The Wonders of Vellum—Ebook Formatting Made Easy

One of the challenges of self-publishing is formatting your final files so they create an easy-to-read, nicely formatted final product. While you can always just upload your Word files and have the target site (Amazon or B&N or Smashwords) convert it for you, this approach doesn’t always provide the best results. There are plenty of tutorials online that tell you how to convert your file and reformat it so it’ll make its way gracefully through these online converters, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a file that’s put together nicely to begin with?

Enter Vellum. Vellum is easy to use and spits out final files that are not only pretty, but get this—they pass the vetters at Smashwords on the first try. If, like me, you’ve had issues getting your files past Smashwords, then you know this is a big plus. I still have books sitting at Smashwords that I haven’t figured out how to get through the vetter. Now I know. I’ll reformat them with Vellum.

Before I continue to rave about it, I’ll mention the two drawbacks to the program. First, it’s a little pricey. You can either pay $30 per individual book or $200 for an unlimited license. I went ahead and opted for the unlimited license, because I knew I was going to want to use it for a good number of books. The other drawback is that it’s only available for Mac. On the positive side, you can try it out for free to see if the workflow works for you. You’ll have to pay to move on to the export stage, but by the time you’ve gotten to that point, you should have a pretty good idea whether or not you want to spend the money.

If you’ve got a Mac, though, you’re all set. I found Vellum so easy to use that I didn’t even need a user guide for most of what I needed to do. Basically, you just open a new file and start copying and pasting, one chapter at a time. A “Styles” tab lets you change certain formatting styles with one click. Adding elements allows you to drop in a partially preformatted copyright page, About the Author page, and other bits and pieces. The only thing I had a bit of trouble with was adding links to the page that lists other works. I also wish there were a way to save a default element so it’s already filled in when you bring it into the document. If there is, though, I haven’t found it yet.

When you’re done adding all your chapters and other elements, you export your files. This is also super easy—just a click and save operation. When the processing is done, you’ll find your files saved in separate folders for each format, all ready for uploading.

I’ve put up reformatting my older e-books because I knew it would be time consuming and tedious. But with Vellum, I’m ready to tackle the project. If you have large numbers of books to convert, like a substantial backlist, or if you’re planning to release regularly, I think Vellum is a solid investment for clean, professional, problem-free formatting. Rating: 10/10, would buy again.

Kindle Scout to Kindle Press—A Final Wrap-Up

When last I posted here, my book had been accepted for publication through Kindle Scout, but wasn’t yet available to be purchased. Since then, it’s gone up for pre-order, and then for general purchase. Rankings have been lingering in the five figures, between about 65,000 as the low and 12,000 as the high. I had expected a faster drop-off, but I haven’t seen it yet—the numbers have stayed pretty steadily in that range (of course, I go to check right now and find it at 77K BECAUSE OF COURSE IT IS!). I don’t know what kind of sales that means, exactly, and I won’t know until I get my first sales report, which will be either the end of this month or the end of next.

The process of publication was dead simple. I got some edits back, which were less than painless, then got an email telling me when the book would be available. I was asked if I’d be willing to change the cover, which I did. (You can see the new version right here!) This had to do with the inclusion of a weapon on the original cover. I just found a shot of the same model without the gun (actually, she does have a gun in this picture, but it’s by her side, so it was easy to remove it from the visible portion), plopped it into the original cover, cleaned up a few things, and went on my way. I like the new layout at least as much as the original.

After the book had been out for a bit, I received an email with screencaps of some of the promotions Kindle is doing for the book, which right now consists of inclusion in their “New Releases” newsletter and in advertising sent to Kindle users. Three months after initial release, which was 12-24, I’ll be eligible for a regular promotion. These include pricing promotions, and according to the email, the book has also been nominated for various placement promotions. I’m not sure what this entails, but hopefully it’ll sell me some books. I’m also doing some ad placements myself, as well as hitting social media, etc. I’ve decided to do this on a “drip” strategy rather than a big “splash” strategy, so I’m not flooding all my social media channels all the time. In addition, I wrote two short prequel stories and am offering them for free to new newsletter subscribers.

I’ve found the process so far to be satisfactory. If you’re the kind of person who likes to ask a lot of questions and get answers right away, you might find the Kindle Press approach frustrating. I get the impression they’re a bit overworked and understaffed, but that’s probably true of any publisher these days. They’ve provided all the information I really needed in a timely fashion, and I’m happy to plug along with other things while I’m waiting for people to get back to me, so it hasn’t bothered me particularly. In the mean time, I’m working on those promo plans and, yes, busily scribbling away on a sequel.

Also, the book’s gotten some absolutely fabulous reviews! Reviews came up during the pre-release phase, so that was helpful. People who voted for the book were able to submit reviews and have that star rating all ready for the general release. So that was a good thing, and I like to think it’s helped get sales jumpstarted. Hopefully reality won’t hurt me too hard when my actual sales numbers come in.

