More considerations on writing and Amazon

Focused?

When considering writing books, some more considerations on writing and Amazon.
To be successful, authors should build a “following”. That however requires to focus on and remain in a specific type of literature: e.g. fiction, romance, philosophy, name it. The more focused, the better.
My case is pretty hopeless as all books have nothing in common and I am working in more than one genre. “Toxic Capitalism” is a comprehensive study of environmental issues; “Laugh and Get Wiser” is a collection of (English) jokes; the next book will be a political manifesto. While the third book will use some of the themes of the first one, the three definitely have a different audience. A possible fourth book might be a collection of professional experiences; the other titles are still too far away to put a sticker on it.

dreaming of big sales?

The idea is that  when readers like your book they might want more of the same. So in my case, pretty hopeless…

Amazon can be a bit “complicated”

As mentioned earlier my book “Laugh and Get Wiser” has a mention for me that it does not ship to Beijing. It actually does…
Some of my friends complain that when searching for it on Amazon UK it somehow gives strange feedback, like “Exclusive for UK clients” – it is widely available on all Amazon sites (except China of course).
The comments posted on Amazon sites are disconnected. If a friend posts a comment of my book on Amazon Italy it does only stay there and does not appear on Amazon USA. That is bad for the author as it gives an incomplete picture of what readers said about the book. Also, the author has to register on each Amazon site separately to introduce himself even if the book is available on that site. In my case till now I registered on the USA and UK sites.
The shipping charges vary considerably. I made shipments to Indianapolis, Brussels, Beijing: the cost is pretty different and goes up in that order.
If I sell hard copies myself, taking advantage of the special discount as the author (very reasonable indeed!) those sales do not appear in the Amazon overview. I sell to a bookstore in Beijing and to many friends who insist on a signed hard copy.

BISAC codes

One miscalculation: before uploading “Laugh and Get Wiser” I studied in detail the BISAC codes – the codes for the book genre, e.g.:

HUM018000   HUMOR / Form / Puns & Wordplay
HUM008000   HUMOR / Topic / Adult
HUM019000   HUMOR / Topic / Language

I thought defining focused BISAC codes was essential to the Kindle listing. I even registered as a member on their website, so I could have access to all details:
“The BISAC Subject Headings List, also known as the BISAC Subject Codes List, is a standard used by many companies throughout the supply chain to categorize books based on topical content. The Subject Heading applied to a book can determine where the work is shelved in a brick and mortar store or the genre(s) under which it can be searched for in an internal database.”
See the website:
BOOK INDUSTRY STUDY GROUP https://bisg.org/page/BISACSubjectCodes

Well, disappointed when I entered all my data for my book “Laugh and Get Wiser”. Nowhere to be found were the BISAC codes and the choice offered by Amazon was way too general. I still need to understand this…

Publishing in Chinese

As said in an earlier post Amazon does not accept books in Chinese. Guidelines are not always obvious. See the languages accepted for Kindle:
https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200673300

However an English book that contains Chinese characters seems to work… But one can’t publish a Chinese book.
An alternative: Smashwords ignores (Amazon) limitations by allowing all authors from around the world and who have never heard of Steve Jobs to have the same reach. Another alternative to Smashwords would be the Draft2Digital platform.
As my wife is ready to publish her Chinese book, it is a challenge right now.

Yes we are a family of writers, each in a different world. Those are our first books. In both cases, not the best of experiences. See: http://www.damulu.com/2017/04/17/the-book-about-sun-bingwen/

Using external help when going indie

 

The two musts

Using external help when going indie is mandatory for two tasks: the cover design and professional editing. Also, pay the right price to avoid having crappy results.
In Beijing I could not find the proper services but an Internet search produced good leads.

Cover page

For the cover design I had to use a two-step process.
I wanted to use a cartoon of a bar scene according to my specifications. After some search I finally ended up on a great platform where cartoonists offer their services and clients like me can call for quotes. It is called fiverr.com.
All exchange and payment is done through the website. That went very well and the cost was very reasonable.
Once I had the cartoon I searched for a cover design company to do the cover for the e-book and the covers for the print (front, back and spine). To choose a company and ask for a quote I used another website: Writers’ Cafe on kBoards: https://www.kboards.com/index.php/board,60.0.html

There I communicated directly with the companies.
Very happy with the design company I ended up working. For the front cover I provided the cartoon and the text; for the back cover I provided the picture and the text. The company then did the design and it took only one slight revision to have the end product.

