Adventures in Self-Publishing (more examples of what NOT to do)

PJ Sharon here. Last week I blogged about the changes in the new age of publishing and the virtues of going Indie. For those of you who were inspired by the post and feel ready to jump in with both feet, I wanted to offer a peek behind the Indie curtain to one of the ugly realities. There is a learning curve to EVERYTHING! And with the constant changes happening in the industry, it’s more than a little challenging to keep up. Since my most recent DIY debacle involved formatting, I’ll share the details here to assist your decision making process. If you haven’t run for the hills by the end of this post, you just might be cut out for self-publishing.

For some SP authors, formatting is the easiest part of the job. It’s generally a one-time event per book, there are VERY detailed instructions via the Smashwords Style Guide, Amazon’s Formatting instructions, and any one of the other individual e-retailer’s step-by-step guides, and it gets easier each time you do it—or so I’ve heard. For me, not so much. Since there are always several months between releases and there may be some new tweaks to the formatting guidelines from one effort to the next, it feels like I’m learning all over again each time I do it.

Fortunately, I have an assistant (my brilliant and handsome engineer husband) who is willing to take the chore off my hands. He’s walked me through it a few times, but clearly he is better at it than I am, and I’m happy to delegate.WM jpg 6x9 eBook UPLOAD 2013 (2013_06_07 00_53_00 UTC) I did the formatting for WANING MOON and nearly pulled my hair out. He seems to have mastered the art and brought the completion time down from sixteen hours with my first book to about three to five hours for my recent release, which was our fifth endeavor. He is well-suited for the task since it involves extreme patience and an eye for detail. But since he spent the entire month of June in Malaysia on business, I was forced to make a choice. Do it myself amid the chaos of preparing for my release date, or hire someone to format the book for me.

Many authors choose to hire out this tedious and daunting task, but the down side is that any time you want to make changes to your book—say, put in a new excerpt, change your back matter, or correct an error or two that some reader was kind enough to point out—you have to go through your formatter. It might cost you a few extra bucks and you’re on their time table.

Being that I was in the midst of a computer crash catastrophe in the weeks before my release, I chose to hire out the job. Now let me preface what comes next with stating the obvious. I SP because I like being in control of my product, my business, and my schedule. I’m a person who knows what I want and I have difficulty trusting that others will do the job to my specifications. After all, it is my name on the book and ultimately my success or failure depends entirely on me.

So here’s the problem. In today’s market, there are a ton of new opportunities for editors, cover artists, and formatters. The trouble is, how do you know which ones are legitimate and how do you pick the best person for the job? I belong to several writer’s loops and have access to lists of dozens of these entrepreneurs, but I still had to make a choice. I chose wrong!

It would be unprofessional of me to bash anyone publicly, so I’ll keep my ire in check, but I was disappointed to say the least. The woman/business owner was very nice, quick on meeting my deadline, and inexpensive for the job I wanted done. She also came recommended on one of the loops. Formatting can cost anywhere from $50-$200 depending on what services you need, and I was happy to find someone at the lower end of that scale. I’m once again reminded that you get what you pay for.

Because I was in a time crunch, going insane with last minute details for launch, and sans my regular computer, I took for granted that the formatting was done correctly and went ahead and uploaded to each of my distribution channels without doing a strict quality control review. Each retailer requires a different format, so I had different files for Amazon, B&N, Smashwords and Create Space. Amazon and B&N didn’t kick anything back, so as far as I know, those are okay. (Please contact me if you see any formatting problems with WESTERN DESERT on your Nook or Kindle).

Coming June 24th!
Available on Amazon, BN, and Smashwords.

The Smashwords edition, however, came back with auto-vetter errors. If you haven’t heard about what a pain the Smashwords “meat grinder” is to conquer, let me tell you, we have had issues almost every time. It usually has to do with the TOC (table of contents), also known as the NCX. The formatting guidelines tell you specifically NOT to use your Word program’s automatic TOC generator. They want you to build your own by individually bookmarking your chapter headings and linking them back to your manually created TOC using Word’s bookmark feature. My husband has also discovered that you have to go into your document and find all the hidden links, a mysterious phenomenon that I don’t fully understand. Apparently my formatter didn’t either. She “fixed” it three times and it still wasn’t right. I finally told her to forget it and waited for tech-spert hubby to return from his trip to reformat the document for Smashwords. It was accepted with no auto-vetter errors (yayyy!) but whether it is accepted for Premium distribution (to be made available for book stores and libraries) remains to be seen. This review process often takes a few weeks. I still depend on Smashwords to aggregate to Apple i-Tunes, Kobo, Sony, and a handful of other retailers. In the near future this will change and I’ll upload directly to i-Tunes and Kobo.

