Monday, November 28, 2011

Writer's Block

As I typed the title, I stopped to think about what to actually write. Oops! A touch of writer's block just occurred!

I've always been a thinker. I usually spend time thinking about what to write before I actually set it down on paper (or the screen, as the case may be). From what I read about writer's block, that's the prime reason for getting it. I'm not saying that you shouldn't write a sensible article or blog post but the trick is to keep typing and fix it later. Perfectionists like me don't like to do that.

Being a perfectionist, however, doesn't mean that you need to do it right the first time. One aspect of being a perfectionist is to keep finding something to fix or correct until you can't find one anymore. There's always something to improve.

I started a blog once. I meant it more as a journal than anything. I found that writing came easy when you're just relating something that happened. You have an experience, type it in, edit and post. It was simple and quick. I had it for about three years. Then I discovered Facebook and started writing stories in my Notes almost every night. It got to the point where I practically abandoned my blog. In a flash of impulse, I decided to delete that blog (something I regret now) and start another about writing.

This type of blog is a little more difficult, especially since I'm just starting. I have to come up with a topic and type up the draft. Then I have to go back over it to improve it for readability, to add or remove things, search for errors in spelling and punctuation. Unfortunately, my tendency is to go back over it before I finish it. That's one of the causes of writer's block in my case. The chain of thought is broken and I have to reacquire it in order to get back on track.

One other reason for getting writer's block is the obsession with accuracy. What did that person say exactly? How does that thing work, exactly? When did that happen, exactly? Everytime I encounter something that I just need to know, I stop and research. Sometimes, the research takes some time and by then, I'm either not in the mood or other.

I'm going to challenge myself this time. I'm going to write little posts at least every week (hey, I have other things to do, you know). Keep writing whatever comes to mind and keep going without stopping. When I decide that I'm finished, I'll go back over the post to edit it before publishing it. They say, if I keep doing it this way, I'll be more productive and...happy. Productivity = happiness I guess.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Challenge of Proofreading

If you're a financially challenged indie-author like me, you probably do your own proofreading. My English is passable but the occasional typo and punctuation error does creep in.

So, how did I do my own proofreading?

My book started as a series of Facebook notes which I then copy-pasted into MS Word 2003. Then I rewrote the whole book, adding more stories and changing some passages to make it more readable or fun to read. When I decided that the book was finished, I began proofreading.

I went through the whole book, correcting as I went. I used no aids, just trusting in my own abilities. Not surprisingly, I found a lot of typos. I also found errors in punctuation and, on one instance, a missing period. I made several proofreading passes through the book and found something to fix each time. I lost count of how many times I went through the book before I decided that it was well and truly finished and then uploaded it into Smashwords. About a month or so later, I had to download a copy from the website after I accidentally deleted my own copy in my computer. I reread it again and, imagine my chagrin when I found a couple of errors. Where had they been hiding? I thought I'd found all of them.

I am going back through the book again but I've had to revise my methods of proofreading to do a better job of it.

Lesson 1: Use the MS Word spell checker

Did I hear a gasp? I've read dozens of articles or warnings never to use this tool. The spell checker, however, is great for finding misspelled words. The problem with this tool is that it won't catch misused words. If your sentence is:

I will bee seeing you.

The spell checker will not consider "bee" as a misspelled word because the word "bee" can be found in an English dictionary and it is correctly spelled. Your eyes are better at finding these types of errors.

MS Word also has a grammar checker, which I use sparingly. I tend to use passive sentences occasionally if I think it works better than an active one but I do take its advice sometimes.

Lesson 2: Don't run a marathon

No, I don't mean don't run before proofreading. What I mean is, don't go through the whole book or document in one go or in a few sittings. Take frequent rest stops to keep yourself alert. If you keep proofreading for several hours, you'll get fatigued and might miss a lot of mistakes. If you have to go to the bathroom, go now; don't wait until you're bursting because your mind will concentrate on the discomfort rather than on the words.

Lesson 3: Read each word

This runs counter to a tip one former teacher taught my classmates and me. When you read, don't look at one word, look at two or more words. You'll finish faster and understand better. That's fine when you're studying or reading silently but not when you're proofreading. You have to look at each word. A variation on this method is to read aloud. I've caught a lot of errors with this one. It also helped me to revise certain sentences that "didn't sound right."

Lesson 4: Have a dictionary handy

If you use a word that you're not familiar with or sense that your spelling is not correct, there's a chance that it really is misspelled. Look it up in the dictionary. You might even discover that it didn't mean what you thought it meant. I have a dictionary in my computer but I also have a large paper dictionary. You can also use online dictionaries on the Internet.

