How to Publish an Ebook

Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal - All Rights Reserved

$14.95 from Amazon

Self Publishing Blog

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Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal

All Rights Reserved

PDF Ebook Publishing and Amazon Kindle

In September 2009, I did a post summarizing all of my major posts on publishing and selling eBooks.

This is the third major update I've made to this article, the original and the first update are below. For a couple years in the 2005/2006 time frame, I was netting over $500 per month selling ebook versions of my print-on-demand titles. The ebooks were distributed by Lightning Source, with full DRM, and I earned 75% of the cover price. But Amazon was the main outlet, and Amazon decided that they'd rather build their own ebook business merely act as a storefront, so they dumped Lighting ebooks and my earnings crashed to less than $50 per month. The really annoying thing was that I knew the majority of the sales were generated by my own website through my Amazon Associates account. But I didn't see the point of trying to send customers to one of the online retailers that still sold Lightning ebooks because I didn't want to split my custom and maybe lose paperback sales.

Last summer I decided to go into the ebook publishing business for myself, using a fulfillment service. I ended up with e-junkie.com, because they didn't have a funky legal agreement. For $5 per month, e-junkie offers unlimited download bandwidth for ebooks, though they have a 50 MB storage limit for the account. e-junkie was recommended by PayPal, which actually processes the money and credit card orders for my sales. So I end up earning over 90% of the cover price on my current ebooks, and I'm not messing around with a restrictive DRM solution, just selling Word generated PDF files and allowing printing, though my license agreement limits the purchaser to printing a copy for personal use. I haven't seen a negative impact on my paper book sales, and my current trailing month selling ebook versions of my POD books just broke $1500. If you want to run through the purchase process just to see how it works, I'd recommend my POD publishing ebook for $9.95 - it may convince you to publish on paper as well:-)

What's in a Name?

In Genesis 2:19 God causes all of the new creations to pass before Adam so he can name them, establishing Adam's primacy over the animal kingdom. Naming things has been a human addiction since the beginnings of language, for how else can we talk about anything? However, the naming of things has as much to say about the namer as the namee. Doctors use big words for simple problems to insulate themselves from the emotional responses of their patients who are nevertheless comforted in having their fears named, and lawyers use complicated Latin terminology to describe everyday life so they can charge more per hour. Social workers, educators, psychologists and politicians often engage in creative naming as a substitute for accomplishment, continually redefining night and day by glancing out a window with the shade down. Names are contextual entities, and they need to be examined in the light of both their creators and their target audience.

The biggest argument in the growing E-book industry is over exactly what qualifies as an E-book. The dedicated reader crowd, those who back a lightweight, battery operated device for the sole purpose of displaying text in a "book-like" format, believe in their hearts that the word belongs to them. Software reader boosters who align themselves with Adobe Acrobat and Glassbook, Microsoft Reader and others, see their text display schemes as being the "true" E-books, and those dedicated readers as keyboard-challenged notebooks. Then there's the "anywhere but the web browser crowd," who format books for any device big enough to display a two-syllable word, including pocket organizers and cell-phones, but it's hard to take them very seriously. Finally, there is my viewpoint that any "content" which would be called a book were it printed on paper is an E-book when it is instead presented on anything "E." This last and most unbiased naming includes digitally stored audio books and innovative Braille devices, not to mention the Mother-of-all-E-books, the web browser.

Let's take a closer "shades up" look at the claimants to the E-book title. At first glance, the dedicated hardware reader backers would seem to have some good points. Their latest and greatest products are about the same size and weight as a hardcover book. The batteries last anywhere from 20 to 40 hours on a single charge so you can read the average book without having to plug-in, which is definitely not the case with a software reader running on a notebook. The displayed pages are laid out something like real book pages, though the actual type compares to ink on processed dead trees about as well as standing on a mountain top compares to seeing it on TV. However, the overriding argument of the dedicated reader backers, and all of the E-book promoters for that matter, is that books exist to deliver the "reading experience" and once one is immersed in the experience, these superficial factors disappear. There is actually some truth in this, to which we will return to later on.