I hope sharing my experience with Kindle Scout has been helpful. I’m excited about all the different ways we can get our stories out in front of readers, and this one seemed like it would be fun and potentially snag a larger audience than I’ve been able to find all on my own. If you have any questions about anything I’ve discussed in this series of posts, please ask! And best of luck to all of you working to get their stories out into the world.


Promotion Options—Thunderclap and Head Talker

Elegant anique fountaine-pen on an old paper
Yes, this is what I write with. I am OLD SKOOL.

During my Kindle Scout campaign, I decided to try some new promotional options that I’ve seen some other folks use with some success. One of these was Thunderclap. In the process, I discovered Head Talker, a similar promotional outlet. This month, I’m going to talk about these promotional outlets and the impressions I got from trying to generate sales this way.

What is Thunderclap?

Thunderclap is a way to leverage social media to get the word out about a new book, a special giveaway, a website, or something similar. You set up your campaign and then recruit people to participate. The campaign itself consists of a graphic, a link, and a short blurb appropriate to social media (generally under 140 characters, with hashtags, to accommodate Twitter). You choose a deadline for your campaign, which is the day the message will be broadcast. The goal is to get 100 people signed on to your campaign. Each person who signs up agrees to post your message to one or more of their social media accounts on the day and time you’ve chosen. If you gather enough participants, the message will go out from all these accounts at the same time, creating a “thunderclap” of promotion. At a minimum, you’ll get 100 repetitions of your message on 100 different social media accounts. If one or more of your participants agrees to have the message go out on multiple accounts (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), you’ll have even more exposure on their social networks.

The advantages to this approach are several.

  1. It’s free.
  2. You can leverage other people’s social media accounts rather than blasting your own followers repeatedly.
  3. Theoretically, you’ll get your message in front of a variety of people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

However, the disadvantages are also several.

  1. It’s time-consuming—you have to find people willing to repost your message.
  2. You can end up blasting your own lists trying to get enough participants to trigger the campaign (with Thunderclap, you need to have 100 people or the campaign won’t go live).
  3. You can end up in an echo chamber. You can sign on to lists where people support your Thunderclap in exchange for you supporting theirs, and you can build your numbers this way, but then you’re basically advertising on all the same channels as everyone else.
  4. Even if your campaign doesn’t go live, you’ll still end up sending messages for everyone who participated in your campaign who DID go live. So if you have 100 people on your campaign, this could be 100 social media messages blasting out at various times on your social media channels. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, with a few caveats, which I’ll discuss below.

How is Head Talker Different?

Head Talker works the same way, except you can have a campaign go live with as few as 25 participants, rather than the 100 minimum demanded of Thunderclap. Head Talker gives you the option of 25, 50, or 100 participants to activate your campaign. Again, it’s free, and it works almost exactly the same way as Thunderclap, right down to the signup pages being very similar.

Conclusions and What I Would Do Differently Next Time

My personal experience with Thunderclap wasn’t the greatest. I didn’t get the results I wanted because I wasn’t able to make it to the 100-person minimum to activate my campaign. I had hoped that just signing up and getting eyes on my campaign might generate some page views at Kindle Scout, but the way Thunderclap is set up made that difficult. This has to do with the lack of a live link on the Thunderclap campaign page as well as the “echo chamber” effect of my recruitment efforts. So as far as I could tell, there was no real payoff for me of having a campaign that didn’t actually go live.

The other thing I didn’t care for was that, since I managed to get 75 people on my campaign, I then ended up with 75 (or so—I didn’t keep track) Twitter posts hitting my feed, sometimes to the tune of several per day. This cluttered up my Twitter feed. Worse, some of the posts were worded in such a way that it sounded like I was promoting my own work, which I was uncomfortable with.

What would I do differently? Lots of things.

  1. I would probably try Head Talker with a 25-person minimum instead of shooting for 100 people for a Thunderclap.
  2. I would check each campaign I agreed to support to see how the post was worded so that it would be clear what was being advertised when it hit my Twitter feed (you have the option of rewriting the message when you sign up to support someone else’s campaign)
  3. I’d be sure my campaign was worded in such a way as to not cause this problem with any of my supporters
  4. I would give myself more time to seed my campaign. I only gave myself two weeks, which was because I only had a month to gather page views for Kindle Scout. I knew this would be a liability, but I didn’t have much choice for this particular campaign. Next time I’d like to have a month lead time.
  5. With more lead time, I could hopefully find supporters in places other than the Thunderclap-specific Facebook groups I used for this campaign. Theoretically, that would get me out of that echo chamber.

Will I try this again? Probably, but with the changes I mentioned above. I’m still not sure it’s the most efficient form of promotion, but it’s free, and if you parse out your time efficiently, it’s not too much of a time-suck.

Has anyone else used Thunderclap or Head Talker? If you have experiences to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


Kindle Scout—What Happens When You Win?