As if this isn’t enough to have you turning tail, I’ll tell you about my Create Space nightmare. Again, I trusted that the formatting was done correctly (huge mistake). I wondered why the page count was so high, ignored my instinct to double check the formatting, and didn’t notice that the trim size was set at 6 x 9 which is the standard book size. Since my husband usually does my uploads, I forgot that all of my other books had been custom sized at 5.5 x 8.5 inches. My cover artist didn’t mention the discrepancy and I overlooked it when I uploaded the book. It was midnight when I was doing all my up-loads (note to self: don’t try to do anything technical when you’re tired).

Since I had a book signing the first week after my release, I needed print copies fast. Without my usual due diligence of ordering proof copies, I went ahead and ordered thirty copies of the book. Grrr…it came back double spaced, not right justified, and it had a funky header with page numbers in the right upper corner. The book turned out to be HUGE and twice the cost of my other books to print. Really! So much for saving money on a cheap formatter.

I’ve since corrected the problems myself and ordered new copies, but will think long and hard before hiring someone again. And just to let you know, once you choose a trim size and have a specific page count with Create Space, they cannot be modified. I had to re-upload an entirely new version of the book including a new ISBN number and will have to wait a week or so before “retiring” the first edition. For some arbitrary and unknown amount of time, WESTERN DESERT will have two paperback editions and two description pages—just to confuse readers and make life interesting with Amazon. The silver lining, according to the senior customer service rep, is that I get to keep my reviews.

Oh, and the thirty copies? I sold two—yes, two—copies at the signing. So I have a couple of dozen first print copies of WESTERN DESERT I will use as review copies or giveaways with a disclaimer attached in the front of the book to ignore the crappy formatting.

Lesson learned! Buyer beware, or as my husband likes to remind me, measure twice, cut once.

Have you noticed formatting errors in e-books? Does it drive you crazy or can you overlook it if the story is good? Would you hire out the formatting or do it yourself? Feel free to share any other publishing nightmares, SP or Trad, that made you want to kick some butt and take names.


29 thoughts on “Adventures in Self-Publishing (more examples of what NOT to do)”

  1. Hi Paula, thank you for sharing… so much… always. it is important to be knowledgeable in your business, whatever choice you make and you are. I am working with a company, Sandy Tritt of, who can do it all, if you desire. She has a whole crew of talented writers, editors, whatever you need to get a book to market. For me, in my professional life, it is timely to work with a pro in the business b/c there is more data and information than I need to handle. Again, thank you.

  2. Thanks PJ for sharing and I totally agree. I still have formatting issues with my Createspace book. So frustrating. Smashwords is a totally different matter – just boggles my mind.

    1. Mine too, Renee! I get hives when I think about formatting. My husband is a very busy guy and I hate to saddle him with the job, but he handles it so patiently. I’m definitely blessed to have him. When I was at an EPIC conference and one woman said, “Oh, the formatting is the easy part,” I fought the urge to punch her:-) Whether it’s menopause or just getting older, I have much less tolerance.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear about your trials, Paula. That is so frustrating. I am a true believer in authors being able to format their own books for exactly the reason you state — when you’ve got changes that need to be made it just so much easier for you to do it yourself rather than pay someone else — and that’s coming from someone who formats for others. I also, on the other hand, teach people to format. I just finished running an on-line class on my own and I’ll be teaching it again in December through Savvy Authors. If you need help, give me a hollar!

    1. I’m writing down your name and the date, Merry! I took the formatting workshop at Nationals and in a two hour class the instructor only made it through the Amazon formatting…geesh! I look forward to taking your workshop. Thanks for stopping in.

  4. I have too many control issues to hire anything out. I should have called my imprint OCD Press. As Merry said, if—after all the QA steps we take—an anomaly somehow gets published, I want to fix it freakin’ pronto.