Proofreading isn't a job for the impatient. I've read several ebooks that I banished into the recycle bin in my computer because of the quantity of errors. A book full of errors is not going to make a good impression and readers might tend to avoid the authors of those books.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Publish in Print or on the 'Net? Part 5

I didn't sign up with Smashwords right away. Their website mentioned that the story needed to be in Microsoft Word and it needed to be formatted in a very specific way. I decided that the best way to do this was to format the book, sign up with Smashwords, upload the document and cross my fingers.

The title of my book is Funny Stories from My Travels. It started out as a series of Facebook notes. As the series progressed, I began to have a few dedicated followers who my wife jokingly referred to as my "fan club." Soon, however, it became apparent that these few fans were just the vocal ones. More of my friends were actually reading the stories though they never posted any comments. The seed of an idea had been sown and by the time the series ended, the plant was fully grown. I was going to convert the series into a book.

I tried print publishers first but was rejected because my book didn't fit their publishing lines. It seemed no one wanted to take a risk on a non-fiction book from a new and unknown author. After about two years, I thought of self-publishing. I was just about to send off manuscripts for copyright application and also register with the Department of Trade and Industry as a publisher when I learned about Smashwords.

They have a free, downloadable Style Guide written by Smashwords founder Mark Coker. I read through it first and then opened my document. The way I went about this was to open both files next to each other using a feature in Windows called, "Tile Widows Vertically." This opened both files right next to each other on the screen. This allowed me to read the Style Guide and do what it said to do on the document. It was better than alternately minimizing and maximizing windows.

Allow me to digress for a moment because I want to talk about dual-monitor workstations.

If you can afford it, get two monitors for your PC. This way you can open the Style Guide on one monitor and your document on the other monitor and you'll have two full screen sized documents in view. It'll make things so much easier. Since I have only one monitor, I had to use the previous technique. This technique also works well for other jobs which I'll let you discover for yourself.

Okay, back to the topic.

The Style Guide was easy enough to follow though it could have been written better. A new and better version is out but, at the time, the old version was all that was available. It described how to format the book, but it also said why it should be formatted that way which made it easier to accept and understand. Fortunately, I was already using most of the formatting methods described in the guide so adapting the book was easy for me.

Formatting took about five days—couldn't devote a lot of time to it—and I began thinking about what kind of cover I would like to put on the book. Originally, I had thought of a restaurant scene where I would be seated holding up a napkin with a kid's drawing of a cow and a cabbage. Included in the picture would be a waitress with a surprised or incredulous expression. I was undecided if she was going to be young and slim or middle-aged and slightly stout. (",)

Scanning old photos one day, I spotted an old photograph. It was a picture of a small plane—eight or ten seater—and several people were posing beside it, myself included. One of the stories in the book was about this plane and its pilots. I thought it would be good enough.

I uploaded the book and cover to Smashwords and waited for a message. It took just a few minutes. There were no errors. That was it, I was a published author. I'd done it! My first customer bought a copy about a week later. Approximately two months later, the book was admitted into the Premium Catalog which meant it was going to be distributed to the Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Apple, Diesel and Scrollmotion, all ebook retailers.

There's another free book from Smashwords, Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, which tells you how to market your book. Selling isn't my favorite pastime but if I want my book to sell, I'll have to do something. Just putting the book on the shelf isn't going to cut it. This is going to be a steep learning curve but it's got to be done.

I'm already working on my next books...yes, it's plural. I've got two books in the works, one that I've been working on and off for several months and another, shorter one which I intend to offer for free. Uh huh, it's going to be free. You can actually put your book on Smashwords for free distribution. If you want to know why people would do this, read the FAQ on pricing.

I still haven't quite given up getting my book published on paper. I once tried printing a book, making a cover and binding it, all by hand, and I must say, a physical book still has a certain charm over a book in a reader.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Publish in Print or on the 'Net? Part 4

A friend of mine had added me to the ResearchWritingCenter.com group on Facebook and I've come to value the writing tips from their sister website, www.dailywritingtips.com. One day, I saw a comment about www.smashwords.com, an ebook distribution website. I got curious enough to visit it.

Curiosity turned to interest as I kept reading. Basically, they were promising to take my book, convert it into different formats that would be readable on the Kindle, the iPad/iPhone, the Sony Reader and more. They would put the book on their "shelves" for people to see and, hopefully, buy. They would also distribute it to several ebookstores like the Apple iBookstore, the Sony Reader Store, the Kobo eBook Store, and others.

