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The Long Road to Kindle “Success” (An Author’s Perspective)

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Today, 40Tech is pleased to present a guest post by Kosmo from The Soap Boxers.

For the past two years, I have been writing a new fiction story nearly every week for my blog at The Soap Boxers. Sometimes it’s an uplifting sports story, sometimes a children’s story – but most often, a crime story that ends up with someone dead. In a good story, a few people die. Although most of the stories are rather short, it’s no easy task coming up with a new idea every week – and finding time to write it while balancing other demands of life.

Photo by Zhao.

In the beginning, I took up short story writing to refine my technique before beginning work on my serial killer novel. However, nearly a hundred short stories later, I have begun to wonder if the short stories are my calling.

I packaged up about sixty of the stories and submitted them to a prestigious contest. I lost. I decided to begin looking for a literary agent and was a bit overwhelmed – but nonetheless sent out some email queries (no luck yet). I wondered if I should submit them to magazines. This also seemed like an uphill battle. I really wanted to get my stories in front of more people immediately – but how?

Then it came to me – Kindle. I have wondered if the Kindle and other e-readers might be able to reignite interest in short stories. After all, in a world where all information is packaged into bite sized pieces, why not a renewed interest in bite sized stories?

At this point, I knew very little about Kindle other than the fact that it was an e-reader. While I’ve always been a tech guy, I’ve also always preferred physical books. Additionally, I don’t own a smart phone, in large part because being on call 24 X 7 X 365 makes battery life paramount. However, the fact that I don’t use Kindle is no reason to close the door to this market.

So I poked around. The Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) page gave me the details. I would get 70% of the revenue from sales, after Amazon deducts a delivery cost (5 cents, in my case). This is paid via direct deposit, meaning that Paypal wouldn’t be taking a bite. I answered a few questions about rights, then moved on to information about the book itself. I plugged in the title and some keywords, and then dropped in a 300 page Microsoft Word file. It choked a bit on the Word cover page and table of contents. So I dropped those out and tried again.

It worked! I was on Amazon.

Whoa. Not so fast. I was in “review” status for 24 hours. Boo. The next day, I was out of review status and into “publishing” status … which was supposed to take another 24 hours. I’m accustomed to the “click and publish” word of blogging, so the wait was disappointing. Even worse, when the book was in either status, I couldn’t make any changes at all. Oddly, the book was available on Amazon for several hours before the status switched to “live”. Clearly some asynchronous processing going on,

To kill time, I went to Amazon’s Author Central section and created my author page (who IS that handsome devil?). While I was there, I uploaded a cover photo for the book. Solid aqua with blue lettering. What could possibly be better than that? Well, anything, pretty much – but my graphic design skills are not good.

One downside is that Author Central and Kindle Direct Publishing are not well integrated. It would be nice to have a single view for the writer who also wears the hat of publisher.

Finally, my book made it to “live” status, and when I checked my stats a day later, I had sold TWO copies. Not just one, but TWO! I knew for a fact that these weren’t family members, since none of my family members have Kindle-able devices. Despite my complaints about the delays, I made a sale within 72 hours of making the decision to release a Kindle version of the book.

Since I’m running OS X 10.4.11 on my main Mac, I also didn’t have a device capable of using Kindle (I really should upgrade to 10.6, but I’m saving that money to go toward a new machine soon). My wife’s iPhone 3GS did have a Kindle app, though. I used the “send a sample” function to send a chunk of the book to the iPhone. It was actually readable. Hooray!

I made sure that I had my book set up to allow lending. The recipient gets the book for 14 days, after which they need to buy it to continue reading. Seems like a good deal for me. Since I’m a relatively unknown writer, exposure to new readers is very important. If they end up buying the book, great. If they finish the book in 14 days and don’t have to pay, kudos to them.

However, it wasn’t perfect. I really wanted a clickable table of contents and wanted to clean up a few things in the text. Why was there an extra blank line at the top of many stories? I downloaded Amazon’s output HTML and went to work. What did I use? Some fancy application that exports to Kindle format? Nah, Smultron – my editor of choice. Smultron handles large chunks of data without blinking, and never adds any unwanted crap to files.

I was OK grappling with the code, but needed a starting point. After a bit of time in Google, I found this page. It’s not the prettiest tutorial in the world, but it gave me the information I needed. I needed to use the mpbreak tag to force page breaks precisely where I wanted them, without the extra white space at the top of each story. I also figured out how to set up the table of contents – a somewhat manual process.

Several times, I zipped up the files (1 HTML + any images you have) and previewed them in the Kindle preview tool. With an 80,000 word book, it takes a while to flip through the pages. Special characters had gotten tripped up, so I needed to do find and replace to change cutesy punctuation (such as curly quotes) with their no-nonsense HTML equivalents. Then I tested every single item in the table of contents (74) to make sure they worked.

On one of the final run-throughs, I noticed a problem. Multiple words were combined in some spots. For example “Charisse noticed” became “Charissenoticed”. I had noticed this initially in the Kindle preview on the web site, but had chalked it up to an issue with the preview app. A close look at the HTML found that indeed, this text was incorrect. In nearly every case, it seemed to be someone’s name with another word appended. Not every name, though. As I think back, it may have just been unusual names – ones that would have failed Word’s spell checker – like Charisse (named after my first cousin, once-removed) and a guy with the last name Smythe (which I used because it sounded more distinguished than Smith). I’m not sure who is at fault here – it may be Word doing something weird, or it may be the Kindle conversion process. I took the HTML, viewed it in a browser, and dumped the text into Word. Then I ran spell check, and every time Word found a problem, I fixed the relevant text in Smulton. This isn’t an optimal solution, but it was actually pretty quick.

I needed a better cover photo. The name of the book is Mountains, Meadows, and Chasms (a metaphor for the highs, lows, and middleground of life) – it only made sense to include a nature shot. For legal reasons, I needed to use photos that I had the rights to. Ah, Colorado vacation photos from 2003. A half hour later, I had what I deemed a decent cover.

A good friend of mine begged to differ. Begged, in fact, to let him re-work the design. He’d still use that photo, but he’d apply actual skills to the graphic design (as opposed to my stumbling around in the dark). He asked to do this because he doesn’t want to see an ugly photo on the cover. It’s good to have friends watching your back. Phil worked as a professional chef for many years and currently supports a web analytics tool – so he’s an obvious choice for a graphic designer. I’m kidding – he does a good job and doesn’t try to be overly complex (that would be out of character for me).

Phil was under a tight deadline – I wanted to push out the revised version in about 10 HOURS. He said he could meet the deadline. 10 PM came and went – no email. I wanted to get the revisions pushed out, so I pushed out the revisions without his cover.

Later, I found out that he had indeed made the deadline, but had sent the seven choices to a different email address. I routed the email to some friends to get their input.

Here’s the winner.


I dropped Phil’s file into the folder, zipped the file for upload, dropped it into Amazon’s lap, and waited.

Now the work was complete, and it was time to ramp up the PR machine. Oh, hey, did you guys know that I have a book on Amazon that I’d love to have you read and share with your friends?

There are books (eBooks, generally) and videos that will teach you how to format your book for Kindle. There are even applications that export to Kindle format. But with a word processor and some basic HTML knowledge, you can figure it out – without spending any money in the process.

Kosmo Bio: Kosmo is an aspiring novelist, vehement opponent of the designated hitter, student of true crime, and plays the keyboard for The Soap Boxers – an eclectic, team-written web magazine.