Draft2Digital vs Smashwords

Even since the first upload of Adaptation and for the next 15 odd titles, I’ve been using Smashwords to perform the conversion and aggregate the distribution of my titles. I found working with the first few titles a bit tricky, but once I got the hang of formatting the documents and then doing the chapter links, it went smoothly.

I haven’t had any real complaints with Smashwords so far, so why am I writing this? Because it always pays to look around, see what else is out there, see where the industry is heading. For Iris of the Shadows I reassessed my options. I’ve decided to publish the softback via KDP rather than via Lulu, but there’s the eBook format to worry about. OK, there’s also the audiobook, but that’s a later thing. My first instinct was ‘well, why not Smashwords?’. Yeah, Jez, why not Smashwords?

No real reason why not, more that there’s another reason to try Draft2Digital. What’s that? It’s like this: I don’t want to go with KDP Select. That’s KDP Select, not KDP, mind. The whole 90 day exclusivity thing is, to me, not nice for those of us who don’t have a Kindle (like yours truly). It feels Draconian and, yes, I know there’s the Kindle Unlimited program doover, but that doesn’t really interest me more than having an even playing field for books. Long story short: KDP Select is out.

So that leaves Smashwords, the independent author’s friend. Only, there are other players. Ingram Spark comes to mind. I had a look and, while there are benefits, it was a case of ‘yeah, nah’ for me. Then there’s Draft2Digital.

Draft2Digital

I’ve actually used the Books2Read service for aggregating the links to my books. I didn’t realise that this was part of the D2D platform. So when I went poking about, having a tentative e-sniff as it were, I already had a sign-in. Good. That made life a little easier. Reading their description, they sound a lot like Smashwords in that they can take your work, turn it into an ebook and distribute it to a bunch of retailers. So far, so good.

The list of retailers isn’t as extensive, it seems, as Smashwords, but that didn’t really concern me since the main players – Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple iTunes, Scribd, Overdrive and Bibliotecha – are all there. They do distribute to libraries as well, so that’s neat. What they don’t offer is a direct selling page from their own site – you can’t buy from D2D.

They do have an integration service with Amazon. I know that this is possible with Smashwords, too, but there’s a caveat that one needs a couple of grand worth of sales before they’ll consider it, and then you need to write in and ask them to help out. I prefer to upload directly to Amazon KDP, so that’s not a deal maker or breaker.

They can supply an ISBN. This is necessary for some platforms like Apple iTunes. Plus the interface looks snazzy. Not that I care too much, but it’s a nice feeling to be working with something more modern.

With all of that in mind, I did a bit of searching around and the consensus is that D2D is proving to be quite the competitor to Smashwords, and that can only be a good thing. The more players there are, the more innovation and the better the service and, hopefully, it can take KDP down a peg or two.

So, in the end, what did I do? I went and signed up and uploaded my book.

The uploaded book at Draft2Digital

In the next few posts, I’ll be going over just how that all went. Until then, I’m going to be wrapping my head around the whole experience.

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Cover Decisions

It’s almost ready! But I can’t get ahead of myself. There’s more work to be done. In a previous post, I explained the differences between eBook, Hardcopy and Audiobook covers and how it makes it a lot easier if you can create your cover with all three formats in mind.

That’s great. Lesson learnt. Hindsight is 20/20. When it comes to moving the pre-existing books into the audiobook realm, however, it’s a different kettle of fish. For The Bullet, I toyed with the original cover for a while before I scrapped the whole thing and rebuilt the cover from scratch. The same for Atlas, Broken. The original cover just didn’t translate all that well to a square format. That, and it was time to update the covers, anyway.

For Paranormology, I kept the original aspect ratio, but planted the covers within the 3000px square with text to accompany it. The was because the houses in the pictures go with the book, and there is no scope to change the aspect ratio for the houses without redesigning each cover. If I were to do it all again, I’d consider a different layout altogether but, alas, I don’t have that luxury.

Tedrick, it was a bit of a mixed case. I had drawn the octopus, so I could play around with the artwork to make it fit. I also had the GIMP layout of the ebook ready to go, so it was more a matter of rearranging the whole thing to make it fit. That meant clipping the top and the bottom of the artwork, losing some of the details. Either that, or coming up with a way of keeping the original book and ratio, while adding a contextual background. Or redesigning it altogether.