Coming soon from Kindle Scout!
Coming soon from Kindle Scout!

If you haven’t heard the news by now, my Kindle Scout campaign was a success! My book, Call Me Zhenya, was chosen for publication by Kindle Press. I received just under 700 page views, with a surge at the very end in both views and in time spent in "Hot and Trending." The page views necessary to get into Hot and Trending dropped significantly at the end--I'm not sure why, or if that's built into their process to get last-minute votes, or how that works. As with most Amazon algorithms, there's no real way to look under the hood. But I kept up the promotion to the very end, as anybody who follows me on social media can attest, probably with an eye-roll at my multitudes of posts. I got the notification only a couple of days after the campaign ended. Everything has happened a bit faster than their materials indicate--in a day or two rather than a week or two, for example--which is cool.

So what happens next?

Basically, what happens next is that the contract as printed on the website goes into immediate effect. I was asked to look over my full manuscript and my cover art, make any changes I wanted to make, then reupload them. The next step is to fill out financial information so they can pay me my advance. (This isn’t going as smoothly—it looks like I might have broken their site. Typical of me and my weird electromagnetic field.)

The letter I received indicated that, if they feel it necessary, I’ll receive a letter with recommended edits. After that is all settled, they’ll give me a date when the book will go up for preorder. Also, I’ll presumably receive notifications when the book goes up for special promotions. So far, I’ve heard about people getting .99 deals for a period of time, special Kindle Fire deals, and other promotions directly through Amazon. Based on what I’ve seen from other Scout winners who’ve talked with me, promotions aren’t guaranteed, and of course the success of any individual promotion isn’t guaranteed, either. But a number of people seem to be pretty happy with the results they’ve gotten.

As far as the overall experience so far—for those who like personalized communications from their publishers, this won’t fulfill those needs. Most of the communication has been via form letters, though I do have an individual I’m talking to about the problems with Amazon Payee Central. You can also request a phone call if you have any questions, which I haven’t done as of yet.

Overall, it continues to be an interesting process. I’m learning a lot of things, and have discovered a whole community of Scout winners who offer help and guidance to newbies on the block. There’s a great group of people there that I wasn’t even aware of until the announcement went out about my book, so it’s cool to know there are even more resources to delve into.

As the time comes closer to publication date, emails will be going out with information on preorders, and those who voted for the book will receive their free copies. Hopefully, I’ll get some good reviews from the Scouters, and things will be off and running.

Thanks to everyone for their support, and if you have any other specific questions about Kindle Scout, the process, or anything else, feel free to ask, either here or via email.

Next month, I’m going to chat about Thunderclap/Head Talker and the pluses and minuses I saw from those platforms.

When Scouting Goes Live

Call Me Zhenya-goldOn September 23, I finished yutzing around with my Scout entry and uploaded it. The campaign is now underway, ending on October 23. How are things going? I have no idea… But I’m learning a lot. One of the things I’ve learned is to ask for votes everywhere! So please! If you’ve enjoyed this series of blog posts or learned one or two things from it or if you just want to help me put my kids through college (I have TWO of them who are BOTH in college RIGHT NOW!), toss me a vote! I’ll be eternally grateful, and the karma will be awesome. Also, if they choose my book for publication, you’ll get a free copy! And then you can taunt your friends! HA HA! I got this book free and you didn’t!


On to the substantive (I hope) portion of the post.

Entering your book into the Kindle Scout program is pretty straightforward. You have to upload a formatted manuscript in .doc form. (For those who have been paying attention, yes, this means all my research into Scrivener vs. Vellum was useless for this project.) You’ll also have to have a bio, a completed cover, and blurbage for your book. The length limitations for the blurbs are pretty severe—I had a 100-word version of the blurb and still had to trim it. A side note--I paid someone to do my blurbs for me, because I wanted them to be kick-ass. I was pretty happy with the results.

Once you upload, you wait. You’ll get an email letting you know whether your book is accepted into the program. This actually didn’t take very long—I had my approval email within 24 hours. They send you information on your campaign link and tell you when it will go live (you have a few days to prepare).

Every day, you’ll get updated stats on your page views. See below for what this looks like. An interesting note here—the data provides page views, NOT the number of nominations. It also provides info on where your votes are coming from and provides some “also nominated” info. This means books your scouters also nominated. This inspired me to look for “allies,” like Nathan Lowell mentioned in his hella awesome workshop on Amazon at Colorado Gold.


kindle-scout-data-10-11-16The screencap here shows the first page of my stats for October 11. (Click for a .pdf of the full stats--it's 2 pages) On page 2, you can see that a little less than half my page views are consistently coming from Kindle Scout directly. The rest are from outside links, and so are the result of my promotional efforts or from other people passing the links around, etc. The big bumps occurred at the beginning, when I posted the link to Facebook and Twitter and also sent out a notification via my reader newsletter. There’s another big bump after my friend Marteeka Karland posted about the book in her reader newsletter, which is about five times the size of mine, subscription-wise. I got another bump when Kate Douglas, another friend and a long-time Kensington author with a good-sized following, posted a link on her author page with some praise for the excerpt (as in, if this isn’t published soon I’m going to HUNT KATRIENA DOWN!!). (We luff Kate :-])


Some other things I did, all of which seemed to have produced small bumps in page views:

Ran a Book-a-Day giveaway at The Romance Studio. This was a drawing for a paperback version of the book, which I’ll send out after Kindle Scout lets me know whether they’re buying the book (they buy only electronic rights, so paperback rights will belong to me either way).