As I read, I was looking for something like, "it will only cost you...," but there was none to be found. What were they saying? I could publish for free? It sounded unbelievable. And what's this? Free ISBN? Were these guys for real?

Aha! One of the reasons why they were free was that they will accept your book even with grammatical or spelling errors. Smashwords was a distributor, not a publisher. They will not edit or proofread your book. That was your responsibility. If your book is poorly written, it won't sell, it was a simple as that.

They also do not actively market your book. They'll put it on their shelves and they'll send it to other distributors who will put it on their shelves. You'll probably get some sales from people who browse through these virtual bookstores but, if you want your book to really sell, you'll have to do the marketing yourself. I wondered if New York Times reviewed ebooks.

85% royalties! Wow! That was way, way more than the 5-15% that print book publishers gave authors and you didn't have to go through all the rigamarole of submitting and rejection. While I admire the tenacity of people like Kathryn Stockett (The Help) who endured 60 rejections in three-and-a-half years before her book was finally accepted, I wasn't willing to go through the same path and receive just 5-15% of the price of the book.

I bookmarked the website and took a little time to think. It wouldn't hurt to try. I could go through the motions and if they suddenly ask for money or too much sensitive information, I could stop and forget about it. I made the decision to go for it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Publish in Print or on the 'Net? Part 3

Just a little history of sorts.

One day I was watching my daughter using a website called Facebook and was intrigued by the thought that she could maintain contact with not just her present classmates but old ones as well. She was also regularly chatting with our relatives and friends in other provinces in the Philippines and also in the US. I decided I would try this for myself.

While exploring the features of this new trend, I found something called Notes. It was being used by a few of my friends to share quotations from famous and not-so-famous people. I didn't want to be a copycat so I thought I'd share stories instead. I decided I would write about my travels to the few countries I'd been to. I didn't really care much about whether people would enjoy them. I just wanted to write.

Several notes later, I began to have a small group of followers, people who read the stories and commented or liked them.This little band grew to 18 whom my wife jokingly referred to as my "fan club." Encouraged, I began writing in more detail. I cut the stories into little parts since I couldn't write all day or night. After writing one part, the comments would say, "Can't wait for Part 5," or something similar. It was very rewarding. Then a chance conversation at the canteen at work jolted me.

There were six of us at the table and the conversation turned to Facebook. I discovered that all five people at the table were following my stories. They had not posted any comments or even clicked the "like" button. Soon, it became evident that quite a number of people on my friends list were reading my notes and were enjoying them. A germ of an idea began to form.

I only have three international trips under my belt so when those stories ended, I started writing experiences from my local travels. One story, a ghost story, garnered the most number of comments and that germ began multiplying and infecting my entire being. When the series ended, I copied everything into a file and began rewriting. I was going to write a book version.

My first attempt at getting published was by mailing my manuscripts to print publishers. In the Philippines, the choices are very limited. Most of them only worked with text books, some specialized in Christian or Catholic books, while others only took self-help, poetry, inspirational in addition to text books. Hardly anyone wanted non-fiction which was the genre where my book  fit into. I was also spending too much money sending my 120+ pages, double-spaced, single-sided manuscripts to publishers. I tried to find solace in stories of authors who had to make 20 or more submissions before being accepted.

I also made inquiries to subsidized publishers. These are print-book publishers who will take your book and publish it but you will have to pay for the proofreading/editing, the making of the cover, and the printing. It's sort of half-way between using a regular publisher and self-publishing. The only problem was that I couldn't afford their prices the least of which would have cost me over six months salary.

So, I began considering self-publishing. I started checking around for requirements to register as a business and gathered names of printing companies as well as asking for names of budding artists who could do my cover. My English is not bad but I was seriously thinking of hiring someone to proofread my book. I was getting ready to print two copies of my manuscripts and downloaded application forms for copyright and the ISBN. In the back of my mind was the thought that I might be putting my family's meager's resources in jeopardy for a dream that might not pay for food on the table. Then, a post on Facebook changed everything.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Publish in Print or on the 'Net? Part 2

Publishing via the 'Net

We've touched on the expensive way of getting published so now we'll get into the cheapest or “freeiest” (I know, there's no such word) method of publishing.

The World Wide Web offers budding authors a chance to get their works published and possibly reach more people than is possible with print books and there are several ways of going about it. Let's explore them:

a.) Make your own website - This is probably the most expensive way to get published on the 'net. You purchase a site or pay to obtain the rights to a site and write your books/articles there. One advantage of getting a website is the freedom to design the site as you want it. As with a book's cover, how you design your website may influence if people will visit or pass it by.