Leaving the last option aside, since I wasn’t really keen on discarding poor ol’ Tedrick, I came up with the following:

Bubbles, octopus tentacles and the book itself was maintained.

I didn’t hate it. I didn’t like it. It looked too much like I’d, well, shoved a rectangular peg into a square hole. The background was contextual, yes, but the style of pictures was too different and the whole thing felt confusing and claustrophobic. Uncool.

So then I went back to the first option and got the old scalpel out:

Tedrick Gritswell Audiobook
The gold border helps define the whole thing as if it’s supposed to be there, contrasting with the blue lettering.

I kept more of the bubbles and light from above, dropping out the silt at the bottom. Eh, what’s some silt between friends?

Here, I’ll stick them side-by-side for you:

Comparing Tedrick Gritswell Covers

In the end, I stuck with option #2, because it looked more like a CD cover would, with everything aligned to fit to the square and, though I lost a bit of the artwork, I don’t think it takes anything away from the picture as a whole. What do you think? Which would you rather see as you’re listening to the audiobook?

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Tracking Tedrick

The first thing that hits you when you start doing Audiobooks is how bizarre it is to have someone read something you wrote. When I did the Audiobook stint with the Paranormology series, I had to deal with hearing my own voice read my words, which was very hard to get over, let me tell you. When I first put the headphones on and spoke into the microphone, I froze.

It took more than a few days of practicing to bring the shock down to an uncomfortable sensation, and then a whole couple of books to bring that down to a dulled angst. By Cooper Alley, I thought I had it all down, no probs, just another thing to brush off.

Then I listened to the first sample of the audiobook; my jaw froze and my face flushed red. It was good – very good, in fact – but there was something about having someone else read out something that you wrote. Considering I hadn’t gone over Tedrick for quite some time, I had forgotten just how it was written, the characters, the scenery. Then, in a few sentences of a gritty voice, it all came flooding back.

So far there have been eight chapters completed, and with each one I am listening while reading over the book. Man, there are some really cool benefits to having someone read back what you’ve done. It’s like being in the passenger seat rather than being the driver. As you’re following along, you can spot the scenery and see how it appears to others. You can hear if a sentence actually makes sense in the manner you’ve presented. There are little grammatical nuggets that need fixing here and a couple of typos there. Larry, being a professional, rolls right over them as best he can and with the communication channel provided by Findaway Voices, he can ask clarifying questions about his concerns.

About a third of the way through now. Tedrick’s looking good. But hey, Jez, you say, weren’t you supposed to be releasing Iris of the Shadows soon? Yes, that’s also true. It’s also true that I’m looking at making the third installment of Tedrick, and another Paranormology. It’s a little bit of juggling to get all these ducks in a row, or herd the cats, or stuff the octopus into the string bag, as it were. Don’t worry, I’ll get there.

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Larry Gorman

Last post I told you I was looking at getting Tedrick his own audiobook because, hey, even an octopus needs his own voice. Findaway made the process very easy indeed – they give you a little form to fill out asking for the details of what you expect the sound of the reader to be, how it should be matched. They did a pretty bang up job, cutting through what I imagine would be a sea of voices to narrow it down to ten or so faces.

Then comes the next part – listening to audio samples of those faces and seeing if they suit the narrative. Considering Tedrick is told from a first-person perspective, it only made sense that the voice was that of Tedrick as narrator. The audio samples are of previous works that they had done, some for non-fiction, some for fiction, some with male voices, some with female. There was dialog and action and I think one might even have been reading out the shopping list for that week. All that is there to give you a good idea of just what’s possible.

Myself, wifey and Binsky sat around the machine, listening to the samples closely. Of the bunch, I’d say five were close to the mark. The others were just too smooth or too young or too, as the French would say, I don’t know what. They just didn’t work. I’d close my eyes and picture the octopus telling his tale and it just wasn’t there. I’m no sound producer or anything, but I guess I had an idea of what Tedrick would sound like.

Of the five that were close to my idea, three really stood out. Findaway has a nifty feature where you can ask those you’ve shortlisted for a sample of five minutes from your narrative. The samples came back on the weekend and we huddled about the machine once more. Yes, yes and no. From hundreds to ten to two – who would it be? Both were a match, both had that grittiness and deeper tone I was after, both read the passage exceptionally well.

