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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

In Quarantine And Want To Write A Book? Ask Me Anything

Just in case anyone is in desperate straits for keeping their mind occupied, writing is one possibility. Here is some high level advice. Feel free to ask questions in the comments...


Microsoft Word is probably the best choice. You can crank up the grammar and spell check options, and it will do a good job of diagnosing technical problems. (My decision to follow Canadian spelling does cause some grief.) You can find people willing to proofread (copy-edit) online, and in some cases, running the document through Word's grammar checker is all they do.

Importantly, most of the distribution platforms support importing straight from Word.

Fiction versus Non-fiction

The big bucks are in fiction, but only a tiny number of authors get that money. Book sales follow a power law (or whatever they call it) -- the top tail captures most of the distribution. This is true for all genres of writing.

The advantage of non-fiction is that you can show up in customer searches. For example, there are very few books on breakeven inflation or inflation-linked bonds, which is one reason I wrote that book early in my sequence of planned books.

In fiction, people will not find you in searches. For example, if you invent the fictional world of Snurffleduffle, people are unlikely to search for "Snurfflefuffle", at least until your book is famous. The problem is achieving that breakout to fame.

Meanwhile, try to remember your last visit to the bookstore (since you should not be visiting them now!). Fiction shelves are lined with famous, dead authors -- and you somehow need to steal their shelf space. (My understanding is that the easiest place to break into those bookshelves is bodice ripper fiction -- the consumers of those books like variety, and new stuff.) Whereas for non-fiction, books that are too old are less attractive than a newer one (other than recognised classics).

Traditional Publisher versus Self-Published

The economics of publishing has been a disaster for some time, and publishers have largely removed support for authors who are not already well-known. If you are a nobody (like me), a publisher will get you into bookstores, but in order to get anywhere, you have to self-publicise ("build a platform"). (Since I am writing highly specialised books, I saw no point in going to a publisher.)

Self-Publishing Platforms

I work with Amazon's Kindle platform, and Draft2Digital. Both cover e-books and print-on-demand paperback.

There are "vanity" publishers, but most of them had the old model of doing a print run of 1000 books (or whatever) that you end up stuck with in your garage. Might be easier to work with, but I have heard very little good about them.

You could try selling e-books yourself on a website, but the sales platforms I saw offered zero support for dealing with things like VAT. You also lose the potential for organic sales on the platform, which are also trusted e-commerce sites.

To what extent possible, you want to have your own ISBN. The ISBN owner is the publisher of record of the book. The distributors offer free ISBN's, but they become the publishers of record. If your book does not sell, that might not matter, but things could get complicated if the book is valuable.


An e-book chapter is a web page that is being rendered on a specialised browser (the e-book reader). Formatting is just a question of using styles. For fiction, you can just upload a Word document to the distributor, and it will probably look very good. (The Draft2Digital styles looked very slick.)

Problems appear if you have any sort of graphics or tables, or things like footnotes. These specialised features forced me to do my own formatting work.

Amazon and Draft2Digital have a conversion option to also create a paperback edition. Once again, if you only have text, these are probably good enough. However, since I am working with graphics, have extensive sub-headings, and have footnotes, there are a lot of potential problems with page layout. Publishing is an art, and people will instinctively note problems with poorly formatted printed editions.

(c) Brian Romanchuk 2020


  1. Ask you anything heh? What kind of world is 'Snurffleduffle'? This could be interesting- would they have money? Would they understand MMT? Wonder if they ever heard of coronavirus- maybe they already cured it there.

    Well I hope you are doing well Brian. And stay well. I'm not in quarantine but so many things are closed now it kind of feels that way sometimes. Thanks for writing and posting- it does lessen the monotony. I will think about the world of Snurffleduffle and imagine what the inhabitants are like. I'm already imagining they have very beautiful women. This could be fun.

    1. My feeling is that Snurfleduffle would be a more whimsical fantasy world, probably with something like gnomes. Might have to be aimed at young adults. I think it would be too silly for a book aimed at adults. For example, the Discworld series is excellent and light-hearted, but it sticks to a more serious-sounding name. (Although Angh-Morpork is a pretty silly name.) As for MMT, I think the trick is to just have everyone treat it as common sense, and not be heavy-handed about it.

      To be honest, I hope nobody used that name, so that this article shows up in a web search. It would prove a point about fiction -- once you have locked down a popular franchise, you can create a real moat around it. But without the popularity, nobody would search for "The world of Snurffleduffle."

      Quarantine? I hope things are OK for you. Over here in Quebec, we have had no *known* locally transmitted cases, so no panic. My kids are home from school, my wife can work from home, (I work from home normally, even my contracting), and everyone is healthy. Things are shutting down, but no orders to stay home. The only bizarre thing is the run on toilet paper. Canada is the Saudi Arabia of toilet paper, so this makes no sense. (Luckily, I normally buy my toilet paper from Costco anyway, and bought my usual pack a couple of weeks ago, which lasts at least a month (and probably more). No idea what people buying 3 packs are thinking.)

    2. Jerry, as Brian knows, I invented a little MMT world. I never named the Island though, maybe I should have.
      They did name their currency- the crusoe.
      They are all, interestingly, naturally immune to coronavirus, the women are indeed beautiful and all the children above average. And the fish glow just like in The Life Aquatic...

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