Thursday, November 12

Self-publishing Nonfiction: Some Pros, Cons, and Lessons from Experience

By Karen A. Wyle, @WordsmithWyle

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Although this site focuses on fiction, there are a lot of writers (like me and today's guest) who are doing nonfiction projects as indie authors (writing books, anyone?). The process is similar, but nonfiction does have a few elements that differ from self publishing a novel. Karen A. Wyle steps up to the podium to help us understand a few of these difference.

Karen is an award-winning appellate attorney with more than thirty years' experience. A cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, she worked for law firms and the California Court of Appeal before establishing her solo practice in Bloomington, Indiana. Wyle has filed amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and seven state supreme courts. She has also written and published five novels. One-quarter of her novel Division is set a near-future courtroom.

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Take it away Karen...

Indie authors may feel, a few novels in, that we have this self-publishing process down pat. We know the differences between paperback and ebook formatting. We’ve found cover designers we trust, or we have the skills to make our own covers. We know what sort of files need to be uploaded to different printers/publishers/retailers. We’ve collected a loyal tribe of beta readers. We’ve found some way to handle editing, whether or not we’ve decided it’s essential to hire that service.

So how much harder could it be to self-publish nonfiction?

My own personal answer: quite a bit. But there are also significant advantages that aren’t as obvious when you’re writing fiction.

A threshold issue: the more complicated your book, the more it matters that your tools are robust and reliable. If I’d realized beforehand that my Word 2003 software had developed some glitches and couldn’t handle bullet lists and multiple styles, I would have upgraded before I moved from Scrivener (where I draft books) to Word (where I format them for publication). Instead, I spent a ridiculous amount of time wrestling with the software. (It became something of a game, outwitting the glitches by learning how they worked. But that was less than complete consolation.)

A nonfiction book is likely to have cross-references, with live links to bookmarks in the ebook edition(s). If you don’t already know how bookmarks work, you’ll need to learn. If you mess up here, it might affect how some ebook retailers’ navigation files display the contents of your book. Also, even if you haven’t included a linked Table of Contents in your novels (and Amazon is apparently starting to require one, even in books with no chapter titles), you’ll probably want one for your nonfiction book. (The aforementioned navigation file may not include sections and subsections, depending on such details as the styles you’ve used.) Caution: if you publish on both Smashwords and Kindle, you’ll need two versions of the TOC, created differently. For this and other reasons, if you’re publishing a Smashwords edition (handy for giving away copies via Smashwords’ coupon codes, and also the easiest way to distribute to many other retailers), I strongly suggest getting the latest edition of the Style Guide and reading it all the way through before you start formatting.

You’ll need some new beta readers, unless those who’ve helped you with your novels just happen to be well versed in the subject you’re now addressing. But be careful: people don’t always know what they don’t know. Just as you double-check your research, don’t accept a correction from a beta reader without checking its accuracy.

If your book includes illustrations, you’ll need to find out the technical requirements for the various sites, as well as how the total file size will affect your customers’ costs. Kindles, for example, come with a delivery charge once the file gets large enough.

Your book should probably have an index. Word has an indexing tool, but that tool won’t be able to tell the difference between two different meanings of the same term, nor will it know when you’re just barely mentioning a subject and when you’re discussing it in depth. You can find a professional indexer with whom you communicate well, or you can do the job yourself. If you tackle it, spend some time weighing the enormous time investment for a thorough index against the drawbacks of a more cursory one.

Oh, and if you’re using Word, and you’ve toggled the setting that lets you see “field codes,” make sure that setting is off before you do any indexing–because (at least in the version of Word I used) the pagination changes with the field codes showing, and you want your index to cite the pages your readers will actually see.

Getting discouraged? Let me cheer you up by mentioning the most important advantage of self-publishing nonfiction: the ability to update until the last moment, and then update again.

Here’s an example from my own mammoth effort, Closest to the Fire: A Writer’s Guide to Law and Lawyers. About eight days before my target launch date, I happened upon an article about a case the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to take. I’d seen an earlier reference to the same event a day or so earlier, but this new article had more details. I realized the case in question was one I’d discussed in my section on corporate insider trading, a case on the front lines of how broadly the “insider trading” label should be applied. I immediately returned to the topic and rephrased the paragraph discussing that case, taking care not to change the pagination so the Index wouldn’t need revisiting.

I can’t imagine how traditionally published authors handle such changes. It often takes 18 months or more from the time an author turns in a book to the time it actually appears. How can any topical subject matter fail to be out of date when finally published on such a schedule?

