An electronic shortcut in the race for readers

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You don’t need a print publisher to get people reading your novel on the beach – you can make it available as an e-book which can be downloaded onto one of the many electronic readers on the market, writes SHEILA O'KELLY

IT SEEMS there are lots of us scribblers out there writing novels that never see the light of day because publishers aren’t prepared to take the risk on an unknown. It’s a huge gamble for them to take on the marketing and printing costs.

But in the last 12 months or so new technologies and websites have opened up a lot more ways to distribute fiction. These include: Amazon Kindle; Sony Reader; Smashwords (a website not a gadget); and Stanza, an iPhone book-reading application.

These new media allow you to simply put your book on the internet, rather than consign yourself to the inevitable frustration of just sending out your manuscript and hoping for the best. It certainly cuts out quite a number of middlemen in the often-mystifying process of book publication.

My novel, Love Knot, begins in 1979 and charts the next few years of a young journalist who becomes pregnant and flees claustrophobic Dublin and heads to London to escape. It took me quite some time to write and I think some people somewhere might enjoy it, so am loathe to let it gather dust on a shelf at home. So I decided to give this electronic publishing business a go by uploading the novel to Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.

The Amazon Kindle Store is an offshoot of Amazon.com (so far not available in Europe). It sells electronic books that are uploaded to its Kindles, which are small plastic devices, like a mini-mini laptop, with a 6-10 inch diagonal screen.

Smashwords describes itself as “a publishing platform, online bookstore and e-book distributor for independent e-book authors, publishers and readers. We offer multi-format, DRM-free e-books, ready for immediate sampling and purchase, and readable on any e-reading device.”

So there were two platforms ready and waiting. However, there is a glitch with Amazon.com. In order to upload a book to Kindle you must have a US bank account so that they can you pay you a percentage for each copy of your book that they sell. So I phoned my sister-in-law in Philadelphia who kindly set up an account in her name, using her bank account, that I could use to publish my book. So officially she is my publisher on Amazon.

NEXT I READthrough all of Amazon’s detailed instructions about how to format the book. I tried several of their suggestions, but in the end found that what worked best was simply uploading the novel in Word, even though, according to the online forums, this did not work well for others.

For the record, I use a Mac and Word 2004 – perhaps this was just a lucky combination. I don’t know, you may need to experiment. It works best if you don’t use any fancy formatting – this will just confuse the technology.

I chose to sell my novel for $0.99 (€0.68). For each copy sold, I get $0.35 (€0.24).

Smashwords provides a very detailed style guide that you need to follow to successfully publish on their site. Again, it is crucial to avoid fancy formatting. Love Knotis also $0.99 on Smashwords and there I receive either $0.56 (€0.39) or $0.76 (€0.52) per copy – not sure why it varies.

I chose to upload the novel in all the formats Smashword makes available, and this means that they also make Love Knotavailable on iPhones via the Stanza application.

By the way, I think it’s worthwhile doing a very simple cover design, which you upload separately. It will make your book look a little more professional.

Then I had to start thinking about marketing. I got a kickstart when Smashwords offered authors the chance to make their novels available for free during the month of July. I used this to promote the novel using Twitter (sheilaokelly), Facebook and Linkedin where I already had accounts.

So far the response has been very encouraging, and I am hoping that when people have finished reading the novel they will leave ratings or reviews on either Amazon.com or Smashwords.com. And, who knows, maybe an enterprising agent or publisher will see it at some stage.

Meanwhile, I have just started the next novel.


Sheila O’Kelly is a freelance journalist who also gives training courses in writing plain English

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