Function over frills

by | May 26, 2023

When I started publishing the Darbas Cycle in 2021, I was the product of well-meaning advice and acknowledged ignorance.

Advice like: “Offer your readers a prize for writing reviews!”

Ignorance like: “Since I don’t really know what I’m doing, I guess I’d better follow the Amazon KDP Word Template.”

And you may or may not have noticed it, but particularly when it came to paperbacks, I shipped a bunch of cobbled-together, patched-up kludge to the printers. Not because I wanted to. Not because I didn’t know better, at least on some level.

Simply because the requirements for publishing paperbacks via Amazon meant that — in my particular case — I have to use the most widely used and kludgy word processing program on the planet (Microsoft Word) to submit a file to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (aka “KDP”) platform.

And sadly, I just happen to know a thing or two about KDP’s origins.

Back in the 2000s, I did some web admin and content work for a friend who had just become an instant millionaire when he and his partners sold their print-on-demand software company to Amazon. Their software worked, but not only did it not play well with Amazon’s legacy systems, Amazon had also purchased a rival print-on-demand company, and wanted elements of both systems integrated into one publishing suite. While keeping the systems live for writers and customers.

And here’s what I learned: Decent but imperfect code can produce good results in the proper environment, but if you’re going to transplant that code into as-yet-undeveloped IT environments, and then jam it together with third-party code, you’re going to produce brand new headaches you never imagined. Plus, with corporate bosses pushing their own non-technical agendas, elegant solutions to those issues won’t just magically appear.

Those are the foundations of our current KDP paperback publishing environment. And because I can’t justify the cost of a seat license for Adobe InDesign, my options for producing a digital file format that’s compatible with KDP are basically limited to using Microsoft Word, or spending more money on yet another word processor — which may or may not tame KDP’s glitchy tendencies.

Worse than you think

When I started this project, I imagined that most of my readers would be downloading eBooks to Kindle, because that’s where the indie writers who were making five and six-figure incomes get their money.

In our case, the reverse is true: Roughly three-quarters of our orders are paperbacks. And if you’ve got one of those paperbacks and you believe in this series, I recommend you hang on to it. Because I’m in the process of replacing those paperbacks with stripped-down new editions, and here’s why: I don’t like depending on anything that’s proven itself undependable.

I’d just finished submitting the new editions of Chene, Llyr and Gwynyr to KDP when I started this post, and I thought I’d write it while I uploaded and proofed the new versions of Ta Nupa and City of the Dead.

But then it took me 10 revisions of Ta Nupa to finish the job.

Not because I overlooked old problems (although I probably did that, too). Because the Word/KDP interface routinely creates new problems. Because even after removing the template bells and whistles that cause 90 percent of the problems between KDP and MS Word, you still don’t know how things are going to turn out.

KDP, for instance, has a habit of inserting blank pages in front matter, even when there’s no page break in the Word file. The first four or five versions were just about interpreting the KDP formatting so that I got the proper things on right- and left-facing pages. The rest were mostly about discovering things like awkward “widow lines” at the end of chapters, or even more annoying, discovering that the last page of a chapter has been reformatted from “top” orientation to “center” orientation on its page.

Why? Who knows? And I don’t say that just because I don’t know. I say that because experience — and consulting with a friend who is an MS Word expert — has convinced me that these two systems are so non-transparent and bug-sensitive that how they render can be largely dependent on individual sessions, rather than whatever settings you apply.

For instance, you’d think that how things look in Word on your computer should be pretty good guide to how they’ll look in your paperback. After all: The Word template you download from KDP is supposed to have the same page size, margins and gutters as the finished product. But there’s literally no relationship between Word pagination on your computer and KDP pagination online.

Bottom line? The more complex your formatting, the more likely it is to break.

And since I don’t like things that break, I decided I was going to go back and create truly stable versions of all five of my books before I get started writing Book Six. I figured it would take me three days, maximum.

That was 10 days ago, y’all.

The new versions of the paperbacks don’t have headers. They don’t have a Table of Contents, or complex front-matter page numbering. Because does any of that really matter?

What they also lack are some of the reader come-ons that that were recommended to me from the Advice For Would-Be Writers industry. I still ask readers to write me a review, give my books star-ratings, and visit my website. But the result is a more dignified experience. Yes, I want reviews and five-star ratings and web traffic and email newsletter sign-ups. I’m just not going to disrespect myself to get them.

Sometimes less is more. And now that I’ve achieved that with my paperback library, I’m going to go apply it to eBooks as well. And once everything on my bookshelf is under control for the first time, I’ll be back to promoting my work for the first time in months.

I can’t say that I’m exactly looking forward to that, but I’m not dreading it anymore, either.