You can write your book so that anyone can read them for free or you can offer people a short glimpse into your books and have them buy the whole book if they find it interesting enough. There are also other ways to make money from these sites other than selling. If your site draws in a lot of visitors, you can have businesses advertise on your site and you can earn from either the mere posting of the ad or get a small cut whenever someone clicks on an ad. Some people have earned enough from blogs that they can afford to leave their regular jobs. Be warned, however, these people are usually the exceptions. There are lots of bloggers out there and quite a number are interested in making money out of their postings.

b.) Create a blog - There are lots of blog sites where you can post your stories or whatevers for anyone to read. If you're only interested in sharing your work and not in earning from them, this is probably the best way to go. If you're still interested in earning a little off the side, you can put advertisements on your blog. You can get Google Adsense to put ads in your site and pay you a small (and I mean "small") fee whenever someone clicks on an ad. As the site owner, you dictate where these ads appear. You can put them where they don't interfere with your writings or you can put them where they can easily draw the visitor's attention.

c.) Contribute articles to a webzine - This is a magazine on the web. One advantage of contributing to a webzine is that you have ready access to their readers. This is where I first got published...sort of. An editor asked for people who wanted to provide answers or insights to certain matters and I responded. I did this several times before the editor moved on to other things. Seeing my comments on the web and print version was a very satisfying experience.

eBook Publishing

There's one other method of getting your book to readers that I'd like to share and it's ebook publishing. An ebook publisher is similar to a regular publisher except that they will produce an ebook out of your piece instead of a print book. An ebook can be read on a computer or electronic reader like the Kindle, the Apple iPad or other similar tablet computer. Potentially, an ebook has a larger reach than a print book because millions of people access the internet at any given time whereas maybe a few tens or hundred thousands of people are inside bookstores at the same time.

There are two types of ebook publishers: full service publishers and you, the independent publisher (aka: indie publisher).

A full service publisher will proofread and edit your book, create an electronic cover and format it for reading on a number of readers. They'll also take care of distribution. Since they provide some service, ebook publishers tend to give smaller royalties though it's still more substantial than print book publishers, in the order of about 50%.

Now we're into what I call ebook self-publishing. Similar to self-publishing print books, you do everything or you hire someone to proofread and format the book and design the cover. The only advantage to doing it yourself is that it's free. Lots of authors do this and if you're a good enough English writer, a fair graphic artist and knowledgeable with formatting, this is the preferred way to publish.

A word about formatting. There are several formats out there that are designed to work with specific readers. A .doc file works with MS Word though this is not the preferred reader for ebooks. There's pdf for Adobe Reader (or any other pdf reading software), txt for Notepad, epub for the Apple iPad, and a few more.

Once you've gone through your book with a fine toothed comb, acquired or created a satisfactory cover and formatted your book, you're ready to distribute. This is done by submitting your ebook to a distributor.

Publish in Print or on the 'Net? Part 1

Several people have asked me questions about the difference between getting published on the 'net vs getting published in print. While I don't consider myself an expert, I guess a little experience will have to suffice as credentials.

Getting published in print:

There are two ways to get published in print: a.) via a regular publisher, and b.) via self-publishing.

Regular Publisher

This is the usual way to get your book printed. You submit your manuscript to a publisher and they read it. If they like it, they'll contact you for further discussions or, if they don't like it, they'll send you a nice rejection letter. I'm an expert in the latter but I took the time to learn what happens if they do the former.

So they like your book and want to publish it. They'll call you to set up a meeting to discuss things like: number of copies to print,copyright, royalties and other things. You both agree on an initial quantity of books to print. If the book sells well enough, you can decide to increase the quantity later. You also agree on how long the publisher will keep the book in print (usually two years). They apply for the copyright for you except that they will license it for a time. Essentially, you both own the book. The sharing of profits, however, is anything but 50-50.

Royalties range from about 5% to 25%. If you're wondering why, think about it from the publisher's point of view. He's going to pay for the editing, the printing, the marketing, practically everything except write the book. You, the author, just sit and wait (not exactly but close enough). The publisher's doing all the work and taking the chance that your book will sell well enough to give him a decent profit.