In the end, I am very happy to say, I chose none other than Larry Gorman, voiceover artist extraordinaire, for the gig.

Larry Gorman - Voiceover Actor
Larry Gorman, Voiceover Actor

You can find him at http://www.larrygormanvoiceover.com/ where you can hear samples of his work for other authors and commercials. Head on over there and give him some love, listen to his audio, get a feel for his voice and sign up to his blog. You hear that voice? A little bit like Mike Rowe, a touch of warmth, yet gritty and tough? Can you hear how he’d be ideal for a gumshoe octopus, down on his luck?

That’s why he’s Tedrick. This is going to be bloody awesome!

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Choosing a Voice

Jumping right into the whole Findaway experience, I must say that the experience has been pretty smooth so far. I’m already signed up, so that’s that out of the way, and I clicked on ‘Make a new Project’. With this, I was asked if I wanted to hire a voice artist or if I had my own audio.

In the previous Paranormology books, I did the audiobooks myself (a lot of hard work) and had the files ready to upload. This time around, because I really want to give Tedrick the very best voice he can get, I clicked on the ‘Hire a Voice Artist’ option. That presented me with two other options.

  1. I can pay the voice artist their full commission and maintain all right and royalties (minus publisher and distributer cuts) to the finished work or
  2. I can split the cost of the commission with the artist, and they will earn 20% of the final proceeds.

Now, considering the amount of effort put into audiobooks, I can see the benefits and drawbacks of both arrangements. A voice artist does not want to back a nag. Let’s say they sink their week into a book that ultimately is a flop, they will not be remunerated for their time and effort. Then again, it might be a winner, in which case they’ve done well. It’s a risk they would have to take. On the other hand, paying full commission means the risk is entirely on the author, or the rights holder, and the voice artist is paid fairly.

So there’s an element of risk involved. To make it easier to decide, Findaway ask the author to pitch their prowess, any awards won, reviews or comments that would sway the voice artist’s opinion. In this way, the artist can make an educated guess whether they would like to take up the offer or not.

I decided against the shared-risk deal, since this would be my first audiobook narrated by someone else, and I wanted to keep things simple and fair. That said, if all goes well, I would want the same voice actor for the rest of the series, so there’s a thing to consider.

Anyway, after that selection, the project is created, with name, author, genre, etc. and a manuscript. Then comes the questionnaire: What kind of artists would you like?

Huh? In truth, I hadn’t given that too much thought. Male or female? OK, the narrator is a male, so that’s given. What language? English. What nationality? Bugger. It was written with Australian spelling and terms, but it could just as easily be UK or US. The more I thought about it, the more worried I became. Was this going to be like wandering through a supermarket, reading the bios and listening to samples of every artist out there until I found the one?

Thankfully, no. The point of the questionnaire is for the kind folk at Findaway to narrow down that big ‘ol list and get something suitable. I answered on: Voice? Gritty, cynical. Tone? Fatherly. Feel? Anecdotal. You get the drift. I filled in all the bits as best I could, submitted the form and…

They came back in a few days with a shortlist of about ten faces, flowing down the screen, of who they think might fit the bill. Then came the fun part – choosing!

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Teddy gets a Voice

I have used Findaway for producing the audiobooks for The Bullet, Atlas Broken and the Paranormology Series. This involved building an audio-booth, buying equipment, training myself to speak properly, learning how to mix and edit, and then fighting with ACX requirements to make the audio acceptable.

By Cooper Alley, I think I’ve got the process down pat. It’s a lot of work, a lot of fun, but there’s a problem. Tedrick. Tedrick is the problem. Tedrick Gritswell of Borobo Reef is at around 80k words, a far jump from the shorter 20k I was doing. Not an issue, just four times as long, right?

Right. Therein lies a couple of issues. I don’t have that time. Between work, family and other commitments, spare time is scarce. I doubt I would be able to get more than an half an hour’s worth of work in a night, and considering how many hours the final audiobook would be (around 9 hours or so), that’s a lot of recording and editing and re-recording for one little fuzzy headed guy to do on his own.