Then there’s the matter of post-publication updates. For ebooks, it’s a trivial task: make the changes and re-upload the file. At the retailers whose policies I know, the original version remains on sale until the revised ebook goes live. For paperbacks published through Amazon’s CreateSpace, the upload process is slightly slower, and the book is likely to be out of stock for a day or so during the transition. (I don’t know the procedure at Ingram Spark, the paperback publisher of choice for those more concerned with possible bookstore distribution.) Still, compared to persuading a publisher to issue a new edition and then watching the process lumber along, the self-published update is enormously easier.

Bottom line: self-publishing nonfiction is likely to cost more, and take a good deal more work, than self-publishing fiction; but it can be done, and for some subject matter, it may be the ideal way to go.

About Closest to the Fire: A Writer's Guide to Law and Lawyers

Attorney Karen A. Wyle has been practicing appellate law for more than thirty years, and writing novels for the last five. Now she is bringing together her vocation and her avocation with a reference work meant to welcome her fellow writers to the many dramatic possibilities waiting in the legal landscape, and to help them avoid pitfalls as well.

Closest to the Fire: A Writer's Guide to Law and Lawyers, available from Oblique Angles Press in paperback and Kindle editions with other ebook formats to come, guides the reader through many areas of criminal and civil law and procedure. The reader can learn about criminal offenses from minor infractions to capital murder on the criminal side, and about the law of contracts, torts, family law, probate, real property, tax, bankruptcy, intellectual property, and more. Wyle also covers such less familiar areas as military justice and federal admiralty law, and addresses such issues as when a case is tried by a jury and how juries are chosen, the unexpected problems with eyewitness testimony, and the ways courts deal with the destruction of evidence, among many others. She explains how people become lawyers, and offers examples of quaint legal customs and common trial tactics. She draws upon her lifelong interest in constitutional law to analyze numerous provisions of the U.S. Constitution and highlight some of the controversies that have arisen concerning them.

Throughout the book, Wyle has included ideas for stories or story elements, based on the book's content and available for the reader's use in his or her own fiction.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Typos...

    I don't find nonfiction easy from a writing standpoint the way some writers I know do.

    I've learned to love it as a reader, though (but the bulk of my entertainment reading still predominately fiction), but these tips will be helpful for my writer friends who write nonfiction far better than me.

    With fiction, you can retrofit your research to suit the story (Minus getting highly technical, historical or scientific things right, or describing a "Real World" location like if your story's set in Brooklyn, New York or Beverly Hills in California), but nonfiction by it's nature demands sticking to facts, and those facts can be hard to come by,

    While I certainly get "Facts can be fun" as a reader, making them fun when I'm the one writing is different matter...I have such great respect for writers who can write both equally well.

    I will say in response to Karen's wondering how trad. published authors deal with time-sensitive info in their nonfiction, is they simply come out with a new edition, either annually (like Writer's Digests Guides For the Children's Market, General Market [i.e. the non-xxx Adult Market)] or Literary Agents), or they publish a new edition every few years, again, depending on how time sensitive the info is.

    Of course, that's more work as you're making a long-term commitment, but if it's a topic your care about, it's a great way to give back to those who find the topic as interesting or helpful as you would had such a book been available to you. Plus, if it takes off it can be financially lucrative in the way people often characterize nonfiction.
    (Something us non brand name fiction authors envy, at least a little)

    Certainly craft books written by writers who've been where you are (and still go through, it but at least don't feel as lost regarding basic SPAG and POV matters) fall into this category.

    But even when we're dealing long-threaded historical topics, experts in the field can still find new info we didn't yet know, though it's not as rampant as the ever changing world of tech or currency exchange rates.

    We're still learning about Colonial America as new bits of info have come to the surface, just in my lifetime alone (I was a '90s kid) that's been true.Or we're seeing the story of Early America from different perspectives that we didn't consider at the time, but are just as relevant, especially as the U.S. gets more diverse in both ethnicity, and evolving gender roles.

  3. Taurean -- I agree with you about the benefits and purpose of subsequent editions.

    I'm sure many authors are able to bring out new editions, and that annual editions will satisfy many of them. I value the ability to update evolving legal issues more often, particularly when the initial book commented on some rapidly changing legal frontier. I would also guess that some authors who would like to bring out additional editions discover that either due to the book's lukewarm sales or to staffing or policy changes at the publisher's, they don't have that opportunity. A self-published author can not only make, but follow through on the long-term commitment you describe, and give back to those who share their interest in the topic, without such obstacles.