    1. I hear you, Dale. I think a certain amount of OCD is “normal” for writers. Instead of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I try to think of it as Overly Committed Doer. I’ve even gone in and uploaded for one error in a book…why? Because I can:-)

  5. I’m a DIY on formatting. I took a week long class with the thought of, “if I feel I can learn this I will go into self-publishing.” Loved the class, love formatting. I’m down to 4 hours for eBooks and 1 hour for Createspace. Yay!!

    1. Good for you, Jill. That is awesome! I can’t help but feel if I had someone really walk me through the process in detail, and i wrote down the steps for future reference, I could do it with much more confidence. Right now, with all my other responsibilities, it’s mind boggling for me!

  6. That’s exactly right, Jill. My problem is that I’m the one in fifth grade who got my first F on my math test because I didn’t “follow directions.” I also get hopelessly lost without my GPS. Does that highlight the problem? LOL.

  7. The idea of doing my own formatting overwhelms me, so I use Zoe at Smashwords can be a bear, but she has been good about fixing the problems. I haven’t tackled CreateSpace yet. Thanks for the tip about no changes after choosing trim size. Hope things go more smoothly next time. You’re lucky to have tech support at home, at least most of the time.

  8. I don’t know if I’ve been lucky or if I have a really good attention to detail, but if I follow exactly the Smashwords directions set out by Mark Coker, I’ve never had a problem, even with the TOC. He tells you precisely how to show the hidden links that Word puts in and how to easily delete them. Same for Createspace. I just download the handy template for whatever size book I want and love the professional results. I go through and align pages, which is the only thing that doesn’t work out well with Createspace. I don’t want orphans or widows or misaligned page spreads. Good luck in the future and maybe your oddly formatted print copies will end up being a collector’s item.

    1. You are absolutely, right, Sydney. If you follow all the directions for each format, it’s definitely doable. It just takes more time and patience than I have on my own. It really does take me an entire weekend dedicated to formatting for all channels before I publish, and there are no guarantees I’ve done it right. My husband has it down to about a half a day. I was mostly upset that someone who charges for the service would do such a crappy job and that I paid them to do it so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

      Thanks for the encouragement to stick to it. As my husband points out, “It’s not rocket science.” He would know:-)

    1. There are reputable formatters out there, Kathye. I just picked the wrong one. Many SPubbers hire formatters and have no problem. i wouldn’t count out the Indie route on this one experience.

  9. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience, PJ. If you need formatting help in the future, I highly recommend Lucinda Campbell at She’s fast and inexpensive; for a 120K book, I can get all the formats for around $40 (she charges by word count, so you may pay much less). At that price, it’s just not been worth it to me to learn to do it myself, and she’s very inexpensive if I need to make updates. I’ve never had any problems with her files failing the Smashwords auto-vetter or having other technical problems. That said, I always do a thorough QA check of my own to make sure any links I’ve asked her to insert work properly, and I always page through the entire file on my Kindle and my Nook to make sure everything looks as I expect. I have occasionally had to ask her to correct a buy link or other minor issue before I upload, but I consider thorough QA to be part of my job as the author–just like anything else.

    As for CreateSpace, I do my own formatting. A while back, I posted a step-by-step document on how to do that, and several writers have told me they’ve been able to do their own by following it. Here it is, in case it helps:

    1. Thanks so much, Dana. I’ve heard Lucinda is wonderful. I wish I’d thought of her when I was looking for someone. In all fairness to the woman who did mine, I didn’t follow through on my end and make sure everything was good before I accepted it. My impulsiveness has often come back to bite me in the butt. I think I was just overwhelmed and wishful thinking that everything would be fine, LOL. As I said, lesson learned:-)

  10. HI Paula, what a great post. Thanks so much for sharing. It’s hard to find someone to do it in the business for you and can be daunting. I taught some of it to myself and did it for a friend. So far so good. It’s a lot to learn, but in the end is rewarding. Good luck on your releases!

    1. Hi Denissea, Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment. There are so many new “providers” for Indie publishing these days, it’s really a challenge to find the right ones. I’ll continue to hone my skills so that i won’t need to hire the task out or completely depend on my husband (he does have a demanding full time job), but it’s good to hear from others how they are handling their formatting.

    1. If you’ve done all the rest, CS is no biggie. I just figured since I was having someone else do the others, I’d have them do that one too. It didn’t workout well as you can see.

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