The other side is that Tedrick’s voice wants to be accented. The book is written in the Australian vernacular, but my voice is unsuited to it. It wants to be gravelly and tired and, while I might be able to get the accent right for a short while, keeping that up for days on end simply won’t work. Speaking of accents, unlike The Bullet, devoid of speech, and Paranormology, with only a handful of characters, Tedrick boasts over twenty five different characters, male and female, old, young, domestic and foreign and, darn it, I’m just not that good.

On top of all of this, Tedrick is a series. I would have to do this all over again. And again…

This is the situation where you look at your own capabilities and think ‘sure, I can do it, but can I do it well?’ Kind of like looking at your house and thinking, ‘sure, I can paint a wall, but can I paint a whole house?’ Given enough time, sure, but there are bound to be errors along the way, the finish won’t be all that great and you’re going to be bushed by the third room. If you need a house painted, you call a painter. If you need a car repaired, you call a mechanic.

This is where the professionals come in. The professionals who have trained their voices to be crisp and clear, who are no stranger the microphone, who have access to proper sound booths (not just wooden structures held together with screws, foam and staples), who have earnt a living out of doing just this. If you need an audiobook, you call a voice artist.

In short, I’m taking the plunge with Tedrick. I’m going to Findaway to enlist the services of a professional voice artist. We’ll see how that pans out.

Talk soon.

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Iris of the Shadows – Covers

When I first started writing books, I worried only about getting the words into the story. After all, that’s the whole point of the book, right? It can live without all the rest of it, really, so that’s where I put my energy. Then when I came to publishing it, reality whacked me in the face: You need a cover.

Right, fine, covers. Makes sense. So then, after figuring out all the various restrictions and recommendations from different publishers like Smashwords and KDP and all of that, and designing a cover using GIMP, I patted myself on the back and moved on.

Then I ran into the next problem – The cover for an ebook won’t match the cover for a print book. Why? Because print books come in lots of different dimensions, again depending on the publisher and industry standards. Not only that, the pixel count and dpi actually matter. The ratio of the rectangles are most likely not going to be the same.

There comes the next issue – not only do you need a cover for your ebook, you need one for your softback. The softback will need to have a spine and a rear cover to boot. Alignment of the cover is also a concern if you take into account the bleed and margins. Things that were ‘perfectly centre’ can’t be relied upon any more. If you’re doing a hardback there’s another set of rules again since that also contains areas for inside cover and potentially different designs for the jacket if you’re going with one of those. I haven’t done a hard-cover yet, but I might – just might – depending.

Because there’s yet another problem in the form of the Audiobook. Audiobook covers are based off the classic CD covers in that they are square. 3000 x 3000 pixels. Doesn’t matter which way you look at it, it’s not a rectangle. There’s the real pickle. While ebook and print books might have similar ratios, and you can coerce the elements from one to behave properly with the other by moving this up a little and squeezing that over, the audiobook gets a knife and rams it through your plans.

I have seen some audiobooks where the cover is merely the ebook cover copied on to a square, but KDP doesn’t like that kind of thing. It wants the cover to be its own production, not look like someone tried to shove a rectangle into a square hole.

To combat this, I deliberately made the cover up of loosely arranged elements. The background of the sea and stormy sky is wide enough to be expanded for the audiobook, and different enough horizontally for the ebook and paperback. The heads of Iris and Tyrone must be anchored to the edges of the cover, so would naturally reveal more or less of the background as the requirements expanded the cover dimensions.

You can see the result below:

Iris of the Shadows – cover comparisons

Both the ebook and audiobook, being digital, allow for use of the entire canvas. Anything 1 pixel in will be shown. The title and author and tagline can be pushed to the edges with only a small margin, and alignment is guaranteed.

The audiobook, having the narrator’s name on there, along with the extra words of ‘Official Audiobook’, coupled with the wider dimensions, meant the title and tag naturally rose up to fill the void and make space. Oh, and Barbara LaCroix is not doing the narration. That’s just there as a placeholder.

The paperback has obvious differences – the dimensions of the front page are similar to the ebook, so the positioning is similar, but not the same. The bleed requires that the margins from the outside edge of all faces be removed. While this looks like there’s a lot of free space on the edge, it’s most likely going to be physically trimmed off.

