Avoid the self-publishing calamity. Please learn from my mistakes!

This is a guest post by Lenore Skomal

17,500 readers uploaded my Kindle version of Bluff, my debut novel, thanks to the free giveaway promotion KDP Select offers those who wish to sign up. That was the count halfway through day three of the promotion.

I wish I could have enjoyed that number. But I couldn’t. I was too busy panicking about the fact that so many people had downloaded an unreadable version of my book.

Unreadable you say? How could that be? Especially with all the checks and balances in place when you upload a file to be formatted for ebook. I might say, you’re right about that. But I’m a rusher. I want things done yesterday. And sometimes, despite my parochial school upbringing, which made me a good soldier, you’d think I’d know better than to just strike out on my own, half-cocked. But sometimes, my ego gets the better of me, and even though I have Sister Mary Denise always in my head, warning me about being too big for my britches, I do give into my darker side.

Instead of having my book professionally converted into the correct file, I thought I would cut corners and just upload the PDF. Hey, how bad could it be? I didn’t imagine that readers would mind a few weird page breaks.

Even writing that makes me nauseous. How bad could it be? I’ll answer my own question for you. Extremely bad. Imagine the worst possible scenario in launching your first, hopefully breakout novel. Especially when your strongest desire is to make this a premium reading experience for them. After all, as I have learned over the 30 years of writing for a living, it’s all about the reader.

Yeah, except in this case. In this case, it was all about the budget. Mistake. Big one.

It was an offhand phone call to my sister that set the nightmare in motion. Her best friend picked up the phone instead and after a few minutes of happy chitchat, I asked her if she had read Bluff yet. I then heard the words that shot through me like a Medusa stare. “I downloaded it but there’s something really off with the formatting. I can’t read it at all,” she said. My heart turned to stone and my stomach launched out of my body into the chasm of panic.

I rushed to my computer and checked my Amazon reviews. Yep. There they were. Two reviews tanking the Kindle version of the novel that readers had downloaded free, saying they couldn’t read it. In sheer reactive mode, I stopped the free giveaway and checked my numbers on KDP Select. 17,500 people had downloaded the corrupted version of my book. I don’t have heart problems, but I swear I started to feel pressure in my chest.

Immediately I put out an all-points alert to my marketing consultant, Pavarti, who works under the umbrella of Novel Publicity. As we narrowed through what exactly happened, it became abundantly clear that the formatting for the Kindle version, which I did myself, was the wrong one. You can’t upload a PDF version of your book and expect it to be readable.

I tried to cut corners and despite advice from the professionals, I thought I knew better. Well, I didn’t. I also didn’t know so many readers would download my book. But I barely enjoyed this victory, because of the pickle I was in. Thanks to a recommendation from my marketing friend, I contacted a professional (Rik Hall, he’s great) and he converted the file to the necessary formats. He even uploaded it for me, since I had developed some serious cold feet about even doing the most menial of tasks online. Panic has a way of doing that to someone.

But uploading a revised file of a book on KDP doesn’t mean the problem is fixed. I had to first unpublish the book to stop the bleeding, which meant no one else would have to suffer through the horrors of trying to decipher what truly looked like a novel in broken English. Or worse, something generated by a computer that you might see in your spam file.

With the blood draining from my face, leaving me tingly and feeling faint, I posted comments to the negative reviews, apologizing for the mistake and explaining that anyone who downloaded the free version would be able to get the new version free as well. I would do anything in order to rectify this human error, which was now costing my book review stars.

Thankful beyond belief for Pavarti, who headed up damage control, I didn’t have a complete breakdown. And that’s why you hire professionals; for just such an emergency. Although, I am fairly certain Pavarti would have liked to spend her Saturday doing something other than contacting all the websites that promoted my free giveaway and working hard to get ahead of this crisis. She took over responding to those on Amazon who, in their frustration, slammed the technology of the book even though they couldn’t read the content. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to have someone who knows what she’s doing take over.

In the process, we learned that it’s almost impossible to contact Kindle Direct Publishing directly. We had hoped to get them to email those who had downloaded the corrupt Kindle version and tell them that the new one would be available for them to download soon. No dice. I still haven’t heard back from them, other than a vague email asking for more details. The problem with that, is when I hit “reply” to give them the requested information, the email was promptly returned, labeled undeliverable.

Eventually an email will go out to everyone who has purchased the book, letting them know that the updated file is available. How long that will take though, is anyone’s guess.

I still haven’t awakened from the nightmare quite yet, but I have some perspective now. And if I can offer advice to any other indie publishers it’s this. One, you got to spend money to make money, so don’t cut corners on the important stuff. Two, when trying to navigate your ship in this whole new world, trust those who have the maps.

