Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How I Learned to Love My Kindle and Publish My Own Book

By David Lambourne

I never intended to buy a Kindle; in fact I swore that I would never do so. I hated the idea of reading an entire book on a screen; I saw no justification for replacing an object I loved with something as bland and soulless as an 'e-reader'. The gadget looked like a close cousin to Alan Sugar's famously naff 'E-Mailer', last spotted in Alan Partridge's 'static home' on the outskirts of Norwich. Alan, I suspected, must have a Kindle by now.

All this was a bit naive. I was willfully blinding myself to a process which by now should be dreadfully familiar, whereby a piece of technology - a digital camera, a microwave oven, a mobile phone - goes from being a gimmick to something apparently essential to civilised life. Just before Christmas, browsing Amazon, I found myself in the Kindle section, and ended up reading the unanimously rave reviews for what the company said was its best-selling product. Some kind of powerful subliminal pressure was at work, and sure enough it worked. Before I knew it I had clicked on the 'Buy now' button and the machine was on its way.

No doubt you know what a Kindle looks like: a bit like an iPad, only smaller and lighter and very grey, even when it's switched on. Compared with the iPad, or any other tablet for that matter, it is very limited in what it can do. For some reason I was expecting a touch-screen, whereas the Kindle's main navigation tool is a little square button with ridges on all four sides, alongside a rather fiddly keyboard of tiny round keys that calls for a good set of fingernails if you are going to operate it with any degree of precision. Navigation across the screen is jerky and unreliable: it is far too easy to click on the wrong link. For reading you get a choice of two fonts, an ugly serif and a plain sans-serif, which you can view in different sizes. Every page is in black and white. You turn a page by squeezing the right or left edge; every time you do this a reverse image of the text flashes at you distractingly, interrupting the reading experience, which in my view should be as seamless as possible. The Kindle can access the internet, but it is slow and clunky, and prone to crash if you ask it to do anything in a hurry. The worst thing it does (the facility is wisely included under the label 'experimental') is to read to you in a mid-Atlantic robotic voice, with the sort of wooden phrasing that makes it abundantly clear that it doesn't understand a word it is saying.

Once you start using the Kindle, however, much of your resistance to it fades away. It has two great advantages over the book: it can stores as many titles as the average library in a space smaller than a sandwich; and it is serviced by an impressively efficient support system that enables you to download a vast number of titles more or less instantaneously wherever you have internet access. And some of what it provides is ridiculously good value. Virtually every important classic can be downloaded for less than two pounds, many of them (for example, the Collected Balzac) in bundles of up to a hundred and thirty books in a single file. Hundreds of individual volumes are absolutely free. If you have a use for these books, the Kindle will pay for itself within a week. The downside is that a lot of them -- the cheaper downloads in particular - are very poorly formatted. Poetry in particular is a disaster area, much of it coming out as a solid block of words without line-breaks. Paragraphing is often haphazard, as is the rendering of text in italics. The bigger and cheaper collections are particularly bad: often the original text appears to have been scanned into an OCR programme and uploaded to Kindle without anyone bothering to proof-read a single page. (The organisations responsible for many of these bundles of classic books tend for some reason to have deliberately sinister names -'Golgotha Press' for example.)

All of the above may sound like quibbling, but the fact is that many of these flaws crop up pretty frequently, even with the more expensive items. Everyone likes a bargain, but it is a pity to have to read a deathless classic (or a thriller, for that matter) in a form that is constantly interfering with the reading experience.

My grumbles (a Kindle fan called them 'whinges' when I published them as an Amazon review) rather faded into insignificance when, quite by accident, I discovered something that you can do with Kindle that very few people seem to know about, and yet which promises to open up an an enormous new field of opportunity for writers who haven't yet been able to break into print. For the Kindle can be used to publish your own books, very easily and for absolutely nothing. As if that wasn't enough, Amazon will pay you between 35% and 70% of every sale you make (ex VAT) on its Kindle site.