Next we have the software reader philosophy. This is the "Cadillac" solution to displaying largely text content on a general-purpose computing device. It starts with a page formatted to look exactly as it would appear as a printed book, and in fact, a book formatted for Adobe Acrobat is ready for printing and binding at any moderately modern printing press in the world. The immediate drawback is that the screen on general purpose computing devices such as PCs, notebooks and pocket PCs is intended for horizontal display of objects that are wider than they are tall, while books are generally taller than they are wide. The usual solution on PC screens is to simply ignore a large portion of the screen, wasting 50% or more of the viewable area. The reader does have the option to flip the page on it's side and use the whole screen, but even on notebooks this is awkward at best, since they are built to be handled in the horizontal orientation. Software readers stress creature comforts like enhanced readability fonts, magnification on demand, and the option to add permanent bookmarks or notation.

The "true E-book" family is rounded out by the thin client reader, designed to display text on just about anything with a display. The "book-like" page formatting common to the first two technologies breaks down in a hurry on small screen devices, so the emphasis here is on the feature all three approaches have in common: security. Examining the context that all these E-book namers are working in, one finds that their real definition of what makes a book a book is that it is saleable for a profit! This requires some form of security to foil casual copying, particularly since a "hacked" or stolen E-book is indistinguishable from a legally obtained one. Security can be approached from many angles, including file encryption and library functions built into the reader that will only grant the option of viewing books which have been legally downloaded. Security may offer real protection from casual hacking when implemented on dedicated readers, but the idea that it can work to protect E-content on more general purpose computing devices is laughable. It isn't a question of whether or not encryption is good enough, it certainly is. The security hole on PCs, notebooks and PDAs will always be the end-run, a knock-off reader with illegally obtained content. Whether that content is obtained through scanning and OCR or more direct digital rip-offs is irrelevant.

Finally we come back to the humble web browser. Text viewed in the browser, even the exact text of a book, is named "content" or "web page" rather than "E-book." This naming, or de-naming of web published E-books, is based entirely on the free aspect of their distribution, as everyone must agree that even crude HTML on a VGA screen comes closer to resembling the printed page than something displayed on a Palm Pilot. Widespread distribution of what they would label "large text documents divided into chapters and written by authors who in many cases have published the exact same content on paper" is the fear of the "true E-Book" crowd. Returning to the basic tenet of E-book philosophy, that reading is an experience that rises above mere ink and paper, the question arises, "Then why all this fooling around to make it look like a book?" The answer is simple, "To convince consumers they should pay for it like a book!"

The long "E" in "E-book" will one day be recognized as a unconscious attempt on the part of E-book namers to co-opt that sound from what E-books are destined to become, namely "freE-Books." The payment model will work for limited interest E-books and selective distribution, because few people will bother hacking something that they need to work at to give away. However, best-sellers, cult classics, even popular children's books will soon appear in "freE-Book" form even before their publishers release the official "E-book." The unanswerable question for those of us lacking crystal balls is how authors will be paid for producing content in some distant future when paper books have a greatly reduced share of eyeballs. For fiction writers, I haven't a clue, though relatively few writers count on fiction works to produce a significant part of their income. On the bright side, I suspect fiction books will hold onto paper better than many non-fiction works which are read for reasons other than pleasure.

Seven out of eight books sold are non-fiction of one type or another, and since authors making a living on non-fiction works are less likely to be superstars than their fictional counterparts, so the rise of the e-book can be expected to bring great changes to the non-fiction landscape. One such change, borrowed from Wall Street, will be the conversion of many authors into touts, just like the analysts who once tracked the performance of companies now function as mere stock promoters. Infobooks will compete with infomercials as weapons in the marketing war. Another change, or at least increased weighting, will be in publication by academics or other professionals who can reap some promotional benefit other than royalties from their works. There will almost certainly be an increase in crackpots and plain bad authors as the barriers to publication disappear, but I'd like to think there is an upside to the free book model. Namely, potential authors who have the knowledge and skills required for writing will now have the motivation of knowing up-front that their work will be published, and published exactly as they envision it. After all, there are a lot easier ways to make a living than writing and selling books, and many fine writers who don't enjoy rejection as much as others of us do have abandoned the hopes of publication based on form letter responses from mail-room clerks. So "freE-Books" may be interpreted in this context as meaning "free from publishers, agents, needless aggravation and the omnipresent SASE." It also spells disaster for the Post Office; first came e-mail, then web based advertising, and now they're going to lose the manuscript commuting trade.

"Post Office" - 1. Coming after the office. Usually refers to the period of time coming after the "information age" and before " Aquarius."