About this post's author:

Lenore Skomal is the author of the recently released novel Bluff. As an author, Lenore wants you to eat her books. She wants you to chew them in your teeth, savor them on your tongue, breathe them in, and feel her words in your skin. Her passionate desire is to touch your heart, inspire you, and luxuriate in the world of the written word. Winner of multiple awards for blogging, literature, biography and humor, Lenore Skomal's catalogue spans many genres. With 30 years of writing experience, over 17 books published and a daily blog, the consistent themes in her work are the big issues the human experience and adding depth and voice to the intricacies involved in living a multi-dimensional existence.

Tim Vicary

What a truly terrible story! I fully understand why you nearly had a heart attack; it brings me out in a cold sweat just reading it – 17,500 unreadable downloads!! But full marks to you, Lenore,for going online and sharing the experience; it is indeed a salutary warning. There’s one crumb of cold – very cold – comfort I can offer: having had similarly huge numbers of free downloads myself, I seriously doubt whether more than a tiny fraction – say 10% – of those who grab these free books actually read them. It’s just a guess and not much comfort, but I do wonder. Anyway, better luck next time!

Darlene Chan

It’s definitely worth it to try to email the pdf to your Kindle to check it out first. I averted similar (though on smaller scale) disaster two days ago. I’m a book publicist and had set up an ebook member giveaway on LibraryThing for a client. I had a pdf with a watermark from the publisher. Right before I started sending out the book to winners, I decided to try it on my Kindle, and was shocked to see that the watermark which was transparent on my computer turned into a big black rectangular block on my Kindle! Luckily I got a clean pdf from the publisher and all is well. So bottom line is, always check your wares on your digital readers before sending out!

Mohadoha

Thanks for this honesty! In the world of digital, we need to still remember the principles of putting out a good product. Writers beware!

Hank quense

Another point to keep in mind is what a piece of crap Kindle is. it has no quality control at all on formatiing. it will publish any type of garbage that is uploaded. Smashwords would have stopped this problem in its tracks.

Tim Vicary

That’s good advice about emailing the book to your own kindle to see what it looks like there, before you publish online. You just ahve to attach the file to your kindle email address, and maybe put ‘Convert’ in the address box.

As it happens, today I am reading a very good book on my kindle, which is published by a well-known and highly respected trade publishing house, and the formatting of the ebook is so bad that it is SHOCKING! This is not the first time I’ve seen this – ebooks published by famous publishing houses who clearly don’t know what they are doing. So it’s not just self-publishers who make this sort of mistake, the so-called professionals do it too!

    Hank quense

    I’ve had that experienced also. the problem I think is that the publishing house uploaded a MS formatted for a print book. Print books and ebooks have very different formatting requirements

Matthew Iden

While I feel your pain, I’m puzzled that you–and several of the posters in the Comments section–chose to upload a .pdf for your book. A quick glance around the self-pub community will show you that it’s one of the least used, least flexible formats for e-publishing, as it doesn’t support continuous flow text.

KDP’s own guide (https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A2GF0UFHIYG9VQ) suggests using .doc, which surely all of us have, and specifically says, “While we accept Portable Document Format (PDF) files for eBook conversion, PDF files contain special formatting (and sometimes images) which may not export well in the conversion process.”

Blaming KDP for this as Hank Quense does isn’t the answer. You have to at least read the suggested guidelines Amazon itself provides before putting your name and product in front of the public.

    Darlene Chan

    Matthew: I have yet to find a publisher (or author) who will allow a .doc of a manuscript to be sent out to anyone. Maybe this is why Tim had a problem with a big publisher’s title.

      Matthew Iden

      Hi Darlene –

      I think there’s some confusion here.

      If we’re talking about self-publishing through KDP, you don’t “send” your manuscript to Amazon, you upload it for automatic conversion to a Kindle-readable file, followed by publication under your own name. The whole process takes five minutes if you don’t dilly dally and is under your control the entire time. There is no intermediary and thus no chance for fraud. The end product: your book is available for safe download via Amazon and can be sold, given away via the KDP Select program, given away via Librarything.com, etc.

      MY point addressed the thrust of Lenore’s original issue, which is that the format she originally sent to KDP, a .PDF file, is widely understood to be a poor choice. .DOC is understood–and encouraged by Amazon itself–to be a better choice.

      Tim’s issue (a trad publisher screwing up ebook formatting) is, in my opinion, an instance of a multi-million dollar company not caring about the end product and probably batch-processing dozens or hundreds of book conversions with much the same result of Lenore using a .PDF.

      In her case, it was simply ignorance of the system; in the case of trad pubs messing up, I’d say it’s a lack of concern for the end product. They have the experience, resources, and staff to do better, but often simply don’t care.

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