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Self-Publishing Short Stories and Poetry

Barbara Scott Emmett

Much has been written about self-publishing novels but little about bringing out short stories and poetry. I have ventured into both of these territories – from my first photocopied booklet of ‘pomes’ to digital collections of short stories, short erotica and poetry.

While there is not much difference overall between preparing a novel for publication and preparing short stories, there certainly are some and these should be noted. With poetry the process can be very different. I republished that booklet of ‘pomes’ as Wasps & Scorpions: Luv Pomes and Other Lies and learned a lot about layout and selection in the process.

To self-publish or not?

Getting published in print magazines becomes harder all the time simply because there are fewer of them accepting stories. To get something in a mainstream magazine is a real achievement but usually requires writing to specific guidelines. Small literary magazines often offer more freedom of writing style but come and go quickly and are overwhelmed with submissions. In the face of such lack of opportunity and constant rejection there is always the possibility – or should I say temptation – to publish your work yourself.

And there’s the rub. It’s probably best not to consider publishing a collection at all until you have had a few stories or poems accepted by magazines, whether print or digital. This will give your work some validation. At the very least, you should get some feedback from other people as to the quality of your work.

Yes, it’s hard to get published, but there are ways to get your work seen before launching it on the unsuspecting public. Join online writing groups (or real live ones) and hone your work as much as you can. Only when it’s been through some sort of critiquing process, been rewritten or comprehensively edited, and you are completely satisfied with it should you offer it up for general inspection. If you are not as good at grammar and spelling as you could be, run your work past someone who is. Reviewers can be very unkind and it’s best to give them as little to complain about as possible.

To sum up: get feedback or some previous publication before going it alone.

What to publish?

The first and most important decision you have to make when deciding to self-publish, is what to include in your collection. Just because you have written dozens of short stories or poems doesn’t mean you have to include them all. Pick out the best ones – act like an editor and look for reasons not to include each story. Ending a bit iffy? Out it goes. Couldn’t quite get the characterisation right? Discard. Stole the idea from a well-known writer? Lose it immediately. Ditto with poetry.

If you have had stories published in magazines or anthologies, you can include these in your own collection, along with some new ones perhaps. You should only have given up First Serial Rights for print publication but make sure you check this before you include any previously published stories. If you’ve been published online, make sure there are no restrictions on reusing the work. 

And don’t forget to mention where each work was first published – a note at the end of the story or poem will do nicely, or a list at the end of the ebook if there are several. 

To sum up: be critical, choose your best work and make a note of previous publications.

Formatting a collection of short stories as an eBook 

When preparing a novel for Kindle or other digital formats, some writers include a Table of Contents (ToC) and some do not. The option not to bother has no significant detrimental effect as far as a novel goes. It only seems worthwhile if each chapter is named but many writers don’t do this. Personally, I don’t list every chapter of my novels – my ToCs include links to front and back matter (eg acknowledgements, previous publications, bio of the author) and, if the novel is split into parts then I link to Part 1, Part 2 and so on. 

For a book of short stories, it’s a different matter. You will want to link to each individual story from your ToC so readers can pick and choose which they read next. 

The construction of a ToC differs according to the word processing software used so I will not attempt to explain it fully here. You should find information on this in the Help section of whatever program you use and there are many explanatory documents available on the internet. Briefly, it involves formatting the title of each story as a header and using these to construct the table. You can also format the titles of anything else you want in your ToC (eg author bio, previous publications etc) as headers. Make sure you don’t format as a header anything you do not want included in your ToC.

Formatting poetry eBooks

This can be tricky if you want your poetry set out in a specific way. While centring poems is easy, and poems that are left justified pose few problems, those that require a more creative layout may cause trouble if not formatted correctly. It is no good just using the tab button to spread out your work.  Here are a couple of examples taken from my poetry ebook Wasps & Scorpions to show how layouts can vary:

Barbara Scott Emmett

As you can see the layout for these two poems requires a series of different indents. Many people will be tempted to tab along to create this layout. This is not a good idea as it will mess up your formatting. Instead, you will need to set first line indents for each of the newly indented lines. 

Again, there will be variations in how this is done in the particular program you use but it will be something along the following lines: Place your cursor at the start of the line you wish to indent, go to Format >Paragraph and enter the required indent size in the box next to First line. 

You may need to experiment to get the right amount of space. Do this for each different indent. If you have a block of text that needs the same indentation, simply highlight the block then go to Format >Paragraph and apply the indents as before. 

If you ensure your layout is done correctly from the start you will be able to use the same document as the basis for both your print file and your digital file. If you intend to upload your digital file to Smashwords as well as Amazon then you really should ensure it is properly set out. Smashwords is much less forgiving than Amazon when it comes to formatting errors – your Kindle file will be acceptable even if the formatting is a bit off; your Smashwords file will be spat out unceremoniously.

You can check that your layout stays in place either by using Amazon’s KDP download facility or by using the free MobipocketCreator.

And don’t forget, you will need a ToC for your poetry ebook too.

To sum up: never use tabs, format indents correctly, create a Table of Contents and check layout before going live.

Barbara Scott Emmett

Potential Sales

You will need to promote your ebook in order to get your work seen, so make sure you set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account so you can (sparingly) tell the world about it. Putting your ebook on a free promotion for a while may encourage visibility. Another option is to release one story as a free single with a link at the end to where the rest can be purchased. In my experience short stories sell reasonably well, being ideal for reading on an electronic device. A short story read on an iPhone or a Kindle is the perfect accompaniment to the daily commute. 

Poetry is a different matter. Unless you are well-known, your poetry will probably only sell to friends, family and a few enthusiasts. If you read your work at poetry slams and suchlike, get some cards printed with the url of your ebook on them to hand out. It’s probably best not to expect a huge readership, though – poetry is unlikely to make you a million-seller! Nevertheless, it is very satisfying to have your work available for download. And you never know, it might just take off and prove to be the exception to the rule.

More information

For more information on all aspects of self-publishing, take a look at The Triskele Trail. The updated second version will be published by Triskele Books in September 2014. Packed with articles and advice on writing and publishing, this is a must-have for anyone considering taking the final step.

Barbara Scott Emmett has two collections of short stories available as ebooks and one collection of poetry. She also has three novels published as ebooks, one of which, Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, will also be available as a paperback in October 2014. Barbara is a regular judge of the Flash 500 Humour Verse competition, assists authors with ebook formatting via Pentalpha Publishing Edinburgh, and is an associate member of Triskele Books. Her books are available at Amazon, Smashwords and other online stores. Find out more from her blog or website.