Browsing the Kindle store bestsellers I accidentally downloaded a novel called 'Switched'. (It's very easy to hit the wrong button with the Kindle, particularly if like me your hands are a little clumsy.) The book was about teenage trolls; its author was a young American called Amanda Hocking and it cost me all of 49 pence. Despite the rather glaring awkwardness of the writing, 'Switched' was ranked among the top fifty Kindle bestsellers. In fact Amanda Hocking has a total of nine books on Kindle, all of them in the top hundred, which is pretty good considering that the entire Kindle list now comprises some 639,000 titles. Clearly she has found herself a loyal audience, and is selling a lot of books. Partly this may be due to the fact that she writes in trilogies, and prices the first volume of each at below £1.00, but people don't go on buying books by a particular author simply because they're cheap. Her marketing strategy works because the people who read her books want more.

I Googled Amanda Hocking's name, and came up with more than a million results. According to Wikipedia she is 26, has written 17 novels in her spare time, and in less than a year has become 'an e-book millionaire'. She started publishing her novels as e-books in April 2010. By March 2011, she had sold about a million copies and earned in excess of two million dollars.

Most remarkably of all, all of these books were self-published. This is a fact that is well known to her Kindle reviewers; and presumably explains the clumsiness of much of the writing. Interestingly enough it doesn't seem to put her readers off. In fact many of them may well like the fact that the book has been published more or less as she wrote it, without any editor or proof-reader (i.e. authority figure) interfering by boringly tidying things up. That's the Internet for you: it's nothing if not libertarian.

Instructively Amanda was turned down by a large number of publishers before she resorted to self-publishing. What particularly interested me about her story is that like many people I have a number of unpublished manuscripts gathering dust in drawers and cupboards. Some of these are books which failed to find a publisher, but among them is one that was published and is now out of print: a novel for children called 'The Musclemen.'

'The Musclemen' was published by Oxford University Press in 1991. When writing it I had in mind a similar audience to that of the Roald Dahl books, which my own children had enjoyed immensely from quite a young age, and still continued to read into their teens. I meant it to be quite a challenging, even controversial story: an all-out attack on commercialism and particularly the commercialism of modern toys, which I had been observing with horrified fascination since my early days as a parent - my eldest son was born in 1973. In many ways the plot of 'The Musclemen' resembles that of the 'Toy Story' films, although it was actually written and published some four or five years earlier. (I'm not accusing Pixar of plagiarism; this is more a case of what Jung would have called 'synchronicity'.) 'The Musclemen' has a fairly simple plot - hateful toy robots wreak havoc in conventional middle-class household, only to be defeated by an alliance of more conventional play-room characters led by a teddy bear called Hodge. The final nemesis of the villainous Musclemen, as the robots are called, is brought about by their own meanness and capacity for violence. The book relates to Toy Story thematically as well as in terms of plot, in that it pits toys dependent upon technology (Buzz Lightyear/the Musclemen) against toys that encourage the child to use his or her imagination (Woody/Hodge). I have always thought that it would make a great film - particularly if made by Pixar.

'The Musclemen' was initially well-received and was made an 'Independent on Sunday' Christmas Books for Children recommendation, but sales were disappointing, and it was soon remaindered. In hindsight this was predictable. I was at a point in my life where I was seized by an attack of shame and embarrassment whenever anything I had written found its way into the public arena - it felt rather like one of those dreams in which you find yourself at a dinner party without your trousers. As a result I did nothing to promote the book, and nor unfortunately did OUP. The jacket was nicely drawn but insipid, and the whole production looked cheap and dull, like an easy reader. I had wanted illustrations - Quentin Blake would have done very nicely - but my editor at Oxford warned against it: she thought that pictures of toys would associate the book in its readers' minds with Noddy and his friends. I probably should have pointed out that that might depend on the illustrator, but I was a first-time author, and only too glad to be getting published at all.

Once the rights reverted to me I could have published an edition myself, but to do it properly would have cost more money than I wanted to risk, and its publishing history with Oxford did not encourage me to think that I would get much in the way of a return on my investment. In any case, self-publishing carried for me the stigma of the vanity press. If a publisher wasn't going to put their money behind it, then perhaps it didn't deserve to be revived.

Kindle changed all that.