Ran guest blogs on other authors’ blogs. This included a person from the Also Scouted list. I noticed one of the books popping up was one I’d already nominated, so I contacted the author and asked if we could exchange blog posts (an ally! And I’ll probably do this again with another author or two before the campaign ends). She only had a few days left on her campaign, so I made sure her post went up promptly, and she posted mine a day or two later. I also posted a blog at The Romance Studio a few days before the Book-A-Day giveaway.

Ran a Thunderclap. This didn’t pan out—I didn’t get enough backers to activate the campaign. I came close—76 out of 100—but couldn’t quite get it over the line. I’ll probably give Thunderclap its own post later, since I have some Profound Thoughts about the process.

Some things that didn’t happen that I’d hoped would happen:

I didn’t seem to get any pageviews from the Thunderclap recruiting. If you know how Thunderclap works, it’s pretty obvious why this didn’t pan out. There’s no direct link to your book until the campaign goes live (or if there is I didn’t find it). Again, there’s a lot to talk about regarding Thunderclap.

Amazon allows you to add your other books to your campaign page, and I’d hoped this would generate some sales. I figured some people would see the campaign, notice the other books I’d written, and check them out. So far I see no indication that sales of my Kindle self-pub books have spiked at all. On the other hand, I’m noticing that Amazon linked to a lot of out-of-print editions, so that might be my own damn fault for not tweaking the links when I had the chance. On the other hand, Authorgraph tells me a few of my Samhain titles have gone up in the rankings, so...maybe?

The numbers overall are lower than I’d hoped. On the other hand, I’ve spent a good amount of time in Hot and Trending, which doesn’t suck. It appears that the magic number to be featured in that part of the site is about 60 pageviews (you can see these stats on page 2 of the pdf).

As of now, I’m sort of running out of ideas for promotion. However, I have a book I’m consulting, and I’m going to pull ideas from there and execute them over the last stretch of the campaign. The book is called Crowdfunding for Authors by Bethany Carlson, and it’s not actually out yet. I got an ARC copy because I supported the book on Indiegogo. I’d suggest keeping an eye out for it when it does become available, because so far it’s looking like a pretty good resource.

That’s about it for the State of the Scout this month. Next time, I should know whether or not the book has been accepted for publication, and I can report on the beginnings of that process or let you know where to buy the book when I release it myself.

Again, to drop me a vote for Call Me Zhenya, drop by my campaign page!!

Promotion—The Necessary Evil

My kitchen table about two hours ago.
My kitchen table about two hours ago.

Promotional plans, and lessons learned along the way.

I hate promotion. I’m sure I’m not alone. In fact, I’m not sure I know any fellow writers who tell me they love promoting themselves and their work. For me, it’s not even so much that I don’t like talking about myself and my work. It’s just a big workload piled on top of an already big workload, and most of the time it feels like it’s not really getting me anywhere.

I know it’s necessary, though, so I do what I can. I don’t think I do it particularly well, but sometimes I manage to find something that’s actually fun, and that helps.

In any case, when it comes to my current Kindle Scout project, it’s blatantly obvious I need to promote. So, while I’m finalizing my edits and figuring out what system I want to use for my final formatting, I’m brainstorming on some promotional ideas. Here are some things I think I’ll try for online promotion:

Thunderclap. I’m not sure this kind of “tweetstorming” approach works consistently, but I know people who’ve seen some decent results. I think it’s far better to have numerous other people tweet for you than to tweet the hell out of your own audience. Also? It’s easy. And free.

Blog tours. Also free, unless I decide to pay to have someone set it up for me, which I don’t think I’ll do.

Facebook boosted posts. I’ve done this a couple of times but not enough yet to have made any conclusions about the results. I think it’s worth a shot.

Facebook ads. I had some good success with these on a past project, so I think I’ll give it another go.

I’m also going to switch out my autoresponders on my newsletter signup site to send out a sample of the book I’ll be Scouting. I’ve been sending a romance short story to new subscribers, but I think it’s time to switch it up a bit. I’ll also send this sample to my current subscribers. I’ve found that I get very high open rates when I send out freebies. This so far hasn’t really translated into sales, but at least I get people’s attention.

