing millions of words. No one can teach you to have an amusing turn of phrase, or the profound wisdom that comes from observing the human condition for many decades, or what constitutes the "trash" of waaay over- and under-writing. These things, you just know. One day, a penny drops in your mind, and suddenly you start "hitting the tune."

What you can learn is how to take a rough diamond and polish it. You might have been born with a wonderful turn of phrase, a million stories to tell, an uncanny ability to depict human characters, and prose that flows almost like poetry (they used to call it the gift of the blarney). But if you don't know the razor-edge fine points of grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary and writer's etiquette, your work will still look and sound amateurish and awkward to the reader.

Lately, with the furore on the Internet over the American election and referenda, I've been reading a lot of material posted by "civilians" ... ordinary people who are not writers, and don't have any ambitions in that direction. And I've been shocked by the abysmal levels of literacy which seem to be commonplace in the US.

You have people who are fluent in their quotations of scripture -- they can quote you chapter and verse, where God says one is an abomination for being gay and having the temerity to indulge in a love life ... and then the same person has no concept of what the comma, the apostrophe and the colon are for. Worse yet, they can't tell the difference between "rout" and "root," or "wreck" and "wreak," and their idea of spelling is havock, and abbomination, and lisensiousness.

(Such people are perfectly capable of consigning Alexander the Great, Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky and Sir Ian McKellen to the scrapheap of life (and the fires of hell, come to that), but they can't figure out the difference between a root and a rout. The microscopic amounts of native intelligence it takes to notice how things are spelled and punctuated while one reads -- on a screen, a page, it doesn't matter -- escapes them. They have just enough intellect to comprehend what they're told while seated in the pews. Don't get me started.)

It's a safe bet that the English you learned in class, so many years ago, won't get you through the baptism of fire of the professional writer. If if were, vast numbers of people in the US, UK and Australia would not be flirting with illiteracy ... and they are! My advice? Don't trust what you think you know, when it comes to editing. Get a book. Learn.

The most fundamental principle of science or art is the admission that one just plain doesn't know. As soon as you wrap your head around this, you're already on the right track, because now you're receptive to learning. Furthermore, you'll actively seek out what you want to know, and when you actually want to learn something, the information sticks.

So take some months out before you head to, or, or wherever you plan to go for POD publishing, and really, seriously learn the language. Then print out a copy of your manuscript and go over it -- not once but several times, weeding out all the booboos you used to make without even realizing you were making them.

One day, you'll be finished. You'll reach a point where the last proofing copy of the book you printed out is error-free. Drink your own health in champagne, because two things just happened. You finished the book!! (Feel free to jive around the room.) More importantly, your English language skills should now place you firmly in the 99th percentile. Meaning, if you're an American, you're ahead of 297,000,000 of your countrymen in the writing stakes.

The next step in making your book publishable is to get it properly formatted. Let's assume it's text-driven. If you have a boatload of images, its going to be more difficult, but even so, it can be done on your own desktop.

You can use a word processor ... you can use a desktop publishing package. Whichever you choose, you'll have to learn to "drive" it like a pro. Since you will definitely need a DTP package for assembling your cover -- unless you want to pay hundreds of bucks, perhaps a grand, to have it done by someone else! -- you might as well grasp this bull by the horns and wrestle it down. Get your DTP software and learn to drive it.

A word of caution: don't pay a lot of money for DTP software!! Everything you need will be found in a program you can download for US$40. This, below, is the package DreamCraft and Keegan recommend, because it's been used on every edition of every book for ... how many years?

image: Serif - Software with Imagination

You'll need to get Serif PagePlus 10, and take several weeks to learn it. After that, you'll never look back, and the job of publishing -- no matter how complex the project -- is well within your grasp. Covers become simple, and the book's interior will be a template made by you, to your own specifications, which can be used over and over.

The first thing you'll need to know is what size your published book will be. It's going to be somewhere around the 6" x 9" size, if you want a trade size paperback ... and this also is the format where POD publishing gets financially friendly.

CreateSpace is cheaper than, if you need to (or want to) sell through Amazon. But just offered an economic option -- "publisher grade paper." This makes the cost to manufacture a single copy of a 300pp book just US$7, and if you've done the rest of the job yourself, you're off to a flying start.

In Serif PagePlus 10, you set the paper size, and then create your template ... save it as a template, without any content in the "frames." These "frames" are 300 page-sized text boxes which are all linked together. All you have to do is copy-paste your enture book into the box for page one, and the software will automatically flow the text through to the end. From there, you can select the whole document and turn off widow and orphan control ... change the line height ... change the paragraph indent ... the font face and size ... anything.