The end result

See the pictures of the front and back covers, and the spine.
As explained in earlier post (https://www.damulu.com/2019/01/06/using-scrivener/), you need to have the estimate of the number of pages so the cover design company can make the proper size for the spine. See also the inside where I adjusted margins and headings in MS Word.

Both cartoonist and design company are quoted in my book.

Professional editing

I did however not use an editor. The reason: the language of “jokes” is not your Shakespeare type. So to avoid having endless arguments with an editor I did myself the review of the text, trying as much as possible to clean up the obvious wrong spelling, grammar and vocabulary all while preserving the juicy aspects of the jokes: how the Irish talk, among others. It was a painstaking job to verify some rather weird words and define a uniform formatting and spelling. For the non-jokes parts (very little) I asked some native English speakers for corrections.
For my book no. 3 I will however definitely require an editor.

The cost

So, how much did it cost to get my book of jokes written and published?

– Scrivener + cartoon design + cover design: total a little over US$500
– My weeks of staying in a nice Phuket hotel: difficult to give a correct estimate as it was also somehow a very enjoyable time… Guess yourself…
– Amazon: zero cost.

 

Using Scrivener

Learning then using

I still use version 2 for MAC; a newer version 3 is out but I can’t use it on my old MacAir.
It took some time to get familiar using Scrivener as it is a rather unusual software. I had to view several times the many video lessons before I managed to use it correctly.
Once I started using it for the jokes and worked on my notes for the book no. 3 I fully understood the advantages of Scrivener. Simply said, Scrivener is a must.
Read more about it: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview

Back in Beijing it still took me some time to complete the final output. And then I did ran into a brick wall when I tried to deliver the print and e-book versions.

I needed to finish first the output for the print version because the cover design company needed to know how many pages the book had. It was frustrating. Nothing went right. I was close to give up but then tweaked and tweaked the settings till one day it worked. For the print I could not really finish the task as it turned out correctly setting the margins and the positions of header and footer were not possible within Scrivener. I solved it by exporting from Scrivener to MS Word, something that worked well. The Table of Content is a bit tricky to format correctly but one needs to keep in mind it is NOT a Word ToC but a list of links where one must “update links”. Inside MS Word I was able to fine-tune the choice of font type and size as well as the headers and footers. Also to fine tune all pages so they would look nice – e.g. no title of a joke at the bottom of the page, shifting it to the top of the next page. Last step converting into PDF – the format requested by Amazon for the print.

CreateSpace is now history and Amazon directly handles the print too, making it much more easy.

Finally getting there

Once the problems with the print version were solved, the output of the Kindle files was much easier. Basically the challenge is to get the settings right in the compile dialogue, combined with the right settings for each document in the chapters (the settings are pretty much linked). In my case, see the screenshot:

the compiling dialogue

There are some add-ons to Scrivener that allow you to test the Kindle version in the Kindle app on the Mac desktop. The only tricky thing was to delete the old versions in the Kindle app: one needs to go into the (hidden) folder of Kindle in the MAC and there manually delete the old files. I was also able to put the test Kindle file in my iPhone to see how it behaved.

You must have a table of content

Amazon requires your book to have a table of content, and – it must be at the beginning of the book, not at the end.
So I was forced to artificially create a table of content for the mountain of jokes. Obviously the result is rather artificial and not always logical… Well I had no choice but to be creative, inventing chapters and making sure the length of the chapters was not too unevenly spread. It took some time… and finalizing it was easy with Scrivener.

The giant of self-publishing

Why Amazon

There is little doubt that Amazon is the giant of self-publishing. One can hate the company, one can have so many complaints about them but in the end, one has to swallow pride and criticism as it has become difficult to avoid the giant. They can be arrogant, at times chaotic and messed up, their rules can be irrational and obscure. All that being said, they are difficult to ignore as they become bigger by the day. Yes there is Apple and some others but…
I considered my project of publishing my book of jokes as a learning curve: to produce the files for print and for the Kindle, to register as an author on Amazon and then publishing. I hit a series of walls, got desperate, persevered and finally succeeded. The book is out in Kindle and print, all through Amazon USA.
It was a frustrating experience… But in the end, success!

Sorry you cannot publish on Amazon

Here more details on the story, already mentioned in an earlier post.
Once I felt my e-book and my print file were ready I logged on the Amazon U.S. site to register as an author, the first step. I had prepared all I thought I needed, the description of the book, the keywords, the categories, the book blurb and my American ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number).

