Selling Your Shorts All By Your Lonesome

And no, I don’t mean pants. People! Honestly. This is a serious blog. I use swears sometimes.


Books are complicated beasts. Books need legitimacy, and legitimacy is an ISBN. That’s a way for people to order your book. It files you in the Great Big Library in the Cloud.

There’s no such unique code for short fiction, and short fiction (in my inexpert opinion) languishes in the digital era. Amazon is making a push for it with their StoryFront imprint, which assigns each story an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), a number which is of no interest or use to anyone else. Worse, they treat short stories like novel length works, providing tremendously useful information such as the number of ‘Print Pages’ for each story. Amazon doesn’t take this shit seriously and I’m tired of it.

Anyway, since I’m nobody, I decided I would simply take my own published fiction for which I had publishing rights, and produce the stories as ePubs. (This would work for poems, too, to an even lesser degree. Depressing, when you think about it really.)

Having taken on this burden, I began an exciting journey, one I have chronicled here for you in many parts. The first part begins here.

The initial leg of my journey transpired as follows:

  1. Open the Word document I wanted to convert in the Pages app on my laptop (MacBook Air).
  2. Reformat it to look nice.
  3. Export to ePub.
  4. Open in iBooks.
  5. Wail and gnash my fangs and claw my eyes at the sight.
  6. Tweet this:My first response
  7. And almost twelve hours later this:
    My second response

Something had to break, and it was my writer’s perspective on the world.

A Man of Two Worlds

You see, I have a secret. I have an Arts degree and a Science degree. My day job is in IT, doing incomprehensible things to web pages. Once I gave up trying to solve this publishing problem with my writer’s eyes and instead applied my IT guy’s eyes, the .ePub format that had been thwarting me became transparent as the wind.

Turns out it’s just a collection of fucking web pages, people.

So ePub is just a bunch of HTML thrown together, with, admittedly, specialised tags and what-not. I used the free ePub editing software Sigil (downloads are available on the left behind that link, in the menu bar) and cracked open one of my automatically generated ePub files, one of the files that I had imported into Pages from Word and then exported into ePub format.

My IT Guy eyes spontaneously combusted. I wandered around the house with flames pouring from my sockets, setting off fire alarms and howling until my voice was drowned out by the echoing howls of the neighbourhood’s dogs.

It was, in a word, horrible. Every paragraph was individually formatted in the ePub file to conform to a very specific list of font-size, height, spacing and worse, even though every single gods-damned paragraph looked the same in the final product. It was like a bureaucrat forcing you to write your full name and address next to every single paragraph of a textbook, just to make sure you owned it.

It was inefficient and ugly. And to give you an idea of the extent of the problem by extending the analogy, imagine if every few pages you’d make a tiny mistake and write your address a little differently…? If after every handful of paragraphs, one was off by 0.0001 millimetres (or whatever ancient measurement system you prefer; fractions of a li or nano-leagues or inches, if you must).

That’s auto-generated ePub for you.

Do not go there. Do not attempt any landings there. The only way to do ePub cleanly for short fiction is to do it by hand; for longer fiction, pay a professional to help you (or just do it by hand as well, if you have time and moderate HTML and CSS skills).

[Update: The lovely Kate Eltham reminded me that there are many, and increasingly good, epub converter sites. She’s absolutely right, of course. One of the things I didn’t really touch on is why I’m going to the extent of doing this by hand, when I could get PressBooks (check it out, they’re great) to convert my documents for me.

The real problem is scale: I touch on cover design for your short fiction later in Part 1. Covers are expensive; Short fiction makes very little money. Similarly, to get a sellable .ePub out through PressBooks costs $10. That’s a perfectly reasonable investment for a novel, or even a novella, but for a 1,600 word story? Not really, in my humble opinion.]

