The Challenges of Publishing Indie Nonfiction Books by Marcia Quinn Noren

Author Marcia Quinn Noren
Author Marcia Quinn Noren
Author Marcia Quinn Noren

For the sake of simplicity, let’s agree that authors who write fiction draw freely from their imaginations. Nonfiction writers are expected to deliver verifiable truths. We do not invent characters, events or dialog. Our task is to spill hard, cold, often ugly facts onto the page, framed in captivating paragraphs. Like novelists, we are storytellers engaged in a similar creative process, and what we write is filtered through our subjective perceptions.

Passion is the emotional component that drives the research. How we interpret information cannot be objective, no matter how hard we try to restrain influences that sway our points of view. Deeply held convictions influence the way our sentences are constructed, determine which resources will be brought forward to support our opinions, while at the same time we strive to keep the third person narrative consistently detached and trustworthy. After scouring every other author’s tome on our topic, we must remain convinced that we have something utterly new to offer our readers. Otherwise, why bother to retell the story?

Indie nonfiction authors compete with academics whose advanced degrees imply expertise and whose credibility is supported by the university presses that often publish their work. We go the extra distance to prove that our completed homework is not only thorough, but meticulous. Although an Indie novelist might put exhaustive research into a backstory, there is no need to document that research or give credit to specific resources by inserting references into the text, linked to endnotes. This factor allows a novel to be produced using a minimal number of fonts, and to be uploaded for instant publication using basic templates or Mark Coker’s Smashwords style guidelines.

The difficulties that come with a more complex layout include paying a professional to pour the Word document into the dreaded program, InDesign, which strips the original text of its most basic elements. Italicized words and punctuation marks are dropped, indents shift, quotation marks disappear; unless the layout designer is a perfectionist who will double and triple check the original manuscript, all hell breaks loose when the proofs come in. As newbies, we can only hope that the pros we choose to work with will deliver what they’ve promised.

When full color photographs, charts, maps and other graphics are added to any book, production and printing costs begin to skyrocket. Absorbing those costs for an Indie who hopes to break even becomes risky. EBook sales allow the possibility of gaining a profit, but unless the author is technologically skilled, the conversion process requires the additional cost of hiring another layout designer to handle two separate editions, ePub3 and KF8. Proofing those conversions becomes another nightmare, as new errors and formatting problems appear in every proof we receive. Working out those glitches may cost the author more than the original contract specifies.

Had I known that self-publishing a biography on a highly controversial figure would result in taking on these daunting tasks, would I do it over again? Yes, the rewards have already been reaped. My goal was not to become rich or famous, but to clarify certain truths about Joan of Arc’s life story. My next nonfiction book will be far easier to publish, as it is a memoir without a single footnote or photograph to complicate the formatting process or drive up the expense of producing it.

As I contemplate releasing a revised edition of the biography, I welcome your suggestions, comments and referrals. I understand that CreateSpace does handle 300 dpi color images. While the majority of my total book sales come through Amazon, we also know that their products are being boycotted by an increasing number of other book sellers.

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Marcia Quinn Noren is author of the nonfiction biography, Joan of Arc, The Mystic Legacy, which was published in November, 2011. A second edition will eventually follow. Her memoir, Sheets of White Linen is still in progress. An excerpt from the memoir, submitted for critique, was awarded “first place, nonfiction book” by the California Writer’s Club. You can learn more about Marcia on her website and on her Author’s Page.

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34 thoughts on “The Challenges of Publishing Indie Nonfiction Books by Marcia Quinn Noren”

  1. InDesign strips out all formatting? Which you then have to put back in, hoping you don’t miss anything? I’m hoping somebody’s building a better program as we speak.

    1. InDesign is an imploement of Satan. An expensive program that creates glitches out of thin air at random. My publisher started using it and the first book of mine he did on it just got riddled with weird format and text errors. I’d say it cost me 30 hours of extra work, and him three times that.
      It’s a nightmare.
      Yet you keep seeing some bozo telling newbies the way to do an ebook is to pay a couple grand for Indesign and start working.

      1. BTW, the reason he, and many publishers get into InDesign (which creates files that can only be edited by other InDesign owners, incidentaly) was because LSI said it was the only way you can generate a pdf to work with their process.
        My partner picked up a down-scale Adobe version for $65 and the files it produced have worked for LSI 100%.

        For CreateSpace and other applications, I use the free Open Office program to create pdf files.

        1. “Yet you keep seeing some bozo telling newbies the way to do an ebook is to pay a couple grand for Indesign and start working.” – LOL

          I’m starting to think anyone who says Word, OpenOffice is unsuitable for POD must be shilling for Adobe. I’ve done some CreateSpace PDFs with Word and they looked fine. Thanks for mentioning Open Office. Glad to hear it works well (and is totally free).

          1. Everyone I consulted, including people who weren’t being paid to use InDesign told me that for this book, I had to let them use it. Bummer.

            My concern about using CreateSpace is that increasingly, more book sellers reject Amazon products (understandably so.)