I’d like to hear from anyone who’s tried these promotional techniques, or who’s had a particularly good response from any other on-line promotion approaches, so feel free to hit the comments. The promotional landscape is changing at least as fast as the publishing industry itself, so reports from the “front lines” are always useful and welcome.

In-Person Promotion

I also have an in-person opportunity coming up this weekend with Colorado Gold. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so I took an informal poll. (This was while I was at my BFF’s house for brisket on Labor Day weekend. I said, “I gotta figure out what to make to take to the conference.” She said, “Chocolate. Everybody likes chocolate. Add a prize. Willy Wonka that shit up.” My daughter said yeah, do that. And that was my poll.) That seemed like a good idea, and it was a lot simpler than some of the things I’d been brainstorming. There are some lessons here: 1. Simple is good. 2. When it seems appropriate, have somebody help with your brainstorming. 3. Willy Wonka is applicable to numerous life situations. Also, listen to your BFF.

I was freaking out about the lack of time because I left it to the last minute, like I do, so my daughter agreed to step in and design a bookmark for my packages. She did a great job, and we printed them up (after much printer hijinks) and put them together with some chocolate for that Willy Wonka-ing. In addition, there’s a Golden Ticket—one person who subscribes to my newsletter over this weekend will win a $25 Amazon gift card. Lessons here: 1. Don’t leave things until the last minute (I will never learn that one). 2. Outsource whenever possible, especially when you have talented people living in your house. 3. Printers will always decide to stop working properly when you’re in a hurry.

If you’re at Colorado Gold, hit me up or look for my cards at the main table. Also, if you can’t make the conference and are reading this blog, you can enter the contest by signing up for my newsletter at You’ll get a pdf of the first chapter of Call Me Zhenya, the book I’ve been working on preparing for Kindle Scout. You can see this either as a thank you for sticking with me through all these posts, or as an act of blatant self-promotion. Either way, I hope to see some of you at Colorado Gold!

Decisions, Decisions—Formatting My Ebook

html is so confusing...
html is so confusing...

I’ve been in the process of moving from Colorado to Illinois, which is very time- and energy-consuming, so I haven’t spent much time on the next stages of getting my book ready to submit. However, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need to do for the next step and ways to give the book the best possible chances once it hits Kindle Scout.

It occurred to me that good formatting might give the book an edge. I have no idea what criteria KS uses to determined which books to publish—other than the crowdsourcing part—but there’s mention that the more complete and ready a book is, the better its chances. I’d been thinking of this in terms of finished text and quality editing, but then suddenly realized formatting could be a part of the equation as well.

There are many ways to format your ebook. Probably the easiest is to upload a prepared .doc file (or similar) to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Kobo and let their auto-formatting take care of it. However, I got curious and downloaded the html markup for a book I’d done this way and discovered it had been formatted in probably the most convoluted way possible. It had, for example, style tags on every individual sentence. Just looking at it gave me hives.

So I started looking into other ways to do final formatting for upload. There are numerous articles and series of blog posts, etc. discussing different ways to approach the task. One way is just to use straightforward, clean html markup, but you have to put it all in there by hand, more or less. Amazon offers a guide on their KDP site.

Some other approaches are presented here:

You’ll also find guides at Barnes & Noble and Kobo, Draft2Digital, and probably any other e-book outlet providing information on how to format in the best way for their particular system. There’s a lot of overlap, though some places are pickier than others *cough*ibooks*cough*.

I’ve been self-publishing for a few years now, so I figured I had all the formatting stuff down pat. However, as I’ve been reading (and looking at the markup actually created when I upload my books to KDP), I’m starting to suspect I’m not going about things in the most efficient or effective way. So I’m going to look into some other options.

I use Scrivener as my main writing software, and I’ve heard that it also does an excellent job of exporting manuscripts into various e-book formats. I haven’t tried it yet, mostly because I do my drafting in Scrivener, then export to Word for final edits. I’d have to pull the manuscript back into Scrivener and divide it up again to make use of this functionality (at least that’s the way I understand it). I want to try it at some point in the future to see how it works and how easy it is.

Here are a few articles about how to put your final e-book together using Scrivener:

What I’m really intrigued with right now, though, is Vellum. It costs money ($29.99 for a single book, or $199.99 for an unlimited license), but people seem to be raving about it. I’ve downloaded and fiddled with it, though I haven’t paid the licensing fee yet, and so far it seems to be easy to use and also allows you to easily add visual elements that give your book a very polished look. It’s Mac-only (sorry, PC folks), but it appears to be turning into an automatic go-to for a lot of self-pubs.

Some information about Vellum:

So basically, right now I’m wavering between using Scrivener, which I already own, or spending money for Vellum, which may or may not make the process smoother, easier, and prettier. Whichever way I decide, I hope a nicely formatted book will give me a little bit of an edge when it comes to being chosen for publication.

But What About Editing?

Even Walt Whitman did him some editing.
Even Walt Whitman did him some editing.

