How to publish an eBook and save the trees

Want to publish a book? You can either kill a bunch of trees, or get with the 2010s and publish it as an ebook.


Want to publish a book? You can either kill a bunch of trees, or get with the 2010s and publish it as an ebook.

If you haven’t noticed already, ebooks are no longer a niche market. As of June 2011, ebook reader adoption had reportedly hit 25 percent in the United States, with the market growing at a phenomenal 169 percent year over year. Today, most new releases are being published in ebook format.

An ebook can provide your small business a real competitive advantage by giving you instant credibility and visibility in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, the ebook sales market is fragmented. Publishing an ebook means working directly with numerous companies, each with its own formats, rules, and quirky systems. While Amazon is the clear leader, both Apple and Barnes & Noble have solid user bases for their respective devices. Industry watchers generally believe that Amazon holds about a 60 percent share of ebook sales, while Barnes & Noble has 30 percent and Apple claims the remaining 10 percent, with a smattering of other services filling in the cracks.

As a budding publisher, you will need to prepare your book for at least those three platforms. I'll walk you through the process here.

I have a couple of ebooks on the market, but for the past few years they’ve been available only for Kindle. To create these tips, I went through the republication of Five Stars! (my manual for aspiring film critics) on all of the major platforms.

Prepare for ePublishing

Before you even create your Amazon or B&N account, here’s how to get ready for your career as an ePublisher.

Start with the book: First, write a book. That’s hard enough, but putting your book into an ebook-friendly format is almost as complicated, because each ebook seller has its own rules on everything from illustrations to indentation to the way bullet points work. Amazon’s “Formatting” Q&A forum has over 3000 threads in it.

The best advice I can offer is to spare yourself the headache and hire someone to format your book. Using a list from ebook aggregator Smashwords, I found a provider who formatted my book in a matter of hours for $65. Shop around: Pricing can range up to $100, and turnaround time can be up to several weeks. Just remember that formatters do not edit your book’s content.

Understand ePub: A few years ago the world of ebook formats was a mess, but today the ePub format is the most common standard. This open-source format looks a lot like HTML, but you don’t need to deal directly with ePub--every ebook publisher will convert a Microsoft Word document into ePub for you, and many will let you download the converted ePub file to check it out yourself. (Use Adobe Digital Editions to read your ePub file for free.)

After you send your document to a formatting service, you’ll receive it back in .doc format (older versions of Word, pre-.docx, are best). Take some time to make sure everything looks good; my finished file had some unsupported characters that I quickly cleaned up manually before submitting. Use this .doc as a master file for everything else you do.

Prepare multiple versions: While the master .doc file you create will be the most common one, you’ll want to have different versions available, mainly with variable front matter. Smashwords, for example, requires a Smashwords-specific notice that you’ll want to remove from the file for submission to Amazon and other providers. You’ll also want to have a PDF of your book available (which you can create in Word), as well as excerpts ready to go. Just save a portion of your book (the first 20 to 50 pages) as its own file to create an excerpt. While you’re at it, prepare descriptive blurbs at various lengths. You’ll need these as you submit the book to sellers.

Create a cover: Even though your book is electronic, you still need a high-quality (300 dpi), full-size cover, since this image will help to promote your book on seller sites and can get you placement in Web image search results. You can design a cover yourself using stock art or your own photos or illustrations if you’re handy with Photoshop, or you can hire someone to make one for you. It isn’t cost-prohibitive, but expect it to take some time during the revision process. While you’re at it, make sure to create a back cover and a spine. Some services require these items, and you’ll want them if you decide to print on paper someday.

More ePublishing preparation

Understand ISBNs: An International Standard Book Number is the unique code assigned to every book published, much like a UPC. A company called Bowker issues and manages ISBNs, and they aren’t cheap: $125 for a single number, or $250 for a ten-pack. (I bought a ten-pack in 2005, and have used only three of them to date.) ISBNs are mandatory for all printed matter, but by and large they’re optional for ebooks, as most ebooksellers don’t require them.

The only real reason you’d need one is that Apple insists on it. You can obtain one directly from Bowker or arrange for one through an aggregator (such as Smashwords), which usually doesn’t charge anything for the number but ties you to its service pretty much forever.