        2. This is great news, Lin.

          If LSI is compatible with InDesign, I’ll be happy. The edited PDF is no longer in any other format,
          and more edits are needed.

          My editor can work with that hard copy and then changes can easily be made in the file. But, by whom? I need help with this, I’m not a techie.

          I’d been hoping that LSI might be an option for publishing the second edition because it’s more affordable to print in color now (through them), and their link to Ingram is important. I’ve had no access to a distributor for the paperback, as I formed my own small press.

          The ePub3 edition has been distributed through eBooks2go, and they also handle the Kindle edition. Editing those proofs was an entirely different nightmare.

  2. Yes Lynne,

    Dealing with InDesign’s glitches caused me and my production team more grief and wasted hours than I could begin to estimate. During and after that process, I asked many layout designers why InDesign hasn’t been replaced, given the advanced technology everyone else seems to have access to, no one could give me an answer other than, “That’s just the way it is, for now.”

    Thanks for your comment and I continue searching for another solution. I won’t consider going through that torture again!

  3. Marcia, thank you for that useful information. I have been feeling like an orphan with so many fiction writers around me. Are there any popular non-fiction sites? I like IU very much, but wouldn´t mind more about non-fiction.

    1. Why does “historical fiction” continue to trump authentic nonfiction writing today, Elina? How I wish I knew the answer to that question, and how well I relate to your feeling orphaned!

      We don’t have much company, do we? The posts here (and elsewhere) are consistently fascinating, filled with great advice, and yet too often unrelated to what I do, as a writer.

      Finding our target audience is key. It is so easy to become side-tracked by the sheer wealth of seductive information “out there” on the web.

      Thank you for weighing in, Elina!

      Please add more about what you’ve experienced as an Indie nonfiction author.

  4. The idea of nonfiction being more truthful than fiction is an interesting one. It seems self evident, initially, but the line gets more blurry as you go deeper. At one end of the scale would be a mathematics text book, perhaps, but as we approach creative nonfiction and then fiction, objectivity slowly recedes.

  5. Is nonfiction more truthful than fiction? Not necessarily so. Most of us were taught (by those who presumed to educate us) that history is founded, grounded in some kind of absolute truth. Not so.

      1. Still thinking about that, David. Memoirs by holocaust survivors aren’t written from a victorious p.o.v., for example. “Black Elk Speaks” is more riveting than an overview of the Westward Movement. Yes?

        1. Oh, yeah, like all memorable axioms or adages (are these the right words?), it’s certainly a generalization, but a more pertinent point would be that even survivor memoirs are subjective. Not only because everyone has an agenda, whether conscious or otherwise, but because we make extremely unreliable witnesses, every last one of us. I’d say most nonfiction has elements of fiction.

  6. As Lin mentioned, InDesign is an over-priced POS. The first thing we do when a client gives us an InDesign file as a source is to completely strip out all the weird HTML that gets exported. Non-fiction presents a big challenge, but it can be done if you work carefully with the HTML. Congrats on your book, Marcia.

  7. Thank you, Paul,

    Please let me know how to escape ever engaging again with InDesign.

    What are the options?

    Weird HTML is just the beginning of the nightmare!
    I want to perfect the second edition, but don’t know how to begin.

    Thank you,

    1. Well, as a shameless small businessman, hopefully you’ll pay us! We can do non-fiction for as low as $100. However, as a fellow author, this is the workflow I would suggest:

      Step 1) Work with your editor to write your book in a simple word processing program (i.e. Word, OpenOffice, Pages, etc.). Keep the layout simple for the time being. For different styles, name your styles something logical and use them repeatedly throughout the document.
      Step 2) Study up on HTML/CSS
      Step 3) Add the extra design features like pull quotes, footnotes, chapter headings, Table of Contents, etc. using HTML/CSS in a quality text editor like Notepad++ or something similar if you’re a Mac person. Good HTML markup is the only way to ensure your eBook doesn’t get “broken” by the various eReading devices. I have never seen an eBook from the InDesign EPUB export look anything but horrendous. If you want to do an index, link it to sections rather than page numbers (since eBooks have no page numbers).
      Step 4) Compile eBook from your source HTML/CSS. The best way is to learn how the EPUB spec works, but if you’re not a total dweeb you may want to check out a program like Sigil.
      Step 5) Now that you know how you want the design to look and you have all the content all squared away, you can use your word processor (or InDesign if you want to shell out hundreds of dollars) to create the print version. Print layout is different than eBook, but I find it easier to do eBook first, because it makes you get everything in a logical pattern.

      This is the rough outline of the workflow I’m doing for my next non-fiction book. Hope that helps.

      1. I guess what I don’t understand here is why people would want to go through all this hell to make an ePub.
        Then what do you do with it? Where do you sell it?

        You can skip all that if you just upload to Kindle and SmashWords. At which point you have ebooks for sale on, Kobo, Nook, B&N, Sony, iStuff… everything.

        For less work, no money, and you’re plugged in to sell.

        Is there something I’m missing here?

