For Authors/Publishers

CreateSpace: Tips & Tricks and Lessons Learned

Given that Seven is now available in print, I thought I'd run through some of the lessons learned and tips & tricks I picked up for using CreateSpace to create a trade paperback version of my book. The TL;DR version? Research the process, pick the right tools, and the job might be easier than you think...

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Getting Seven: The Haunted Girl of NuLo into print was always on the agenda as I got started in this self-pub adventure, but the project was constantly being pushed back as other fires demanded my attention. That's not to say that the other fires were more dangerous. In fact, they were probably attended to first because they seemed more manageable. But when I finally got started with the process (something I fully expected to take a significant chunk of time and attention), I found it went from (1) planning to (2) execution to (3) book in hand without as much pain and frustration as I had anticipated.

So where do we begin? Let's just lay out the tools that I used, and then hop right into the tips and tricks and things I picked up along the way, shall we?

 

The Tools

Let me start by saying that this is going to be a touch Mac-centric as my primary writing machine is a Mac. But you can find similar tools (or the same app, ported to other platforms) on whatever OS you're using. So what did I use?

  • Scrivener. Really does simplify the process of formatting your interiors (in addition to all the other wonderful things it can do for an author).
  • How to Format Your Novel... . Ed Ditto's handy guide provides a solid approach to Scrivener compilation for a number of intended targets/markets, including CreateSpace, though I did modify some of Ed's suggested settings.
  • Preview. For general review of interior/cover pdf files and cropping the CreateSpace cover templates. Comes standard on every Mac.
  • Pixelmator. Lightweight, Photoshop-style image editor used for creating covers.
  • Printer. For some quick DIY proofing before committing to ordering from CreateSpace.

That's it. So how about a few tips and tricks and specifics surrounding how I used these tools?

 

Interior

Scrivener was a godsend here. I've been using it for a number of years, but had often been frustrated by the compile process and had certainly never used it to compile anything for print before. Rather than spending hours kicking every tire, I opted for a bit of hand-holding and guidance. Encouraged by some of the helpful posts on his blog, I picked up Ed Ditto's How to Format Your Novel for Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords, and CreateSpace...in One Afternoon (for Mac)

I won't go into every little insight I picked up from Ditto's book (you really should buy it if Scrivener is a vital part of your production chain), but let's just say that (a) it de-mystified the print-compilation process and highlighted the important options for print-compilation, and (b) I didn't use all of Ed's suggested settings but rather took my cues for what I wanted from books on my own bookshelf and iterated the compile process until I had what I wanted...

Front Matter (Copyright page & Dedication)

Interior pages showing headers & margins

Interior pages showing chapter start

That last point is maybe something that needs to be called out. Make mistakes. Try things. It doesn't cost you anything but time, so get a basic set of compile options in place, run the compilation, look at the resulting pdf, and then go back and tweak the options as necessary. I'm going to guess that it took me about a dozen attempts to get what I wanted on the screen, but even then, I should have gone one step further, because...

Print is your friend.

Considering the ultimate goal is to end up with a printed book, I don't know why I didn't print some sample pages and make my own little "test book" to check font size and margins and such. I should have. Instead, I had to see that first proof copy from CreateSpace to realize that my margins and font size were wrong. I should have printed some pages at the 6x9" target size, cut out them out and taped them together before ordering that proof (which I did do before the second round of prints!).

Even then, I would not have known that the gutter margin was too small. I didn't even realize it when I paged through that first proof copy when it first arrived. Which leads me to my final suggestion for interior formatting...

Read the book!

Honestly, it took actually reading the book to realize that the gutter margin (the one closest the spine) was too tight (increasing from the original 0.75" to 0.825" for a 228 page book). By the fourth or fifth time I had to pull the pages nearly flat, I had sussed the frustration that readers were going to feel. Added bonus? I caught a few mistakes in the text (added space before a period, "where" instead of "wear", for instance) that had slipped past proofreaders as I read the book as an actual book.

I'm not sure I'll need to do two rounds of proofs on the next book now that I have working margins and fonts in place, but you'd have to be exceeding lucky to get everything 100% right the first time around. Even now, there are nits that I have to pick with the finished product, but they're not show stoppers. Also, they're on CreateSpace's end and thus not something I have any power over.

Oh, and don't forget to kill your widows and orphans once you have margins, font, and font-size determined (if you're so inclined)!

 

Cover

It's worth noting that I had to get all the interior formatting and widow/orphan killing done before I even started the cover. If you're going to use CreateSpace's own Cover Creator tool, you can work on that while you're doing the interior, but if you're going full-DIY, you'll need the page count and book size before you start your cover design.

Why?

Well, CreateSpace helpfully provides templates to build your cover on top of, but those templates are based upon your book size (I went with a standard 6x9" trade paperback to enable expanded distribution through CreateSpace) and page count (more pages = wider spine). I'm not sure why these template files extra white space outside of the actual cover bits, but I used the zoom and crop tools in Apple's default pdf-viewer Preview app to trim it off with precision.

CreateSpace-provided template for DIY cover design

Then it was time for Pixelmator, my preferred image editor. I simply created a new file with the exact pixel dimensions of the trimmed template, then dragged that template in as the background layer, dragged my existing ebook cover in as the front cover, and started adding layers for the spine and back cover. Remember, layers and opacity are your friends! I worked with every image layer (excepting the background template) set to 30-50% opacity while I arranged them. I did this so that I could see (1) the pink (non-safe, might be trimmed during printing) areas, (2) the lines designating the spine/cover divisions, and (3) the place where the barcode goes. 

