Whether you are already working on one or more books, or you're just getting serious about starting your first one, you must decide what "tools of the trade" you will use. This blog post offers you a virtual "toolkit" for your current and future projects. In the past you might have considered using a pen and spiral notebook, and some writers still like those tools (as do I, sometimes; the picture shown here is one of mine), but the low-tech approach has disadvantages such as not being able to make offsite backups (which leads to a risk of destruction), not checking your spelling, lacking an easy way to get a word count, etc.
With modern software tools, however, those disadvantages are eliminated. More importantly for the independent author, software tools help speed your project from the draft-and-edit phase to the publishing phase. A manuscript that is hand-written must eventually be typed, or dictated if your luck is better than mine with dictation software. Even a manuscript drafted on a typewriter must be either re-typed or scanned, processed with OCR software, and then cleaned up to remove OCR errors. Using software right from the beginning saves you those extra steps and eliminates the waste of time resulting from starting in a low-tech way. Self-publishing has many challenges, so when you self-publish your book you should strive to eliminate as many obstacles as possible.
Plus, once you're ready to move past the draft-and-edit phase, software is available to finish the process of getting your work ready to upload to Amazon, CreateSpace, Barnes & Noble, and others. The "toolkit" I describe below is made up entirely of Free Software. (That is capitalized for a reason, which you can find out by following the link, but for now you can just rest assured that these tools can be downloaded for free.) Eliminating costs means earlier profits, and profits keep food on the table while you work on your next book!
So, let's examine those tools....
Maybe you already have the so-called "standard" of office software from Microsoft, and if you're happy with that, you can skip ahead. However, if you're not happy with it, or you don't own it, then I will direct your attention to the first tool in the toolkit: LibreOffice. You may have heard of OpenOffice.org, on which LibreOffice is based. While it is still around, the current status of it leads me to recommend LibreOffice instead. (However, I hope the projects merge again sometime in the future.) LibreOffice is a powerful suite of tools including a word processor (for drafting your novel), spreadsheet (for keeping track of expenses, sales, etc.), database (for tracking other things that aren't as suitable for a spreadsheet, such as reviews, etc.), drawing (for creating graphics in your book, marketing graphics, etc.), and more. It has good (but not perfect) compatibility with Microsoft Office, so you can work with others who may use that instead.
If you decide to publish your book as a paperback through CreateSpace, you can download a template (intended for Microsoft Word) that will work in LibreOffice and will help ensure that the content of your book is ready to submit. You can also generate the submission PDF directly from LibreOffice.
Once the content of your book is complete, it's time to structure it as an eBook if you want to take advantage of the growing popularity of e-readers (and ebook reading apps for Windows, OS X, iPad, etc.). For this, I recommend the next tool in this toolkit: Sigil. While it's possible to actually draft your book in Sigil, it's not recommended. It's better to use LibreOffice to draft it, then export the content and bring that into Sigil for developing the eBook structure. As with all of the tools in this toolkit, there's some learning involved, but at the end you will have a properly-structured ePUB file. This file can be uploaded directly to the PubIt! self-publishing site provided by Barnes & Noble, and you can also distribute it through other sites or even sell it on your own site.
If you would like to ensure that your ePUB-format book is ready to upload to the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) self-publishing site provided by Amazon, you can convert it to .mobi format with the next tool in the toolkit: calibre. While this tool is very handy for readers as a way to read eBooks in various formats, the format conversion tool is very useful to authors. After importing your ePUB book into calibre, you can convert it to .mobi format (making sure that all of the various options are set the way you want them) and then upload that .mobi file to the KDP site, an obviously vital step to get your book ready to sell to Kindle owners and Kindle app users.
While the drawing tool in LibreOffice will work for many graphics you might need for your project, it does not work as a photo editor, which also means that it probably won't give you everything you need to design your book cover. For that, we turn to the final tool in this toolkit: GIMP. Instead of spending "big bucks" for a commercial graphics editing program, GIMP offers powerful features that will help you design your cover, Web banners, and other graphics to complete your project.
This blog post has provided just a quick summary of four tools that you can use to self-publish your books. To get the full value from each of these tools, you'll need to spend some time learning how they work (just like any other tools in life). Naturally, you'll also need to spend time actually using them, which means focusing on your writing instead of email, Twitter, StumbleUpon, the TV, and other always-available distractions!
If you use these tools and have thoughts to share about them, or would like to offer suggestions for alternatives, feel free to leave a comment below. Happy writing!