Pros and Cons of Automated Editing—a Discussion of AutoCrit

In the continuing saga of preparing a book for Kindle Scout, let’s talk about editing for self-publishing. This could also apply to editing for submissions, since you need to have your book in squeaky-clean shape before you start submitting to publishers (I know a good number of people who don’t believe this, but that’s for another post…).

If you’re like me, the idea of getting a book in solid shape for self-pub is a bit intimidating. I edit for other people on the side, but I have very little faith in myself to find my own mistakes. I know my manuscripts generally go to the editor far cleaner than many of the manuscripts I edit for other publishers, but there are still mistakes—typos, weirdness generated by Dragon Dictate when I use it, and of course the dreaded continuity issues.

Ideally, before you self-pub a book, you should send it to a professional editor. This can get pricey, though—I’m not sure I could afford myself as an editor right now, and my rates are really low. Nathan Lowell beat me to the punch in talking about using beta readers to crowdsource your editing in his article Bootstrap Your Book. The methods he discusses here are very useful and effective. If you’re lucky, you maybe have a proofer or editor on your list from a publisher you’ve worked with before who might be willing to give your manuscript a gander for a low cost. My group of proofers includes a fellow author I’ve edited for years as well as a proofer/editor from one of my publishers. It pays to make friends in this industry… Bartering can work, too—if you feel confident about your abilities to find typos or point out continuity issues, work out a trade with another author. Or offer large quantities of chocolate.

In any case, since Nathan covered the bases of crowdsourced editing, I’m going to talk about another low-cost approach—automated editing. Wait, wait—don’t run off. I have Important Things to Say.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Grammarly, which is a site where you can upload your manuscript and have it spit out a number of different grammar issues regarding your manuscript. I haven’t used this site, but I’ve used AutoCrit, which I believe is similar. I’m going to discuss my experiences, what automated editing can and can’t do, how it’s helped me, and why it might be worth looking into.

I stumbled across AutoCrit by accident. I’d gotten a sponsored email from Writer’s Digest with a free offer for a short video course on creating dialogue. I have a tendency to grab and hoard free things (SHINY! SHINY! FREE!), so I grabbed the course. I didn’t notice at the time, but it was from the AutoCrit website. They started sending me emails offering me a GREAT DEAL on a year-long membership to their site. After deleting several of these, I finally thought okay, wait. I’ve got a manuscript I need to get cleaned up. Let’s go sign up for the 7-day free trial and see what this puppy can do.

So I did that. I then uploaded Call Me Zhenya—all 93,000 words—onto the site and let AutoCrit do its magic. It generated about ten reports, which I then downloaded and looked over.

There are, of course, limits to what this kind of editor can do. It’s best to ignore a lot of the advice it produces, much like it’s best to ignore most of the green squiggly lines MS Word automatically generates to tell you you’ve committed a grammar infraction.


The reports I got from AutoCrit found a good number of things I had obviously missed on the forty quadrillion editing runs I’d done on my own. The report on “ly” adverbs was particularly enlightening (My name is Katriena and I am an adverb-aholic). It also found some typos I’d missed and put my horrible word repetition habit into stark relief. (Seriously? 1600 repetitions of “quietly?” Good grief, woman!)

I wasn’t quite as on board with the reports that supposedly showed me show vs. tell writing. The parameters they used didn’t seem realistic to me, as they were mostly keyed to certain verb tenses. The passive verbs report seemed equally arbitrary. I do, however, feel like the time I spent going through the reports and sifting out repeated words, typos, and adverbs was well spent. I also took the plunge and bought the discounted year’s subscription. It seemed like a reasonable price, though I probably would have balked at a full-price subscription.

Overall, I thought it proved to be a good addition to my self-pub repertoire, since it found a good many things a proofreader would have marked up. That means I can send a much cleaner version to the actual humans who read the story later, and that can only be a good thing.

For those who might be curious, the reports AutoCrit provides are:

  • Adverbs in Dialogue Tags
  • Adverbs Overall
  • Clichés
  • Generic Descriptions
  • Passive Verbs
  • Redundancies
  • Sentence Starters
  • Show vs. Tell Indicators
  • Unnecessary Filler Words

You can run these one at a time or all in one fell swoop. You can also decide whether to get a high-level report or a detailed report that shows you exactly where all the noted transgressions are located in the manuscript. This can be in a list form, or highlighted on a copy of your manuscript. You can upload a few pages, a chapter, or the whole manuscript for evaluation.

Never Do Your Own Cover Art. Unless You Want To.

Author Pic 2016-smallerThe continuing saga of KK’s quest to conquer Kindle Scout.

Last time, I talked about Kindle Scout, a book I wrote, and my decision to see what I could accomplish by trying out the program. In order to submit your book to KS, you need to have 1. A book. 2. A cover. 3. Lots of editing and formatting shizz. This post is going to cover number 2—the cover. And my apologies in advance—it’s a long one.