Lowered opacity lets you see through to the template

A few notes:

  • As noted above, the template file shows where CreateSpace is going to stick the barcode, so don't put any text in there. Images are okay (as you can see in the screenshot above), so long as you don't mind the barcode being slapped on top of them.
  • I did a bit of pre-planning with my cover design and designed the ebook cover at a 6:9 ratio at 300dpi (dots per inch, print quality) and with a much larger pixel-count than I would need it for the ebook. That way, I could scale down the cover for inclusion in the ebook and ebook-seller catalogs but use the same design for print. Sadly, some of my text (subtitle + author name) was creeping into the pink, non-safe areas when I pulled the ebook cover in, but I simply preserved the layers from the original on import and dragged them on the template so they'd fit. Plan ahead!

With everything arranged, I duplicated my Pixelmator file so that I could have a working backup copy if things went awry down the road or needed to be tweaked if CreateSpace did not approve the cover. Then I removed the background/template layer and cranked the opacity of my content layers up to 100% (excepting the layers that provided subtle gradients and shading using reduced opacity levels). 

The next step, as specified by CreateSpace, is to flatten the file. Make sure you have your backup copy set aside as editing goes out the window once the layers are flattened. In Pixelmator, I selected Layer>Merge All Layers from the file menu to do so. After that, it was just a matter of exporting the resulting file (you did start with a 300dpi file, right?) to pdf for upload to CreateSpace.

The final cover file

 

Conclusions

I'm not sure if I just got lucky or if my pre-planning and research greased the wheels, but my files were approved by CreateSpace with no hiccups. As I mentioned in the discussion of the interior formatting, I do have some overall issues with the final print quality of the books. The bottom margins on the interiors are larger than I specified, probably owing to how the pages were cut, and, of the two proof copies I ordered in the second round of proofs, one had a decidedly pink cast to the cover. Also, the italic text on the back cover isn't as sharp as it is in the pdf I uploaded.

But those are minor niggles. I'm not 100% satisfied with the results, but 95% is pretty good for a first go-around with self-pub tools (and, granted, I'm also going to be way harder on my own books than others). My second novel is in the revision stage as I write this, with a targeted publication date of September, 2014. Given that print wasn't as arduous as I had supposed, I'm going to attempt to get the print version of that novel out much closer to the ebook release date, rather than have a three-month gap like I did with Seven

I'll let you know how it goes the second time around and if I pick up any more tips & tricks...

The Ups & Downs of the Big Four

Having now published at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo, I've found that all have their strengths and weaknesses, but the big dog is still the leader of the pack...

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While Seven is still in the uncertain (and often torturously long) process of approval with Apple, the rest of my published fiction is available at the "Big Four" ebook stores. I'm not going to claim that the process of publishing is torture with any of them, but they all have their faults and frustrations (and, to be fair, shining moments of quality).

So let's run through the pros and cons as I see them (in April 2014), shall we?

 

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing

Pro: fastest approval (usually within hours), best online preview tools, ePub upload means one less step in the pre-publication process, biggest/best marketplace, email notification when books are live/published, easiest to find help (KDP documentation, kboards, and the web in general)

Con: book description formatting is messy, utilitarian (but functional) back-end, two places to post descriptions (Author Central and KDP) is confusing, lower royalties

 

Kobo Writing Life

Pro: pretty back-end design with fun status messages, streamlined and quick process to upload and prepare books, fastest approval/availability outside Amazon (within 24 hours)

Con: finding bank was a headache for payment processing, non-existent online previewer (download an epub and look at that in an app), WYSIWYG formatting of book synopsis didn’t work (and apparently hasn’t for some time, despite claims of ignorance from Kobo on Twitter), bookstore probably the least searchable/effective of the four, no email notification that books are live/published

 

NOOK Press (Barnes & Noble)

Pro: pretty back-end design, not quite as streamlined a process to upload/prep books for sale as Kobo (but close!), slightly slower to publish than Kobo (but up in about 24 hours), store/catalog pages are the most useful/elegant

Con: help documentation vague and (sigh) unhelpful, online previewer present but terrible, no notification that books are live/published, weirdness surrounding whether to accept ePub as uploaded or as modified within online previewer (even when online previewer not used)

 

iBooks/iTunes Producer (Apple)

Pro: predictably, the catalog pages for books are the most aesthetically pleasing (but app-based is a bummer)

Con: why do I need an app (iTunes Producer) to upload a book? why does it have to save a package to my machine as part of the process? no preview of any sort before uploading, approval time way longer than other stores (over a week), byzantine and overly complex sign-up process to even get started publishing through them is not indie-friendly, no email notification that books are live on the store

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So how would I rank them? Amazon is still the easiest to use, the fastest to publish, the easiest to get paid, and has the biggest reach. It's easily #1 (as I knew going in, which is why I published there first). Correspondingly, Apple is easily dead last (I'd heard the rumors and hoped they weren't true, but they were...in every gory detail). 

There's not much between Nook and Kobo, but B&N's greater market reach (at least in the US) and higher quality storefront trump Kobo's indie-friendliness and irreverent "cute" factor. At least in my book, and, as I said, not by much.