Set up a publisher website: It’s good advice to create a publishing “company,” or at least an author’s website where you can link to all the places where your ebook is on sale. Most sellers link back to any available publisher site, and this helps with search rankings. My publishing company website isn’t much to look at, but it covers the basics. A blog system would work fine.

Have a bank account ready: Most payments for book sales are wired directly to a bank account, or sometimes to PayPal. Have these account numbers ready to go when you’re preparing to sell. You’ll also need to provide your Social Security number or Employer ID Number to sellers for tax purposes.

Set the magic price: Pricing isn’t too tough with ebooks. Unless you are publishing a highly technical textbook, you’ll almost always have to price it at $9.99. This is the accepted and nearly required price level for all ebooks today: You’ll make far less in commissions from most sellers if you go higher - and if you price it lower, your book will look cheap.

However, if your book is short - under 45,000 words or so - lower pricing may be required. You’ll also find that some services have clauses ensuring that you don’t charge less for the book somewhere else, which pretty much locks you in to one price for every platform.

Determine what you earn: Now that your pricing is set, your profits are going to look absolutely fantastic. Most services now offer 60 to 70 percent commissions on sales, and some smaller sellers give you even more. The bottom line is that you’ll be making close to $7 for each book sold, which is vastly more than you would make with a dead-tree book - often about $1 with a traditional publisher, and only after you’ve made back your advance (read: never). Even print-on-demand sales aren’t much more profitable: The Five Stars! print version, published by Amazon’s CreateSpace service, earns about $8 on each book sold for $19.99 at Amazon, but books sold elsewhere barely earn $4 each.

Understand your rights: The terms of service for ebook sellers tend to be byzantine and baffling. I won’t pretend to be an expert about these terms - or even to have read them - but if you’re concerned about what rights you’re giving up, pay close attention to the fine print. Apple’s iBooks Author terms have already generated significant controversy.

Tackle the DRM conundrum: One of the big decisions is whether to protect your book with digital rights management technology, which prevents it from being shared with other readers. DRM will lock your ebook to the reader’s account and the service from which the customer purchased it. The argument over DRM isn’t one I can delve into here, but ebook piracy is a growing phenomenon. It’s unlikely to materially impact your self-published work; but if you’re paranoid, it is something to consider. The catch: Once you make a decision about DRM on most publishing platforms, you can’t change your mind. It’s on or off for life.

Always be promoting: Once you’ve submitted your manuscript to the ebook sellers, the tough work begins. You’ll need to promote your book ruthlessly - which is what Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are for, right? Reviews are immeasurably helpful, but those can take time to get, and most reviewers prefer reading paperback manuscripts over ebooks. They are well worth the effort, though, as review blurbs look great on your ebook listing pages.

Make revisions: Luckily, you can change an ebook at any time. Whether you're fixing typos or adding new material, you can upload content in a matter of minutes. Upload freely and frequently.

Now that you know what you need, let's move on to the specifics each ebook publisher requires, starting with the biggest name.

Amazon Kindle direct publishing

You can’t argue with the numbers: Amazon should be your first stop as an ebook publisher, and if you’re planning to go with just one seller, this should be it. The uploading process for Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing is quite straightforward and lacking in surprises; you supply book and author info, keywords, excerpts, and your DRM selection, and then send your manuscript for review. Books are generally online and available on the Amazon store within 24 hours.

Amazon’s royalty system seems complex, but the bottom line is that you’ll make about 70 percent on your book if it isn’t stuffed with illustrations and it costs between $2.99 and $9.99. Amazon will also make your book available through its various foreign divisions at your request.

One intriguing option is Amazon’s KDP Select program: Make your book exclusive to the Kindle for 90 days, and you get a share of Amazon’s multimillion-dollar Lending Library fund, plus some free promotional juice.

Amazon has its own file format called KF8 (Kindle Format 8), but uploading your ePub-ready .doc file will work fine. Inserting a table of contents is nice, but not required by Amazon. The finished book looks good both on the Kindle and on Amazon’s site, with the listing page linked to any paperback versions of the book, an author page, and more.

For more details, check out Tony Bradley's guide to publishing for the Amazon Kindle.

Barnes & Noble Nook/PubIt

The royalties from this seller aren’t as good as those from Amazon--65 percent on most books from $2.99 to $9.99--but the Nook is a large enough platform to merit investing the time it takes to publish there. The procedure is nearly identical to that of the Kindle: Just fill out a form and upload your ePub-friendly Word file, and you’re ready to go. A table of contents is optional.

