By Jefforson Graham, for USA Today
McLean, VA -- Scott Nicholson, a prolific author with 70 books to date, has found most of his success online, selling self-published books at Amazon for the Kindle and other e-readers.
He handles the entire process himself - from downloading stock photos at $4 to $5 a pop and making covers in Gimp, a free photo software tool, to converting the manuscripts into formats compatible for the e-readers.
"If I can do it, anyone can," says Nicholson, 49, who writes four novels a year from his home in Boone, N.C. He won't say how much he makes, but it's a "comfortable living," solely on e-book royalties. "I'm self-taught on every part of this."
Not everyone is as tech-savvy as Nicholson, and as willing to put in the extra hours. For those who would like some shortcuts, new tools are available to help authors with their conversions. Rates are relatively cheap, or free in Apple's case.
•Red Staple and Folium Book Studio, both released in January, offer self-service online tools to convert your books into the ePub format, which, in turn, can be uploaded for Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, Apple's iPad and Sony's E-Reader, at varying prices. Red starts at $29.99, while Folium is $99.
That's the price for a basic book with mostly text and a cover you make yourself and upload.
What about for those who want to make an e-book that's a multimedia extravaganza?
Apple just released iBooks Author, a free software app for Apple computers that offers drag-and-drop self-publishing tools for Apple's iBooks bookstore.
The app is available in Apple's App Store for Macintosh computers, where you'll need an operating system at least as current as 2009's Snow Leopard.
Even though the app is geared to textbook authors, writers of any stripe can add photos and video clips, though they must first be converted to Apple's preferred .m4v format in iTunes or QuickTime Player. Then it's a one-click upload to iBooks.
Amazon dominates the e-book industry, due to the popularity of its Kindle devices, and apps to read Kindle books on Apple, BlackBerry and Android devices.
The company offers tips and detailed instructions for authors on how to format books at kdp.amazon.com. In a nutshell, Amazon wants the books written in the Word .doc format, not the newer Word .docx, then converted to the .HTML format that's standard on the Web.
Barnes & Noble's pubit.barnesandnoble.com offers tons of tips for formatting and uploading, as well.
Lori Jordan, co-founder of Red Staple, says "giving authors a tool that doesn't require technical know-how will help them get their books out faster."
Romance author Virna DePaul converts her manuscripts from Word files to HTML, and while it took some time to figure things out, "Once you have somebody walk you through it, it's not hard at all," she says.
Once she's finished the HTML conversion, she then uses the free software tool Calibre to add in metadata, keywords, table of contents, chapter headings and online links. She saves the finished product in the .mobi format for Amazon and .epub for Apple, Barnes & Noble and Sony, and uploads them.
She's averaging $2,000 a month in royalties, not bad for unpublished novels. "It's found money," she says.
Mystery writer Lee Goldberg, a TV producer for shows such as Diagnosis Murder and Nero Wolfe, says his royalties for January alone were $60,000 - all for eight previously published but now out-of-print novels that he formatted and converted for sale at Amazon.
But unlike many DIY e-book authors, he feels the need to outsource the production work.
He pays $250 to a local service to format the book, $300 to a copy editor and $400 to an artist in New Zealand to make covers.
"If I made the cover, it would look like crap, and no one would buy it," he says.
Additionally, self-formatting can create issues with margins, indents and other minor mistakes, he says.
"You're competing on an equal level with James Patterson and Michael Connelly," says Goldberg. "That's the good news and bad news. Since it's a level playing field, readers expect you to have the same quality books."