FIRST: If you'd like to Scout a book, here's one from an online acquaintance of mine. Moonlight's Peril, by Ashlynn Monroe.

One of the first things self-publishing gurus tell aspiring self-publishers is, “Never make your own cover art.” This is probably a good piece of advice. Unless you want to make your own cover art, and are willing to put in the due diligence to make one that doesn’t look like you put it together in MS Paint (unless MS Paint is an important theme of the book, of course [sets aside plot bunny for another day]).

So…confession time. I do my own cover art. Some of it is stanky (and is on my list to be redone). Some of it is, in my own humble goddess-like opinion, not too damn bad. Why do I do my own art? Because I like doing my own art. I like learning about graphics and Photoshop and Canva and GIMP and whatever else. For the most part, I enjoy the challenge and the process.

I learned to use Photoshop making Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fan art. I made wallpapers with half-naked (and sometimes totes naked) David Boreanaz on them because it made me happy. And I learned a lot. When I started self-pubbing, I used those skills to start making covers. The first few I made—not so hot. But I started learning. I have a friend who works for the cover art department at one of my publishers, and she vets my work. My daughter is about to become a photography major, and has a great skill and eye for art. My college-age son has been making computer graphics for ages, and also has a great eye for art. So they give me feedback, too. Which leads to feedback like, “Mom, her face looks like it has a tumor on it,” and “No, those colors look like three-day-old poop.”

That’s the kind of feedback you need for this kind of venture.

So what do you need to make your own covers aside from somebody—preferably multiple somebodies—to tell you when your painstaking work is a piece of crap?

1. An idea of how cover art works. There’s all kinds of advice on the internet about how to improve/create cover art. My current favorite guru is Derek Murphy, from On his site, you can find templates, author tools, and even an online tool where you can create your own covers (I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know how well it works, but give it a go if you’re so inclined). He also has published a book on the topic, which has some interesting advice in it, much of which seems to fly in the face of the advice of other cover gurus. For example, Murphy says it’s not necessary to make the title big enough to read on a thumbnail, which you’ll find as the Number One Guideline for Proper Ebook Cover Art just about everywhere else. Since I’m super contrary, I figured this was the advice for me.

His templates are very cool, but they’re in Microsoft Word (!) and MS Word hates me, so I was unable to bend them to my will. However, I imported some graphics into one of them, got a general idea of what I wanted my cover to look like, then assembled everything in GIMP.

2. Some graphics software. I used Photoshop for a very long time, then I upgraded the OS on my computer and the old, old copy I had stopped working. This was very stressful. I swore a lot. Then I consulted my Tech Department (above-mentioned son and daughter) for recommendations. After some fiddling with various freeware packages, I ended up with GIMP. It’s free, and it does darn near everything Photoshop does, and with a similar workflow. (I still needed a tutorial from my son, who helped me with my cover for Lord of the Screaming Tower, but I’m getting the hang of it.) I recommend finding something you’re comfortable with, and then playing with it until you feel comfortable. Find online tutorials or a mentor-type to get you on your feet.

3. Some PICTURES!! Pictures are the most important part of cover art. Because cover art, duh. There are lots of places to find photos—istock photo, fotolia, bigstock, dreamstime, etc. Some pictures are pricier than others. My favorite price is free, so I’m going to talk about how to get free pictures you can use for your covers.

Firstly, though, you have to be VERY CAREFUL about this. Be absolutely sure you have the right kinds of licenses for your photos before you put them on your book cover. Some places, like and Wikimedia commons, are mostly public domain, but still be sure to read the fine print. Some pics at both these places require you to change the picture, or require you to credit the photographer. Don’t take shortcuts here—respect the photographers.

Anywho… Another way to get free pics, almost all of which will have the right type of licensing for book covers, is to wait for free trial memberships for major stock photo sites. I coincidentally was offered a free trial to graphicstock and bigstock within a couple of weeks of each other, and as a result ended up with close to 150 images for free. Once the trial is over, you just cancel, and then feel guilty every time they offer you another free trial (in all fairness, though, I’ve spent quite a bit of money at these sites, so I should probably chill). All the pictures I used for this cover came from the collection I downloaded during these free trials, and I have a bunch more that I grabbed with an eye toward future projects.

4. Fonts!! Never underestimate the power of a flippin’ awesome font. You’re probably good with two for a book cover—one for the title and one for your author name, possibly with an eye toward future branding. You can spend as little or as much as you like for fonts, from what I’ve seen. Again, I like free. My current site of choice is They have a gajillion fonts, and they have a Font O’ the Day mailing list, and how cool is that?

You also have to look at licensing with fonts, so keep that in mind. If it says only for personal use, I’d suggest not putting it on a book cover. Look for fonts that are free for any usage or that specifically say free for commercial use. Or, of course, pay for the commercial upgrade if you really like the font.

That’s my basic how-to when it comes to covers. If you’re comfortable doing it, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t. If you’re not comfortable doing it, it’s probably better to outsource it.