One of the nice features about Barnes & Noble’s PubIt system is that it includes an offline app (Nook for PC eReading) that you can use to preview your manuscript without having to click through page after page of your book in a Web browser, which can be agonizingly slow.

Once your book is uploaded, B&N promises that it will be live within 24 to 72 hours, and the company had Five Stars! up faster than that. The listing page is a bit spare--even with the five review blurbs I uploaded--and the book is unfortunately not linked to its paperback counterpart, which is also available from Barnes & Noble.

Still, the process is simple, and the sales possibilities are enticing.

Apple iBooks

The 70 percent commissions from Apple iBooks are dandy, but before you get too excited about your book being available for the iPad, be aware that publishing directly through Apple requires you to have a Mac. Die-hard PC owners can use an aggregator to make an end-run around this issue (see below), but the commissions are lower if you do.

To get started, sign up for a Paid Books Account (you can offer your book for free via a different mechanism), using your Apple ID. Fill out the personal information requested, and wait for an email reply: Apple has to approve your application. Once you get the okay (my approval took a few days), you have more paperwork to do, including a bevy of additional forms to fill out.

With that complete, you must navigate additional hoops. Apple requires both an ISBN for your book and your manuscript in ePub format. While other providers will translate a .doc file for you, Apple won’t. You can use any of a variety of tools to convert your book to ePub format, or just use a tool that one of the other sellers made for you (which is what I did). Then, using the iTunes Producer software (here’s where the Mac comes in), you can finally publish your book. But you’re not done yet: Apple has another “quality review” at this point. A week later I was still waiting for my book to be live on the iBookstore.

Suprisingly, compared with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Apple’s publishing system is by a wide margin the most confusing, slow, and difficult process you'll encounter, even if you already have a Mac. Admittedly, the iTunes Connect Mobile app (which lets you check on your book sales via your iPhone) is a nifty addition to the package. On the whole, however, if you’re considering using an aggregator at all, the complexity of Apple's process is the best reason to pay for that kind of help.


One option with ebook selling is to let someone else do some of the work. You still have to write and format your book properly, but after that’s done, the aggregator works with the reseller on your behalf, freeing you from dealing with accounting, ISBNs, and signing up multiple times on each service. In fact, Apple openly encourages the use of an “approved” aggregator in its service FAQ, likely due to the headaches outlined above.

You can find many aggregator services. I checked out two for this piece, Smashwords and Lulu. In general, the process is about the same as working with retailers: You upload your manuscript, a cover, descriptive terms, and payment information, and then the aggregator takes over. Aggregators coordinate with the retail sites, and they sell the books directly themselves, as well.

Smashwords is a somewhat scrappy startup, and next to the polish of Amazon and Apple, it looks a little quaint (the site is a bit buggy too). Smashwords will prepare your ebook for just about every platform known to mankind, including Kindle, Nook, and iOS, plus Kobo, Sony Reader, Stanza, Borders, and more. Commissions range from 80 percent for books sold directly through Smashwords to 60 percent or less for books sold via other merchants, as Smashwords takes a cut of each sale alongside Amazon or Apple’s cut. After all is said and done, you could be earning about 50 percent commissions in the worst possible scenario.

To sell with additional merchants, your book must meet Smashwords’ rather strict guidelines for “Premium Catalog” inclusion. Unfortunately, two weeks after I submitted my book, I was still waiting for the approval process to complete, with no ETA received. That is vastly longer than working with the merchants themselves, but given the likelihood of someone actually buying a book directly from Smashwords and manually syncing it to their ereader device (instead of having it automatically downloaded for them from a retail ebookstore), it’s certainly worth the hassle if you’re planning to go this route instead of selling to a retailer directly.

Lulu is another solid option, but it has fewer sales partners: It sells only via its own site, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble. Commissions are 81 percent for direct sales, and 63 percent for other merchants. Lulu began its life as a print-on-demand provider (particularly for people creating photo books), and its roots show: It offers to print a hard-copy book for you and even design a professional cover (for a fee).

The site is a bit buggy and slow, and the service requires you to pay significant attention to automated email messages to get your book online, but ultimately the finished project looks just fine, requiring virtually no manual intervention if you've done your formatting right.

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