So in response I sat down and constructed a basic template that could be used to produce any basic piece of short fiction; anything that required nothing more than a title, plain text, italics, and the occasional centred piece of text. Also section dividers. Because it’s just basic HTML and a CSS style sheet, you can expand that template according to your wishes.

I added a foreword and rights block into the template. I found out where an ePub’s unique identifier should go, and how to identify different blocks in the template as ‘text’ and ‘foreword’ and so forth. Basically all the boring research. I used Sigil’s metadata editor to include metadata that might be relevant to any kind of cataloguing engine or reader software in use out there.

All the basics, basically.

How to Prepare and Sell Your Short Fiction

This is an overview, after which I’ll link to the parts of this series. It’s going to take me a while to write everything, but if you come back here and check the links, probably weekly, I will have an update for you.

I’ll demonstrate the full process with one of my own stories that I haven’t converted yet. Screen shots, commentary and examples will be included. You can also ask away in the comments, or contact me on various social media sites.

Here are the steps I will walk you through over the coming weeks. Don’t worry if some of this is confusing: I’ve included a little extra detail so that people with some technical background can figure it out on their own, without having to wait for me to write all my articles. If phrases like ‘HTML tags’ make no sense to you, just go through my step-by-step guides at the end of this article and don’t worry about the detail below too much.

  1. Find stories and turn them into .epubs.
    1. Make sure you have the rights to your story.
    2. Download ‘Sigil‘ for your operating system. It’s a free .ePub authoring application.
    3. Download my .ePub template from here.
    4. Generate a Unique ID for your .ePub template, and copy it into each of the documents, where it says, ‘???’. You can get one from here. Most importantly, it’s a number that is practically unique globally, making it perfect to identify your story wherever it is catalogued:
      How unique is a GUID/UUID anyway?128-bits is big enough and the generation algorithm is unique enough that if 1,000,000,000 GUIDs per second were generated for 1 year the probability of a duplicate would be only 50%. Or if every human on Earth generated 600,000,000 GUIDs there would only be a 50% probability of a duplicate.
    5. Open them with a program that allows you to do advanced find and replace. I will be using ‘Word’ (the latest OS X version) to find and replace my in-document formatting with HTML tags and classes that match the style sheet in the provided template.
  2. Turn the .epubs into .mobis.
  3. If you are really keen, turn the .epubs into .pdf. I wouldn’t bother though.
  4. Sign up to an online shop. I’ve chosen FetchApp, because for 1MB of storage you don’t need to pay them anything. 1MB is a lot of ebooks, if you keep the covers reasonably sized. For $5/mth they’ll give you 25MB of storage, which is enough for anyone’s short story back catalogue. You have to weigh up whether you’re going to earn $5/mth selling stories though. I’m going to suggest you trial it with the free version for a while. (That’s a polite way of saying, ‘Probably not’).
  5. Link FetchApp to some sort of payment provider; I use PayPal, although I’m not a huge fan of them. You pay a tiny amount per microtransaction, something like 5c + 3% (I’ve not checked the specifics but google will help you here).
  6. Create a new WordPress Blog that is dedicated entirely to your shop. We will treat each ‘post’ on this blog as a shop item, and it allows you to avoid cluttering your regular blog with shop information and vice versa. Even better, you can have a shop-optimal theme for your shop; themes that suit articles and posts generally don’t suit shop fronts.
  7. Add links to your home page.
  8. Profit.
  9. Psych! No one makes money from writing, fool!

Ready for a ride of your life?

Part 1: Step by step, converting a Word document into clean HTML that will work with my ePub template.

Part 2: Setting up all the online shopping providers you need.

Part 3: Putting together your WordPress digital store.

4 thoughts on “Selling Your Shorts All By Your Lonesome

  1. Pingback: Publishing Your Short Fiction (via @Cacotopos) | Literarium – The Blog

  2. Pingback: On Writing for Money | The Ranting Hacker

  3. Pingback: Part 3 – Building Your Storefront | Dark Sylvan Ungulate

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