So here’s my cover, if you’re interested in having a look-see. I’m fiddling with the eye/font color. If you want to weigh in with your favorite, feel free.

Call Me Zhenya-goldCall Me Zhenya-redCall Me Zhenya2


Trying New Things–Kindle Scout

Photo from Morguefile by semiphoto.
Pick your book--Before it's published! Photo from Morguefile by semiphoto.

Last month, I talked about trying new approaches in the aftermath of losing a publisher. Starting with this post, I’m going to talk about some of the new things I’m trying.

The book I’m focusing on right now is a full-length paranormal romance novel about spies who’ve been genetically altered to have special powers. The hero is a Russian werewolf; the heroine is an American super-brain. Together, they fight crime!

I wrote this book quite some time ago, then spent a lot of time editing and fine-tuning, but mostly ignoring it while I worked on other things that were already contracted. In the back of my mind, I always thought maybe I’d send it to the Amazon contest, or find some other semi-unconventional place for it.

Then Kindle Scout came along. This is a crowdsourced publishing platform—you put your book up, cover and all, and people vote you up or down for a publishing contract. Amazon’s editors then evaluate the books and pick the ones they want for publication. Publication is not entirely based on how many votes you get—KS is looking for well-written work that doesn’t require massive editing. (Although I've read in some of the links below that some authors have gotten editing as well as cover-art work from Amazon before their book was published.)

So KS ended up in the back of my mind, too. But when I finally decided it was time to do something with the book, I submitted it to a lot of traditional places first. I really felt it was one of the more mainstream-type books I’d written in a long time (HA HA HA HA I used “I” and “mainstream” in the same sentence pardon me), and might just have a chance with agents/publishers.

Apparently not. The responses I got were either, “This doesn’t suit our needs at this time,” or “Wow, I liked this a lot, but it doesn’t fit our line/paranormal isn’t selling right now.”

So, after numerous rejections, I decided to move on, and now I’m preparing the manuscript for Kindle Scout. I have some misgivings, but then I always have misgivings (“Do you really have sufficient justification to eat lunch right now?” “Are you sure you really need to stop what you’re doing and go to the bathroom?”). Aren’t you glad you don’t live in my head?

On to some meaty stuff:

Kindle Scout offers a good many pros and not many cons that I could see. The manuscript has to be unpublished—not even on a blog or Wattpad, for example. You also have to be sure you’ve done all the heavy lifting editing-wise, and you have to supply your own cover. Then, during the voting process, you have to run some marketing to get votes. If you’re chosen, you get an advance of $1500 plus Amazon’s marketing machine working for you. The contract is very straightforward, and outlines exactly what the conditions are for you to ask for your rights back.

If you don’t win—here’s where I was a bit surprised. To prepare for this, I started scouting books (4 out of 9 of my choices have gotten contracts—pauses to buff nails and look smug). If the book is NOT chosen for publication, a couple of things happen that I thought were actually pretty neat and author-friendly. First, if you subsequently publish the book through Kindle, Amazon sends out an email to everybody who voted for your book. So if you get, say, 300 votes but no contract, you can then Kindle-fy the book and all 300 of those people will be notified that your book is available. In addition, if you vote for books, those books stay on your Kindle Scout page. The ones that have been published on Amazon will now have a link to their buy page even if the book was not chosen for publication by Amazon. Now that’s a perk.

If a book you voted for is chosen for publication, you receive a free copy and are encouraged to read and review the book to further assist the author you voted for.

Some additional info can be found here:

Getting Ready to Go Scoutin’

My first step to prepare my book was to sign up for Kindle Scout and start scouting books to find out how the process works and also to check out what kinds of books are being submitted (gotta scope out the competition, natch). The KS page presents the cover, the first chapter or so of each book, a blurb and an interview with the author. I usually check the blurb, then read the first chapter until I nope out of it. If I don’t nope out before the end of the excerpt, I give it a vote. That’s my full process. I am lazy. And I’m still scoring almost 50%. (I actually have no idea how that fact is relevant to anything, but I’m still bragging about it. Because I can.)

The next step is marketing. Not for the specific book, but for everything else I’ve ever published. (Okay, maybe not EVERYTHING.) The goal here is just to get some additional people’s eyes on me. I’m focusing on my mailing list and my Facebook page. I also revamped my website (actually both websites, but the Elizabeth Jewell site isn’t as relevant to this effort). I’ve read several books and articles about marketing as a self-publisher. From those books, I’ve pulled out all the advice that’s common to all or most of them, figuring those are probably the most efficient and effective approaches (they’re also the ones that make the most sense to me). In the mean time, I’m also preparing the manuscript and the cover art.

I see I’ve run on quite a bit, so I’ll stop here. Next time, I’ll talk about the nitty gritty of getting a cover prepared and cleaning up the manuscript. In the mean time, go check out Kindle Scout on your own and vote for some books! It’s fun! I promise!