It was one of those fateful moments where you catch yourself thinking “how difficult could it be?”.
It’s been ten years (almost eleven now) since I started Scene Point Blank, the online music zine which came to define my late teens and the eventual career path I’d choose. It started out as a collective of music-loving nerds from an online messageboard writing about punk and hardcore. The website branched out and expanded and a decade later we were wondering what we could do to celebrate ten years of publishing.Since our roots were in the punk publishing world of fanzines, we talked about producing a print zine for the tenth anniversary. Eventually we rejected this due to the complexity of distribution and up-front printing costs. Scene Point Blank isn’t a profitable venture and we didn’t want to have to learn complex lessons about shipping product and fulfilling orders.
It was around this time that I remembered that Kindle books are literally a zip file containing HTML, CSS and image files. This is pretty much all the content of Scene Point Blank is. How hard could it be to just write a quick template to spit out eBook-friendly markup and publish the thing?
Quite hard in places, it turns out.
The decision to publish for e-readers was expanded by the discovery of lulu.com, a self-publishing platform. Lulu offer a print-on-demand service: you upload a PDF, your users buy it, and a single copy is printed somewhere near their location and mailed to them. It’s basically vanity publishing and the cost per unit is so high that it’s probably non-profit publishing too, but our goal wasn’t to make money, but simply to have a book of our best work that people might read.
This changed things a little. While it’s certainly possible to convert HTML into a PDF, I didn’t want to have a print edition of the book which was an afterthought. Dusting off my copy of InDesign, I decided to return to the skills of my former job as a graphic designer and actually create a proper print edition.
Next I discovered that Amazon offers an “Export to Kindle” plugin for InDesign. A few quick experiments revealed that the output of this tool was pretty decent for our needs: we weren’t using any images (mainly due to copyright concerns about things like album artwork and press photography) and it handled typography pretty well. My strategy became: design the book for print, then export a Kindle version from that.
This almost worked. I reacquainted myself with InDesign and printed pages of proofs to test font families, line spacing and margins. There are a lot of things I’d forgotten about that ended up being important concerns for a well-typeset book:
1. Inside margins need to be larger than outside ones to compensate for the spine/fold:
2. Hanging punctuation probably belongs on the outside of the margins otherwise justified text looks a little unusual:
3. Hard linebreaks between paragraphs look good on the web, but weird in print: the job of replacing them all was a tricky one (but luckily, InDesign supports regexes):
4. Widows and orphans are difficult to fix automatically (eg. without actually editing text) unless you’re happy to sacrifice consistent tracking (which you shouldn’t be):
Getting this right wasn’t impossible but took a fair bit of trial and error. It wasn’t until I received the first test print of the book from Lulu before I could find out if some of my work was usable or not. It turned out that the chapter intro pages I thought looked great onscreen looked a bit rubbish in print:
The cover was another thing I made a mess of initially: like a fool I forgot to account for the spine (perhaps because the magazine I worked for as a designer wasn’t bound with one) and so when it came to uploading the cover my design was several centimetres short. I quickly added one but the fact that its width was variable because of my page count meant I had to wait till all the book’s content was finalised to confirm its dimensions.
Generating a table of contents was also problematic: I’d used InDesign’s paragraph styles religiously, but perhaps not in the way it wanted me to: for our album reviews I typeset them like this:
This meant that when generating the ToC I couldn’t achieve an output of “Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid”: InDesign would treat each entity as a separate (but duplicate) page reference. After giving up finding a smarter solution I ended up manually curating the ToC, which has left me wary of changing the page numbering (and therefore most of the content).
The Kindle aspect became more difficult at this point. The aforementioned chapter pages became more of a challenge for the e-reader. Although Amazon’s plugin didn’t attempt to recreate the shaded background or circle shape, it did do weird things to the type in terms of pagebreak locations and heading sizes. I tried playing with the export options to no avail and began to investigate InDesign’s methods of outputting different layouts.
It turns out InDesign has several different methods for varying content:
Alternate Layout, which lets you keep the content but lay it out for another device or dimension, which seemed exactly what I needed. Amazon’s plugin ignored this completely when exporting: back to the drawing board.
Next I tried Conditional Text, seeing if I could just change a variable (e.g. print=true) when exporting and supply different text fields to the Kindle edition. Again, Amazon’s plugin ignored this. I could generate PDFs happily using these techniques, but I wanted the pure . format as exported by Amazon, presuming it would be the most “correct” format.
Object States seemed like another solid option: surely I could use them to just change the visual styles for the problematic pages at export time? Nope: once again, meaningless to Amazon’s plugin.
In the end I gave up and did the thing I’d been worrying I’d have to do: duplicated the entire document, saved it as “Kindle Edition”, and made the changes manually. The whole reason for doing it this way to begin with was so I could make changes in one place and export to all platforms. That dream had died with my chapter headings.
In the end, I think it was the right call. There was a certain feeling of liberation: every time I changed things in the print edition I didn’t have to spend five minutes nervously exporting to Kindle to check I hadn’t broken something. The problematic ToC became less of an issue as I could manually edit the print one but fix the auto-generated one for Kindle without butchering the printed version. Page breaks that worked in print but felt pointless on the Kindle were removed and vice-versa. The thing I’d been worrying most about – fixing typos and editing content in multiple formats – was rarely an issue. Maybe this was down to fairly diligent spellchecking before forking the document, or just luck (or ignorance).
Finally, it was time to actually publish the things. Lulu provides you with an ISBN for free when using their service, which was nice and helped me feel like the process was legitimate. They also allow you to set the book price, but it must be above a minimum, which is their printing costs + their own cut of profits, I assume. Our minimum for a ~350 page book was £9.20, which is fairly steep for a paperback, but we set it at £9.50 and on we went. Once the PDF was uploaded it was available to buy: vanity publishing, no question.
Amazon was interesting: I thought it’d take a while for it to be approved for sale. As it turned out it took less than a day. An automated scan came back after I uploaded the .mobi file, which pointed out typos I’d missed. These fixed, I resubmitted and suddenly there it was, on Amazon. I had to fill out some lengthy tax information for the US taxman, despite my bank account being a UK one, which meant I had to guess at some of the values and acronyms used in this form. I also had to create a separate author profile for each country Amazon operates in: this seemed sensible, in that you may wish to tailor these to each market/language, but it would’ve been helpful to have an “Import from Amazon.com” option when editing the UK profile.
All in all, the process was more complex than I naïvely expected. I think I would have ultimately saved time if I’d forked the book earlier and avoided trying to reach the “purity” of a single input with multiple outputs. I suppose I could’ve simply published the Kindle edition as HTML/CSS and hand-tweaked it, but life’s too short when the content is 115,000 words long.
For all the vanity publishing jokes, Lulu is a great service. The price is fairly competitive given that it’s printed on demand, and the quality was fairly good (I could’ve picked more expensive paper stocks and dimensions but was aiming for a sub-£10 product). Getting an ISBN helped make it feel more “real” (Amazon doesn’t require these for Kindle self-publishing) and although I found them slow, their tools for uploading and managing content were pretty usable.
If I was to do it all again I’d have accepted that publishing multiple formats is too different to expect one tool to process them all. That said though, it’s almost trivially simple to get something online and for sale. It’s easier than ever to publish your stuff, so why aren’t you doing it too?