I’m still tweaking the overall designs, ensuring alignments and quality, but at least you can get an idea of how the work never really ends…

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Iris of the Shadows – Synopsis

To say that publishers and literary agents are pressed for time is to say that cats have a predilection for sleep. If there was some way, Matrix style, to compress and download the experience of reading a book into their heads, it would revolutionise the industry. Alas, no such plug-in-the-back-of-the-head technology exists just yet, so they are forced to do things the old-fashioned way: Reading the stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, they want books. That’s how they make a living:

No books = no business.

Pretty simple equation. So lots of books = lots of business, right? No, because of another another equation:

Bad books = bad business.

There lies the rub. If every scrap of paper passing their noses passed into the presses unvetted, they’d soon be run out of town. Their job is to not only get books out there, they must choose wisely.

On the flip side are the authors, those poor saps who have spent days, nights, weekends and holidays typing and mulling and poking and deleting and sweating it out, nervously coming to the end of the creation period, wondering if they’ve done enough, if they could poke it a bit more or if there was still some mulling to be done.

So you have your situation mapped out: authors producing books, and agents consuming them, only it’s not your classic producer – consumer scenario, not like, say, and ore mine and a smelter or a wheat farm and a mill. Ore is ore, of different grades, but it can be sampled and tested and graded objectively. Similar to wheat or wool or fish or whatever you like. Books are not the same.

Yes, objective measures can be placed on books to measure word count, grammatical errors, complexity of sentence, and all of that, and they give indicators, but, objectively, what defines a good book? Lots of words? Fewer words? Really long sentences? Adverb overloading? The answer is that it all depends on the audience, the genre, the tone and arc and premise and language and, well, too many things to consider. Sometimes the difference between a good book and a bad one is the mood of the reader.

In short, while the agents might be able to put a manuscript through a black-box and get a score for it, there are subtleties that apply here and not there, that make all the difference. And, of course, not everyone appreciates horror, or military fiction, or space operas, or vampire romances. So what is an agent to do? Read everything that comes under their noses? That’s an impossibility. The smartest thing is to weed out those books that you have a hunch won’t be any good, and take a closer look at those that seem alright.

Enter the synopsis. If you take your book and break it down into a one pager, what does it look like? One page? One page?? Are you serious?

Very. Agents and publishers may ask for a one pager, or even a limited word count. Like a blurb? No, not like a blurb. A blurb is there as a hook, a tease, a taste to get you chomping. The synopsis is, to be (grossly) blunt, the meal digested. Take an entire chapter and turn it into a sentence. Heck, if you can compress two chapters into a sentence, you’ve done alright. At the same time, you still need to keep some emotion in there, something to engage the reader. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

It feels awful doing it and, to be honest, I’ve shied away on a lot of occasions. With the first Tedrick Gritswell, I cringed all the way through writing it. The second, I only pulled a face a couple of times. This time around, with Iris of the Shadows, I deliberately stopped myself from biting my lip, rolling my eyes, squeezing my eyelid shut or pouting. I muscled through it.

The first iteration, I managed to make a two page synopsis. This was not enough for any decent submission, which is a little unfair, really, considering the book is sitting at +215k words. Still, in the interest of brevity, I went back over it again, slicing away anything even remotely trivial, removing adjectives and combing sentences. In the end, I got that puppy down to just under a page.

My advice? Be ruthless. Cut everything down to the bone. Leave nothing attached. Then, when it’s barely more than a bunch of words telling ‘what happened’, go back and sprinkle a little life onto the carcass, up to the point where you haven’t exceeded your quota. The end result is ugly, but it’s a necessary ugly.

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Emotions Running Hot

What a journey! There’s always a sense of sadness when I come to the end of writing a book. That’s not the only emotion, mind you. There’s fear, lots of that. Fear that it isn’t enough. Fear that there are spelling mistakes and grammatical farts all the way through. Fear that the characters aren’t defined enough, or too much, or that I’ve pushed too hard in the wrong direction and the audience just isn’t going to like it. Fear. Squid-loads.