The registration process was pretty complicated. I did it all very carefully, including the “tax interview”. I gave my official address in Beijing as well as my ITIN, getting the message back I could take advantage of the USA-China tax agreement. Hitting the final FINISH button, the operation never succeeded. There was “an error”, I should try again or contact their service. After many attempts I had to give up and contacted the service. And they replied – simply stating Amazon did not accept authors “based in China”. Do note this “rule” is nowhere mentioned on Amazon! What the hell, I am a Belgian national, my banking is located in Belgium. No way. I saw my dreams of becoming an indie author shattered.

Finally I switched to my official postal address for my banking mail, an address I use in Belgium. That however implied I could not use my USA-China tax advantage and I was notified I would have to pay the full USA 30% withholding tax. Yes, you can be on the moon but you are subject to U.S. tax. Sigh. Well at least I succeeded registering myself as an author.
If you reside in the USA it is all much more easy.

Important to note: one could say, why not register on Amazon China and to submit your book there? Well, books submitted there are rarely if ever approved for publishing.
Clearly Amazon wants to cozy up to the bosses in Beijing.
Also, it is not possible to publish a book in Chinese on Amazon. See the supported languages:

Next frustrating step: uploading my Kindle e-book

That resulted in a painful rejection as Amazon (I guess their automated Internet robots) found out “some of the content of my book was (freely) available on the wide Internet”. Of course it was true, due to the nature of my book.
I replied and explained in detail the reasons and did change a little my foreword. After a few desperate emails came an enigmatic reply: “please upload again”. I thought it was a meaningless thing to do. Guess what, it worked and my e-book was soon online.
The same happened submitting my print file, it was rejected again but soon after explaining and reloading – online too.
So, while Amazon seemed draconian one must admit they do listen to your explanation and are flexible. Thanks.

My books are for sale

So, both Kindle and print are on Amazon USA, and then also on all other Amazon sites around the world – except Amazon China.
I also decided to opt for the KDP Select program, for at least 90 days. That means I cannot publish anywhere else during that period.
Another strange thing: on Amazon USA when I check my book it says “This item does not ship to Beijing”. Some friends had doubts about that. So I ignored that warning and ordered ten copies to be sent to Beijing. Guess what, they arrived well in my Beijing home… Of course only ten copies as this is the maximum allowed to be imported per book (Chinese customs regulations).

And yes, my two books are now on sale in the Beijing Bookworm! See the pic. Toxic Capitalism is sold for 200 RMB and the Jokes for 150 RMB.

 

More copies of my books are with my daughters in Belgium and in USA and are arriving in Beijing. See the former stock in Brussels.

How to self-publish

I want to publish my book!

Once an author decides to become an “indie”, the question is how to self-publish.
Why do writers end up there? Indeed, one can say that for the great majority of aspiring writers the traditional publishing houses don’t work (again, read David Caughran). They rarely accept your manuscript and if they do, they take away most control over both your writing, the pricing and your net income. The other way is to be an “indie writer”, basically doing self-publishing.

What to avoid

There are a number of companies that claim to assist indie writers. They offer several “plans” to help the authors to publish their book, most often promising a lot and doing much less than what the author expected. The plans can be pretty expensive (easily over US$10,000). Some of those companies are real mafia-type and use deceptive tactics. The most infamous and biggest is the group of Author Solutions, coming on the market with different company names to give the author the false impression there is a “choice”. Unfortunately they are all the same with a different name. My first book, “Toxic Capitalism” was published through AuthorHouse, a member of the group Author Solutions.
My experience was pretty negative. The publishing of the book in print and in e-book were in itself OK. Marketing and payment of royalties were a total disaster.

Author Solutions

Author Solutions was acquired by Penguin parent company Pearson in 2012 and became part of Penguin Random House following the 2013 merger of Random House and Penguin. PRH has sold its Author Solutions division to an affiliate of the Najafi Companies, a private investment firm, in December 2016.
All those member companies of Author Solutions are to be avoided at all cost. For more, see the books and blog of David Gaughran who unmasks their shady tactics. See among others: https://davidgaughran.com/2014/06/03/the-case-against-author-solutions-part-1-the-numbers/

Those companies are also called “vanity press”, a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published; vanity publishers have no selection criteria to accept a manuscript as opposed to the traditional publishing companies.

What to do?

The obvious choice for self-publishing: Amazon. More about that in other posts.