Next, whilst we’re defining things, I guess I’d better clarify why I think you’re going to all this trouble. Though this is a guide for self-publishing, self-publishing encompasses everything from multi-million pound endeavours to one off products for birthday presents and the like. What I’m going to assume is that you are aiming for something in the middle: that you’re undertaking a commercial endeavour, but that it has a very limited budget. As a result of this (or perhaps because of your megalomania!), you, the author, are going to be doing as much of the work (or, more accurately, setting up your computer to do as much of the work) as possible and that, therefore, in order to maximise your sales, you want to make your book available in print form and electronic. But – and this important – that the quality of product you want to create is on par (or better) with those created by the major publishers. Or to put it another way, I am creating the sort guide I wished I had been able to read whilst preparing my first novel.
Where I talk about the assumptions I’m going to make about your book.
Throughout this series of blog posts, I’m going to assume your novel is “finished”. Which is to say that it is probably filled with mistakes and will need a lot rewriting, but that you are blissfully unaware of this at the moment. However, there is no reason why you need to wait till your novel is “finished” to set up LibreOffice. You can do things the other way round i.e set up LibreOffice as I describe and then create your novel. This has the advantage that if, for example, you want to read through the first half of your book on, say, your kindle, you can easily do it with a couple of clicks of your mouse. It does, however, mean you need to be thinking about format whilst writing, but this might not bother you or might be outweighed by the advantage of being able to publish the second your novel is finished.
Seeing as I keep talking about novels, I should clarify, in respect to this guide, what I am considering a novel to be so you don’t read all this and find out it isn’t relevant to you or turn away when it would’ve helped. For the most part, you can consider ‘novel’ to refer to whatever type of book it is that you are preparing to publish, though some types throw up additional challenges that aren’t covered here. Specifically, these tend to be formats that rely heavily on graphics, such as comic books and children’s story books. Academic books that require lots of diagrams are also problematic. This guide also doesn’t cover referencing, bibliographies and other such things that are common in academic work (though these things are quite easily achievable and reading this guide should arm you with what you need to deal with them). Basically, if your book is mostly standard text, bar perhaps the odd logo and picture, be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever, you are good to go, but the more pictures/diagrams/oddly formated text your book has, the harder it is going to be to use this guide.
In the main text I’ll cover formatting prose and dialogue. How to deal with the trickier bits of formatting that you might need, such as if your novel contains poetry, footnotes or letters that need to be formatted as such, I’ll leave to the appendixes at the end.
A brief introduction to myself and a quick look at who I think you are.
Ok, now we know what we are going to do together, it is probably a good idea if we get to know each other. Firstly, let me just clarify who I think you are. This guide is primarily aimed at people who are publishing a book for the first time, and as a result, it goes into a lot of depth about the technicalities of formatting in a (hopefully!) easy to understand manner. I firmly believe that having an understanding of why you are doing the things you are doing will save you time in the long run and help you produce a higher quality product. If, however, you are already familiar with formatting and are, perhaps, just interested in how LibreOffice differs from some other program you have used before and want to get up and running fast, you can just install my plug-in for LibreOffice and read the quick how to, which will show you how to create your document using the supplied template and export it using the supplied style sheet.
If you’ve no idea what a plug-in is, let alone a template or style, or you are doing something complex and want to be able to customize the plug-in/template I’ve created, then read on for a detailed explanation of how to set up LibreOffice manually for novel publishing and how to write a custom export plug-in. Neither of these things are that tricky, but they will take a bit of explaining.
Now, I guess I’d better introduce myself. Hi, I’m Rob, nice to meet you. I’m a writer. I self published my first book, Equilateral, in 2012, and am about to release my second and third. I have also written various screenplays, plays and murder mystery plots, but most importantly, I am also a keen coder and have written various bits of software, from device drivers to php scripts for websites. I also hate talking about myself, so that is about all you’re going to get.
Where I tell you cautionary tale that highlights why formatting your novel with LibreOffice is a good idea.
Just in case you still need a bit of a push to accept that your novel needs to be reformatted into an intermediate format in LibreOffice rather just exporting what you have and tweaking, let me tell you a cautionary tale.
Once there was this boy who had written the most perfect novel. So great was the wave of anticipated glory that accompanied his great achievement that he couldn’t help but get carried away by it. He’d been working for years towards this moment; nothing was going to delay him publishing. So he exported it, and knowing something about document formatting, he crafted it by hand. It didn’t take long, certainly not as long as fixing his original and writing a plug-in. Then he moved onto the next format and so on, essentially ending up with one master document per format.