Serif makes it comparatively simple. The only thing you'll have to manually adjust is the position of the frames on the page: on even numbered pages they jog LEFT by 2mm to create extra space for the book binding, and on odd numbered pages (yep) they jog RIGHT by 2mm for the same reason. You do this job once. It's part of the template, never needs to be done again. Then, you're flying.

Once the type is set, print out a copy ... and proofread it again! Look out for "iffy" hyphenations. The program is brilliant, not omnipotent. Some hyphenations will look weird -- adjust these manually. Also, take your last, final opportunity to change a word here and there, add something, delete something. Key in all the corrections you scribbled onto the printed pages, and -- yes!! -- lock the document.

Done. Finished. Time, now, to look at the cover.

It's time to convert the DTP file to a PDF, and you're in luck. Serif PagePlus 10 has a very powerful PDF maker. It will do everything you need, if you configure it right. Look under "file" and choose "publish to PDF." Set it up right, and save the profile for use on your next book. Virtually all POD publishing starts with PDFs. will let you upload .doc and .rft files, but they're immediately converted online to PDFs, so in the end it's still POD pivoting on the PDF technology.

Check the PDF thoroughly to make sure nothing corrupted in the transfer. Done? Right. The time has come to choose your digital printing partner. I'd have to recommend either for its speed -- and also the fact they have printshops around the world, even in Aus -- and/or for its access to In the end, it's your call. Pick the one that offers you the interface you prefer with the prices that suit you best and the sales services that are best for your budget and needs.

Set up an account with your choice (it's free. Never go with a printer who charges fees to set up an account). Now, start a project; name it; upload your interior PDF --

Aha! The digital printer will now give you the specs for your cover. They'll tell you what the "trim area" will be (the part of the cover that's amputated when the book receives its three-edge trim, after binding), and what the spine width will be, based on your page count.

Now, you can look at your cover.

Are you an artist? Do you have very good digital photos that would paste up nicely? Can you get a savvy friend to help? Would logos and artistic lettering do the job? Do you mind paying a fee to use a professional image? Could you use a classical painting? (They're often available as downloads for a credit to the collection.) Does it have to be an actual piece of artwork, such as you find on the covers of mass market books?

Does a great cover help to sell your book? Yes. Unequivocally.

Does a really lousy cover hurt your sales? Nobody's sure.. There are some butt-ugly covers out there. Go to any bookstore and look at the "literary" books. They are often ghastly. Horrible. Hideous. And someone got paid for assembling them, and there they are on the shelf ... and people are buying the book anyway, so --

The rule would seem to be (at least to me!) this: a book cover can be as ugly and horrific as anything you can imagine, providing it doesn't look amateurish. A professional eyesore is perfectly acceptable. An amateurish attempt at a professional result will hurt your sales.

What constitutes "ugly" anyway? It's all in the eye of the beholder. What isn't, though, is the balance, the design, the harmony of the cover. Make no mistake, there are professionally published and designed books out there in the stores, where the cover designer and the editor should be taken out and shot. They get away with it because of diplomas hanging on their office walls. They still churn out garbage occasionally, but it's forgiven.

As a newbie breaking into the field, you won't be forgiven. You'll have to be as good as the pros, and then some. So ... study cover design. Pull out a hundred good books from your own library, lay them out on the floor and be analytical. What works? What doesn't? Which color combinations clash? Which draw the eye? Notice the date of the artwork ... styles and fashions in cover design change. Do you want a classical or modern "look" on your book?

Decide what you want: see it in your mind's eye, and figure out a way to assemble it. The art logos are easy: the DTP software will do them for you. The background images will have to come from somewhere; you, a friend, a picture library. Caution: eventually, you'll get busted if you usurp someone's copyright. It's better to track down the exact, right image and pay $50, or $100, credit the artist or photographer, and stay on the right side of copyright law.

The final cover is published to a single-layer PDF, and uploaded...

You order a proof copy and go over it with a fine tooth comb...

And if all looks 100%, you're done. Really. Done. Seriously! You're about to start marketing the beast now, but as per publishing? Put a tick against that one.

Hope this answers all questions -- if I missed something, let me know. Sorry for being brief here; I just don't have the time to go into every detail. If I did, it wouldn't be a blog post, it would be a book. Now, there's a thought. Would such a book be worth $20 to you? Let me know, and I'll give it some serious consideration...


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