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Self-Publishing Gets Practical

Free ways to get that manuscript in the public eye.

En español | We all have a book in us, whether it's a war memoir, a family recipe cookbook, or a novel about a dashing 50+ writer who lives a secret life as a devil-may-care spy, pilfering secrets from evildoers while seducing beautiful women in the scintillating capitals of Europe…

But I digress. The point is, getting a book published has traditionally been very difficult. Publishing houses accept a tiny fraction of the manuscripts they receive, and paying to have your work published by a so-called "vanity press" is expensive. In the age of eBooks, though, self-publishing is fast, reasonably easy and you can do it for free. In just days your work could appear in major online bookstores. And while readers can comfortably enjoy your book on a dedicated Kindle or Nook, downloadable apps turn tablets, smartphones and computers (PC and Mac) into perfectly practical alternatives.

No-cost eBook publishing opportunities are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble (the largest eBook sellers) along with Smashwords, which not only sells eBooks directly but also distributes through the Apple iBook store, the Sony Reader Store, Kobo and others. Of course, there's no reason you can't sell the same book through all three – it doesn't take much extra work once you've got the manuscript in a Microsoft Word file.

Self publishing a book is becoming easier with ebooks - a woman types on her laptop

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You too can become a published author with the Web as your printing press.

How much can you hope to make as an eBook author? Well, a handful of folks have found their fortune as self-published authors, but it's going to take an awful lot of copies sold to pay for that Porsche. The Kindle Direct Publishing Program has two royalty rates for U.S. authors: 35 percent and 70 percent of the book's list price, either of which is darned generous compared to the traditional 15 percent an author receives for a printed book. Of course, eBooks are generally sold for a lot less than their paper cousins – that's part of their appeal, especially when asking people to read works by an unknown author.

Next: The full story behind e-book pricing. >>

Why two rates? They're based mostly on how much you charge for your book. To get the 70 percent deal, your book has to be priced between $2.99 and $9.99; you can go down to 99 cents, or up to $200 with the 35 percent rate. (There are also some restrictions based on the size of the downloadable eBook file.) Barnes & Noble rates are 65 percent for the $2.99 to $9.99 tier and 40 percent for those priced in the 99 cents to $199.99 range. As for Smashwords, they pay an 85 percent royalty on books sold directly through their own site, and 60 percent for books sold through another distributor.

So, what's needed to break into the glamorous world of self-publishing? A book manuscript is a good start. Keep in mind that graphics-intensive books don't work as well in digital form as they do on paper. You don't have a lot of control over the layout of your eBook – not only do the screen sizes vary, but the reader can actually adjust the size of the type, which completely changes the formatting. Also, many of your readers will be looking at a black-and-white rather than color screen.

Microsoft Word is the standard for creating, and often submitting, your manuscript. It's worth mastering Word's Styles system to format your work. For example, instead of hitting the Tab key to indent a paragraph, use a style that automatically indents for you. Instead of manually making headings or subheadings larger and bolder, use styles for that too. This has several benefits. It makes your work look consistent, and helps the software that will ultimately convert the manuscript into eBook format do a better job with the spacing. Also, if you want to include a table of contents, Word styles can automate the process.

Next: Inserting images in your manuscript. >>

You'll also want to learn about inserting images directly into your Word document if you're planning to include graphics. As mentioned earlier, images in eBooks can present layout challenges; keeping the pictures relatively small and leaving them centered horizontally on the page is your best strategy.

All three publishers can work with Microsoft Word files, but there are other options that offer more control over the look of your book, and better opportunities to preview the layout before uploading it. You'll find complete instructions about formatting possibilities on each company's website.

You'll also want to create a book cover. You can include a picture or just use type but, either way, the publishers expect you to submit an image file in the standard JPEG format. That means you'll need some image editing software. I like Adobe's Photoshop Elements ($99.99 for PC or Mac), but any program that lets you edit and resize your image will be fine. Another worthwhile resource when building a book cover is, which lets you search for images based on keywords, and buy them at reasonable prices. (I paid $15 for the cover image used in a recent eBook.)

Of course, some projects are more elaborate than others. For a straightforward text-heavy eBook, you can probably handle it yourself. If you feel the need for help, and can't find the answer in the publisher's online guides, turn to their user forums, where fellow authors who've gone through the publishing process answer questions and explain some of the finer points. And finally, if it's just too much for you, there's no need to despair. Since the eBook publishing boom, a host of companies has sprung up ready to provide assistance with any phase of the process at consumer-friendly rates – you'll find links to recommended providers at each publisher's website.