So you have your manuscript written and edited, you're battered and bruised and you've replaced all of the creativity in your head with whiskey. You've got to be almost done with all this, right? As usual the answer is two-fold: Yes, you're done with it if you just want to plop it into Smashwords and fire it off into the internet ephemera where it'll be lost forever. No, you're not done if you'd actually like someone to read it aside from your mom.
Layout and formatting are extremely important. Some might say that they are more important, in terms of initial sales, than the quality of your writing. This is ridiculous, I know, but once you stop screaming at the clouds you'll realize this makes sense. People, in general, size a thing up in a matter of seconds. Not just books, mind you, I'm talking everything: cars, houses, pets, clothes, other people, you name it. You generally know if you want it after a few blinks. Sure, you may talk yourself in another direction, but you know. You know.
How does this pertain to you? Well, it's time to dress up your work. Start with cover art. I don't mean to toot my own horn here (read: I absolutely do) but would you rather purchase a book that looks like this:
Unless you're a minimalist hipster you're gonna choose number 2 (In which case may I direct you to griffithpublishing.com where it can be yours!) *end plug*
The point is, it's hard enough as a new author to sell anything you write at all, but it's even harder if what you're selling looks like crap. I am amazed at how many self-pubbed authors fall flat on their faces this close to the end. Don't be that guy. Don't spend years writing and editing your book just to take a left turn at the finish line.
I wanted to make a business of this, so I bought Adobe CS5 and got a hold of an illustrator and a designer, and learned my way around things, but you don't need to do that. If you're just planning on publishing yourself, there are people out there that will do a great cover for you for cheap. In some cases some very decent stuff for around $50 bucks. You can check out the market for cover artists at places like deviantart.com, or just search around for yourself. A ton of people have done it, and have chatted about it online.
Which brings me to another point. Adding cover art doesn't set you apart, oooooh no. Adding cover art brings you out of the dumpster. Instead of having several hundred thousand books above you, you're now alongside a couple hundred thousand, and above a couple hundred thousand, but if you look up you'll see another couple hundred thousand soaring above you still.
How do you compete with those above you? Well, there are still a few more presentation things you can do. A lot of you aren't gonna like this, but one of the best things you can do is get yourself a physical book. I know that it's the ebook revolution that has gotten everyone into this game, but the bottom line is that most people are (as of now) still more comfortable with physical books than ebooks. If you stop yourself at ebooks, you're limiting your sales unnecessarily.
At the very least, you can use a physical edition to drive more sales of your ebooks, and vice versa. People will be more comfortable with your product if it has both paperback (or hardcover) and ebook editions. You look more legitimate. This is especially good now that spammers are hacking the .99c ebook system and making everyone legitimately offering their work at that price look like hucksters in shabby overcoats trying to entice readers down dark alleys. Thanks a lot spammers. Is there anything that you don't completely ruin?
Also, Amazon likes you more too. As a physical book seller you can get an Amazon advantage account that allows you to spruce up your product pages a bit more, so you can specify an age range for your work and whatnot. All of these things are superficial and skin deep and appearance driven, and they can make or break you.
Next up, getting your ebook and your paperback done right, for cheap (sort of).