There’s also a growing anticipation, something like excitement, only it’s a slow burn. Like a forest fire burning beneath the soil burn. The ground is hot, it’s hard to sleep, my heart palpitates and skips every now and then. Of course, that could easily be the coffee or the gin, or the coffee mixed with gin. Or good ol’ fear, because that never really goes away. But it is exciting and it is something to look forward to and it’s one of those times when I can push a button, upload the files to be published and sit back and allow myself a smile. Sure is a lot of excitement in there.

What else is there, what else? There’s exhaustion, yup. And trepidation or anxiousness or nervousness, however you want to describe it. Embarrassment? Oh, yeah, there’s that. You probably wouldn’t think it, but it’s there. Heck, someone merely reads out the title and my cheeks flare and my mind to starts swimming about and my mouth goes even more babbly than usual. Thick skin? Me? Hardly. Maybe calloused is a better word.

Iris of the Shadows is finished, ready to face the big, wide, scary world. There’s nothing left but to start the process of publishing – there’s the blurb, the synopsis, and the front cover to do, along with figuring out where it sits on a book-shelf. There’s also the page layout for Lulu, the shortcuts for Smashwords, the promoting and pre-launch and, oh, so much more to do!

But, over all of this, there’s a sense of sadness. The writing has come to an end. There’s no more, not unless I want to slaughter the story and cram more chapters into it and bloat the crud out of it. It has grown, been pruned, grown more, had accidents and chunks taken out of it. It’s time to see what it can do, time to test whether all the effort was worth it or not. Is there really anything more I can do? No, like a child turning of age, the book has to get its own home, find a job, get married and have its own kids. Or, at the very least, start helping with the laundry and maybe cook a meal once a week.

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Another Draft

How many drafts does it take to write a book? More than one, for sure. So two? Three? Five? How many sweeps must one do?

When doing the books in the Paranormology Series, I settled on three as the magic number. The first got the skeleton and the sinews in place, the overall arc, the characters and story. On the second draft, I fill in some of the meaty bits, move things around if they are in the wrong spot, and with the third, I clean up the grammar, spelling mistakes, punctuation and the like.

It’s a neat pattern to get into, and it worked well for most in the series – except Hampton Court Ghost, where I scrapped three quarters of the second draft because it was horrible. Sometimes, I guess, things just don’t work out.

With Iris of the Shadows, it is a similar situation. The original work, ‘Darkness from Below‘, was done way back in 2010 or so, maybe earlier, tapped out by stylus on a PDA. There were spelling mistakes galore, grammatical flubs and lots of holes in the plot. It was before I had ever published a book. I was not sure where to start, where to end, what it was supposed to look like, yet I knew I wanted it out and published.

More than this, the characters were derived from a pre-existing mythos, and so it was written more like a fan-work than a standalone book, and so I could never publish it. I was in a conundrum. Here was a labour of love that could never be realised. In frustration, I threw it in the too-hard basket and sulked for half a year before starting on Adaptation.

Over the course of the years, I picked at it, prodded it, half-heartedly changed some points then tossed it back into the basket again to be forgotten for another six months. It was nagging at me – there’s a story that wants to be told, but I hadn’t given it enough attention to tell it properly. Besides, I had the Paranormology Series to go through, and re-working Adaptation into a novel, not to mention Tedrick and his adventures. Like a meowing cat it harassed me until I gave in, and dragged the script out again, and committed to finishing it.

Finishing it? More like starting it all over again! I imported the manuscript into Nimble Writer and took stock. No, no and three times, no. There was a problem with the whole book, and the more I looked, the more evident it became. It needed more history, more character development, more meat. I remember the groan I gave out when I accepted my fate – it startled the cat and Wifey even asked if I’d hurt myself. Not hurt, no. Not yet.

And so the first draft began. In truth it was more like the eighth or ninth. Maybe ten, I have truly lost count. As I wrote, night after night, I watched the book swell into shape, inflate like a bouncy-castle. I ripped chunks out, bits that made no sense, bits that made me cringe. I stayed up in the wee hours to muscle through it, and muscle through it I did.

Then, back on track with the three-draft plan, I went back to the start again and swept through it, bit by bit, looking closer, picking on the fine details. Then I went and printed it out, got my red pen, and went over it once more. All up, that’s something like thirteen iterations over the course of ten years.

How many drafts does it take to write a book? As many as it needs, no less.