So, assuming you both agree on the essentials, your book goes through the process. First, it has to go through proof-reading. After an initial proof, your manuscript goes back to you with proposed corrections (spelling, grammar, different way of saying this or that or even a change in title). If you're not okay with it, you make your comments and the editor looks it over again. Once both of you are satisfied, they make a trial print. Again, this goes to you for approval/suggestions and back to the printer for corrections. This part doesn't go through more than two iterations since making those trial prints costs money with no profit. Parallel to this is the creation of the cover. An artist coordinates with you on a suitable cover, going through the same back and forth consultations. When everyone's happy, the book goes to the printer.

Okay, now your book's printed and ready to be sold. The publisher takes care of marketing but you need to participate too. This is done through book signings, radio and television interviews, public appearances, and any other method of getting your book known to the public.

Now, you're probably itching to know about when do you get paid. I was a little disappointed to learn that authors get paid on a quarterly basis instead of monthly. I've since found that expecting to make enough sales to merit monthly payment is terribly unlikely. Indeed, every article I've ever read says that you probably won't be leaving your day job to concentrate on making a living out of writing.

Self-Publishing

If you don't like the idea of getting less than 15% of the sales for your book, you might want to look into self-publishing. As the name implies, this is where you do everything—or almost everything. This way you keep all the profits to yourself. Famous authors who've done it this way are:

John Grisham
Mark Twain
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Allen Poe
Benjamin Franklin
Beatrix Potter - The Adventures of Peter Rabbit

So what do you need to do to self-publish?

You've already got your manuscript but you need to make sure that it's as near perfect as it can be. This means proofreading. If your grammar and spelling skills are good, you can do it yourself. If you're not so sure, you can hire someone to do it for you. Looking for someone who's that good will be a bit difficult, not to mention, expensive. If your old English teacher will do it for free, then lucky for you.

Next, you'll need a nice cover. If you're a decent artist, you might do this yourself, otherwise, you pay someone to do it for you. This early, you need to decide on the dimensions of your book so that you or the artist can arrange everything as you want it. The old saying, "don't judge a book by its cover," only works on humans. In the real sense of the phrase, the first thing that will attract a potential buyer is the cover. I have no idea what works and what doesn't. I'll have to research on that but don't count on my reporting about it anytime in the next year or so.

We haven't gone into printing yet. There's a few things you'd want to do before going ahead.

Apply for a copyright with your local copyright office. In the Philippines, that would be the National Library. In the U.S., it's the Library of Congress, I believe. For other countries, it will probably be a similar government institution.

You need to send two copies of your manuscript along with an application, affidavit, documentary stamps, and a postal money order as payment. It's not terribly expensive, in fact, in the Philippines it's just P200 plus P10 worth of documentary stamps. Of course, the cost of mailing the documents is an additional expense. Note that the requirements may be different for other countries.

Next, you'll need an ISBN, that's International Standard Book Number. This number is a unique identifier for every book sold. Bookstores, publishers, libraries, universities and the like use this number to track books. Book titles aren't good for tracking since titles can't be owned. If you ever publish a new edition of your book, you'll need a separate ISBN for it.

They're not expensive either, just P120 per title. If you plan on giving your book away for free, as a gift perhaps, or if you're planning to sell it direct, you probably won't need an ISBN, but if you plan to sell it, most bookstores require it. Also, when you apply for an ISBN, you'll have to register as a business. That involves taxes, permits, and all the evils that having a business entails.

Okay, let's leave the unpleasant things and go on to printing. In this modern age, printing is faster and easier than it used to be. All you need is a computer, some software and a good quality printer. Again, you can do this yourself or hire a professional printer. Your choice will be dependent on quantity. If you're only printing a few copies as gifts, or print-on-demand, you can't go wrong with good ol' do-it-yourself. Be warned, however, that you have to do your own cutting of the book to size, and bookbinding. I've actually printed and bookbound my own books for personal use and it's difficult if you do it with ordinary tools. Depending on how long your book is, you'll probably be able to make between five to ten books a day.

If you plan on mass producing, a professional printer will be more cost effective. You agree on a quantity of copies, give him the software file, the cover art and wait for him to deliver your books.

I've never marketed my book so I can't give much info about it. If I had gone the self-publish way, I'd have to learn from scratch. Again, you can have a professional do the marketing or do it yourself. Personally, I shudder at the thought of lugging my books around bookstores and negotiating with the owners/managers. Selling has never been my forte. Of course, if I plan on giving the book away for free, or sell it on-demand, it'll be easier.

So that's self-publishing. You can go the full monty and do everything yourself or hire others to do all or part of the work. The essence is you're in charge and you keep all the profits.

Next we'll look at publishing on the 'Net.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Howdy!

Hello everyone!

I've just opened this blog and will be adding content in the next few days. God bless everyone! (",)