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SW_Vertical_ColorIf you’re in the 81% of Americans who dream of writing a novel, it’s time to make 2014 your year. Whether you prefer fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, or literary fiction, writing and self-publishing a novel is a great way to learn more about the writing process and to share your ideas with a larger audience. And who knows — your novel could be your path to a new life as a professional author; many writers, from Amanda Hocking to Cory Doctorow, rose to fame by self-publishing their works online.

Of course, finishing the novel is only half the battle. The other half is creating and promoting your ebook; that is, putting together the finished, edited work, adding attractive and compelling cover art, and doing the work required in getting the novel out to potential readers. Services like Amazon Kindle, the Apple iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo have made the distribution process much easier, especially for self-published authors, but you still need to learn how to turn your Great American Novel into a functional ebook before anyone else will be able to read it.

Today we’re going to look at Smashwords, one of the most popular ebook programs. Its ease of use has made it the ideal method from which to publish your first ebook, even if you’ve never published a book before.

Here’s how to get started:

1. Read and implement the Smashwords Style Guide

If you’re new to the writing world, here’s the definition of a style guide: it’s a document that describes how to present a particular text for a specific group of readers.

The Smashwords Style Guide helps your text look as professional as possible by giving you a pre-defined set of style guidelines to help you understand how to present your novel’s text. It also tells you exactly how to format chapter titles, subheadings, and other important items — if these aren’t formatted in precisely the same way every time, they won’t look right in your finished ebook.

2. Format and upload your book

Once your text fulfills all of the style guide requirements, it’s time to format it in Microsoft Word and upload it to Smashwords. After that, Smashwords takes care of the rest, encoding your text into multiple formats to be read by many different types of e-readers.

3. Add cover art

Yes, people do judge a book by its cover! Take a look at this list of iconic book covers for inspiration, and remember that your cover will be the primary determinant of whether potential readers decide to read your book. Consider hiring a graphic designer if you need that extra boost of artistic talent.

At this point, your Smashwords book should be complete and available for purchase in stores like Amazon Kindle or Apple iBookstore. That means it’s time for the next phase of the project: promotion. Make sure all of your friends and followers know that you have a book published, and see if you can get your book reviewed on other blogs or podcasts. The more promotional work you do, the more people will read your book and the more your newfound fame will grow.

One final tip: watch out for spammers

Once you announce yourself to the world as a published author, be prepared to get all kinds of strange emails and Twitter follower requests. There are plenty of people who want to capitalize on your achievement, and not all of them are trustworthy. Make sure you have updated internet security software to filter out all of the spam links and fake direct messages you are likely to receive, and avoid signing up for any service that promises you readers or social media followers. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it absolutely is.

Do you have other tips for self-publishing authors? Have you published a book with Smashwords yourself? Let us know in the comments.