Reading about Amanda Hocking's success immediately brought 'The Muscleman' to mind. How easy would it be, I wondered, to give the book a new lease of life by publishing it myself on Kindle? The copyright had reverted to me, and I still had the text on file in a version of Word. I googled 'self-publishing on Kindle' and was immediately taken to a page on which showed me how to add a book to the Kindle list. The process is extremely simple and amazingly it is completely free. To begin with it all looks quite complicated - there are a number of websites that give you advice on formatting - but unless you insist on setting every page yourself it is really amazingly simple. First download Mobipocket Creator. Then compile your book into a continuous Word Document, save the string of chapters as a single HTML file (select Web Page Filtered), and build it into a Kindle document with Mobipocket Creator. After that all you have to do is open an account for Kindle at (you can't do it at for some reason) and follow the instructions for self-publishing. You set the price, your book can be downloaded by anyone with a Kindle, and you get to keep 70% of the proceeds (if there are any). Brilliant.

The whole process took me about a fortnight. I could have done it quicker, but I wanted to revise the book and give it a new title - 'New Toys'. My son Henry designed me a very professional-looking (and rather scary) cover. I uploaded the cover and book to Kindle, and by the next morning it was already available on the website and on my Kindle.

The main job now is marketing. The book is on sale for £1.71 a copy ex VAT (you have to pay VAT on Kindle downloads, unlike books), and if you want to look at the first chapter there is a feature on the Kindle system that allows you to download a sample for nothing. Incidentally, you don't actually need a Kindle to access the Kindle store; if you go to amazon you can download a simple application for reading Kindle books on your pc or laptop.

If you want to see what your book looks like on Kindle, incidentally, there is a simple way of uploading it onto your e-reader without committing yourself to putting it in front of the public. Amazon give you a Kindle email address; all you have to do is format the book as above and send it to your Kindle email address as an attachment. And there is is, thirty seconds later. This is actually an excellent aid to proof-reading: the fact that the text comes up on your Kindle screen creates that little bit of distance that allows you to read, evaluate and edit it almost as if it was someone else's work. You can even annotate the file as you read.

I don't believe that 'New Toys' will make me an e-book millionaire like Amanda Hocking - I don't have her energy, or her connection with the 'Young Adult' market - but publishing it on Kindle does at the very least enable me to put the book back into the marketplace, in the hope that some at least will read and enjoy it. It doesn't end there. At present I have a new novel - 'The Boy Scully', part one of a trilogy called 'The Engineer's Children' - doing the rounds of the publishers. This book is aimed at adults, and is about a country something like England that for four centuries has been divided into closed communities along gender lines. The story is told by a seventeen-year-old boy called William Scully who has just been expelled from an exclusive public school and placed in state custody, where he is to be interrogated in connection with some unspecified crime his father is supposed to have committed. It is part novel of adolescence (with a twist) and part novel of ideas. What effect does social conditioning have on an individual's sexuality? And if you have no option of being straight, does that necessarily make you gay? Interesting questions, but not ones to which this or any book can provide a final answer.

As a teaser I have placed the first volume on Kindle at a low price: just to see if anyone buys it. (I've published it under a pseudonym, but you can crack that by searching the title). Three sales to date in a couple of days. Is this the start of something?

If it does take off, of course, I should still have the option, if my sales hold up, of taking the traditional route. Interestingly Amanda Hocking herself is about to leave self-publishing behind, having last month signed a 2 million dollar, 4-book deal with St. Martin's Press for a young-adult paranormal series to be called 'Watersong'. "I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc.," is how she explains her decision.

Fair enough, and I wish her well. She and all the other self-publishing e-book successes have done me and all aspiring writers a great service by showing us a way by which anyone who can't find a publisher can get their works published for next to nothing. Funnily enough though, I can't see Amanda's books doing well in a paper and cash medium. Some things just don't translate.

David Lambourne is a bookseller living in Cambridge UK. He has four children. He has written a study of Novelists in the Nineteen-Thirties (Christopher Isherwood, Henry Green, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell) and published a children's book called 'The Musclemen' (OUP, 1991) -- now available on Kindle under the title 'New Toys'. He is now thinking of retiring and devoting his time to becoming an e-book millionaire.

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