He soon realised that, though it had been quicker to do the first formatted document, as more and more formats were added, this clearly wasn’t the case any more, but the real horror began when he realised that his perfect novel wasn’t quite as perfect as he had first thought and needed a few small changes. “No biggie,” he thought. “It won’t take long to go back and add the changes required to all the documents.” But halfway through he spotted another error then another, so he had to go back and correct those he had already corrected. By this time, our poor hero was starting to lose track of which documents had had which corrections made to them. Then he got a call from a journalist wanting a copy in format X to review.
Of course, as sod’s law dictates, format X was one of those that currently hadn’t had any of the changes added to it, so he stopped what he was doing and added the changes to version X, noticing, as he did, another couple of small changes, which he corrected in format X. With relief he sent off a copy of format X, only to have his relief turn to despair as he realised that he no longer had any idea which of the remaining documents had had which changes applied to them and which ones hadn’t!
In desperation, he tried to work it out from the documents’ modification dates, but he’d been tweaking the formatting of the documents as he’d been going along, too, so he didn’t know if a file had had its content or formatting changed. At this point he broke down in floods of tears, and wished he’d heeded my advice because, to this very day, all the versions of his book for the different formats have slightly different content!!!
No matter how perfect you think your book is, proof reading the different formats will reveal errors that you won’t believe you have constantly missed. Having one master document where you make all the changes to the content and where formatting tweaks are handled in plug-ins is the way to go, believe me.
A description of what this series of blog posts intends to cover.
Right, though it is a little counter-intuitive, I’m going to start by telling you how this is going to end. This is going to necessitate I tell you a few things before I have defined or clarified them, so don’t worry if you don’t fully understand something. I’ll explain everything in more detail as we progress.
So, after you’ve worked through this tutorial, you are going to have (drum roll) a master copy of your novel formatted in LibreOffice in such a way that you can create versions in various different formats (print and electronic) by going to export and simply selecting what you want. Exciting or what?!
Explicitly these formats will support publishing on the kindle via a custom export plugin that you’ve tailored to the exact needs of your novel (though if your novel is formatted similarly to my example, you might not need to customize it), publishing in print using the industry standard PDF format and a whole smorgasbord of smaller platforms (including the iPad) using Smashwords.
Just in case you have been living under a rock, kindles are the e-readers sold by Amazon and will account for most of your sales, and the iPad is an overpriced tablet pc made by Apple, but seeing as only people with money to burn own one, depending on the demographic of your intended audience, it might well be an important market for you. There are also a whole host of less popular devices, some of which use EPUB and some which use their own format. If you think one of these devices is likely to be an important market for you, you might want to create a custom plugin for them too so you can ensure the quality of your end product. However, for most of you, this won’t be the case and allowing Smashwords to take care of them for you is fine. I’ll talk a bit more about what exactly Smashwords is in a bit, but for now, all you need to know is that it takes a specially formatted DOC file (Microsoft’s truly awful, binary document format) and spits out versions of your novel formatted for lots of different devices.
Now, for the print version of your book, I’m going to explicitly show you how to format it to be used with Createspace, which is Amazon’s print-on-demand service, but the steps are pretty much the same for any publisher, print-on-demand or traditional, as they will almost certainly all require from you your novel in the industry standard PDF file format (and I would be very concerned about any that didn’t).
As well as having the documents ready to publish, by the time we’re done, you’ll also understand the ins and out of document formatting, meaning you can cope with any peculiarities your particular novel throws up and will ensure that you create a professional product on all platforms. And best of all, this should all take just one evenings worth of your time!
It is worth noting that there are various other ways to achieve the same thing, and I’m not going to pretend that the LibreOffice way is perfect, but it does have some very big advantages, which will become apparent as we progress. However, I will mention the main disadvantage now, which you may have picked up on during this introduction if you haven’t been asleep: this is going to take a bit of setting up, not much, but at the time of writing this, there is no magic bullet piece of software that can accept your manuscript, however you’ve formatted it, and spit out good quality versions for the different devices.
The closet thing that exists at the moment is Smashwords, which takes a specially formatted Microsoft Office file and, from that, creates different versions. However, setting up LibreOffice to create the specially formatted DOC file alone isn’t really any less work than setting up LibreOffice properly. Plus, the files Smashwords creates for the various devices are not always the best quality.
A couple of quick reminders before we begin!
Before you do anything else, make sure you have good back up strategy!!! This is the only time I’m going to say this. But we are going to be monkeying around with something that you have spent years creating. There are lots of cheap (and free) backup solutions available nowadays. There is no excuse. Cloud services like SpiderOak can keep constant backups in the background. They’re free (with a few gigabytes of storage) and are an excellent addition to the rest of your backup strategy. Ok, that’s all I’m going to say on the subject. If you don’t backup properly and loose all your work, don’t come crying to me. (If you don’t already have a proper backup strategy, you might want to check out my blog for turning a Raspberry Pi into a cheap NAS (network attached storage) box for backing up onto.)