        1. Lin,

          It’s been my personal experience that the Smashwords Meatgrinder and uploading a .doc straight to Kindle leaves formatting problems for more complex books. This is particularly true for things like the Table of Contents, ordered lists, page breaks, etc. Smashwords is supposed to launch a Direct EPUB program later this year where you can upload an EPUB and they distribute to the stores you mention. EPUB can also be uploaded directly to B&N, Kobo Writing Life, and iTunes (if you can navigate their difficult approval process). The MOBI/KF8 format (for Kindle) is basically an EPUB, so once you have an EPUB you can get the file for Amazon’s Kindle pretty easily.

          To be honest I find it easier to work with HTML rather than dealing with all the voodoo magic required in the Smashwords Style Guide to make it go through their Meatgrinder. Anyway, it’s a just a matter of how much you want to budget for your book. For fiction that’s pretty straight forward without a lot of fancy formatting, running a .doc through a Calibre or Smashwords might not be totally terrible, but it doesn’t look as good as it could. These are just my thoughts.

          1. One more thing–just to bore everyone to death on this thread–for eBooks it’s important that the eBook source files are split into numerous tiny HTML files (usually one file per chapter or so). Smashwords Meatgrinder does not handle this well, which leads to performance issues and lag for the reader.

        2. The ePub3 edition looks good at this point, and I’ve had no complaints from readers/reviewers. But it’s still not as perfect as I’d like it to be. The perfect-bound book layout is too complex for Smashwords. Consider thirty-seven full color images (must be at least 300 dpi) and nearly 100 end-notes. As Paul said, “It’s been my personal experience that the Smashwords Meatgrinder and uploading a .doc straight to Kindle leaves formatting problems for more complex books.”

      2. Thank you Paul, but I’m afraid that I might be a total dweeb. That’s why I hired all those people to help me get the book out there, in all of those formats. I got lucky here and there, working with good people, but then I got unlucky, and wasted a lot of time and money (working with people who didn’t know what they were doing, despite having claimed to.)

    2. I have no idea why an ebook would have to be many different html files and have never run into that idea on the many epub groups I follow.

      Since the vast majoriity of ebook sales take place on amazon, and they don’t even accept epub for upload, and their formatting seems to work quite well with the standard doc to html to prc method, I still just can’t figure out the advantage of spending money and time on this.

      1. Oops, my reply go clipped. Actually, I don’t think it’s even possible to upload a .doc straight to Kindle, is it? Certainly most people use something like a mobipocket-created file.
        I have had absolutely zero problems with putting ebooks up on Kindle, and I use a lot of graphics and oddball formatting.

        I’ve only had one problem among the more than a dozen books I’ve put up on SmashWords. And any minor problem there seems minor to me, compared to the hassle of going around creating accounts and uploading to a dozen different stores.

      2. The EPUB is converted with a program called KindleGen that is released by Amazon into their proprietary format (i.e. MOBI/KF8). It works fairly well and gives the best results you can get from Amazon. For the numerous HTML files, your eBooks are all converted into these pieces by either Smashwords or whatever program you are using. It makes the eReading device not have to parse a big monster-sized HTML file. Take one of your EPUBs that Smashwords, unzip it with 7-zip or something, and you’ll see all the HTML files there. I admit that I’ve lied some in my day, but I’m not lying about this.

        1. Nobdy said you were lying. But I will say this: “ePub documents” are not the same as “eBooks”. Again, amazon is the HUGE leader in ebook sales. Going through the process I describe produces excellent results. I see no reason to spend extra time and effort. Maybe color plates make a difference, but there’s a pretty tiny market for color ebooks at present.

          1. So Lin, you’re saying that authors should stick with Amazon, using CreateSpace and KF8? Don’t be concerned if your local bookstore (the one that’s still open) won’t sell your book because it’s an Amazon product?

            And you’re saying, don’t bother with creating an ePub3 file? Every other eReading device out there uses ePub3. Amazon’s refusal to go with that standard is I suppose, a smart business move. Assume that everyone’s got a Kindle. Have to admit, I like my Kindle better than the Color Nook, even though the references in the text don’t auto-link to the end-notes on the Kindle Fire.

          2. Actually I didn’t say that at all.
            What I said is there to be read.
            Spending a lot of money to get books into stores is not a good idea.
            Especially since stores don’t sell ebooks.
            I’m done with this discussion. I prefer talks where people respond to what I actually said.
            I’m sure you’ll do fine.

  8. Lin, I’m very interested in what you’re saying. It wasn’t my intention to misread you. I’m just trying to clarify a couple of things. My book doesn’t fit into the Smashwords style guidelines (too many 300 dpi color images.)

    The eBook publisher I worked with insisted that they needed to create an ePub3 file for B&N, Sony, and Kobo. Then, they created a separate KF8 file for the Kindle Fire.

    That contrasts with what you’ve said, “You can skip all that if you just upload to Kindle and SmashWords. At which point you have ebooks for sale on, Kobo, Nook, B&N, Sony, iStuff… everything. For less work, no money, and you’re plugged in to sell.”

    That’s very good news, obviously. I’m just in shock, if in fact that company (who did the conversion) didn’t know that.

    I appreciate your input! Don’t go away mad, okay?

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