Ebook Publishing and Amazon Kindle

Amazon has forced another update to this article (December 2007). The finally introduced their hardware ebook reader, the Kindle, and it's more than an ebook reader, it's a network appliance. Amazon and Google were the only companys in a position to make a hardware ebook reader attractive, and Amazon just got there the firstest with the mostest. I think it's best long term application will be as a replacement for textbooks, but if they get the web appliance issues squared away, it may supplant many of the other ultra-portable web devices as the piece of hardware to carry around. I intend to buy a Kindle before the tax year is out, but I'm traveling overseas at the moment, and they only sell them in the US.

I'm pretty comfortable predicting that the majority of publishers, or at least, publishers representing the vast majority of the trade market, will sign up to have their books available on Kindle. The DRM appears to be bullet proof for them moment, since the whole thing is managed from Amazon's servers, and my own experience indicates that ebook sales do not cannibalize paper book sales. The HTML format will be a little crude for many, I've already heard complaints about ragged justification with short lines, but Kindle users will get used to that in a hurry. I'm also concerned about how they will deal with graphics, never having seen a graphic on a kindle screen. But I've gone to the trouble of signing up with MobiPocket (again) and will pick at least on of my titles to publish for Kindle when I get back to the States. I might even be motivated to publish a short ebook that I wouldn't bother publishing as a paper book, just to see how it goes.

This rest of this article is split into two parts, my old my in-between attitude. My new attitude can be expressed in four sentences. Mid-way through 2006, Amazon dropped the Lighting Source e-books which had made up the majority of their offerings, including my list. So much for $500 a month. I still get the occasional e-mail from somebody who has changed computers and is encountering DRM problems.Amazon purchased Mobipocket, the french ebook company two years ago, but has yet to integrate those titles into the Amazon catalog.

Publishing Ebooks and Edocs can be profitable, IF you have an internet marketing strategy in place. How profitable? Well, when we decided to publish ebook versions of the three titles we currently print through Lightning Source using their print-on demand model, it added about $500/month net to our bottom line. That option to get into Amazon is gone now, though Lightning Source continues to offer ebook services. If you prefer publishing an ebook directly through Amazon, they'll publish your books or brochures as Amazon e-docs for a 50/50 split. The Lightning Source deal is currently better, 75/25 in favor of the publisher, but you need an ISBN number (ie, you need to be a real publisher) to work with Lightning Source.

Ebook sales are reported as rising at over 100% per year. That's probably true, but they started from zero not too many years ago, so it's not an particularly significant number yet. I've found that if an ebook sells 1 copy a day on Amazon, that's usually enough to keep it in their top 100 bestsellers. At the same time, it's overall rank is likely to be worse than 10,000 - in other words, over 10,000 different paper book titles will be outselling it. The top couple ebooks or edocs on Amazon might be selling around 10 copies a day, but that's probably the maximum. Judging by the mix of books in the top 50 or 100 titles, the most successful ebooks are inexpensive (less than $10, sometimes less than $5) titles about business related subjects or, "Adult" entertainment (and I use "Adult" very loosely here.

Amazon doesn't accept returns on ebooks or edocs, though they don't charge the customer until it's actually downloaded, and some downloads never take place because the customer never installs the proper reader software, most often Adobe's. Ebooks are most often sold with some form of DRM (Digital Rights Management) built into the file. The PDF DRM offered by Lightning Source includes options for how many pages can be printed and how often and whether the file can be copied or backed-up. We allow our e-books to be printed once a year (three times for the one with the complicated printing that everybody messes up) but we don't allow them to be copied. The intention is not to foil serious hackers. Face it, the next "Harry Potter" is usually on sale in China long before it's released (whether or not J.K. Rowlings wrote it is another question:-).The idea is to prevent readers from doing 10,000 friends in their internet discussion group a favor and releasing the e-book into the wild. The protection can be broken, but it takes a conscious dishonest act, about the only real deterrent to intellectual property theft in today's world. If somebody really wants to steal your book, they can always buy a paper copy and scan it with OCR or just pass out photocopies to friends (like college professors). Let your experience be your guide, but ebook publishing is part of my business, and PDF DRM is the the only reasonable answer I've found yet.

The main reason I started publishing ebooks was demand from our customers. We kept getting e-mails from places like Australia and New Zealand, where people wanted to buy or books but the Amazon shipping was too expensive or too slow. With an ebook or edoc, they can pay, download the book, and be reading it five minutes later, at least on a broadband connection. Once we released the e-books, it turned out that plenty of customers in America wanted them as well, either because they like reading off computer screens or they just want it NOW, and even if a paper book is in stock at Amazon, you can't get it the same day. In fact, during the holiday season when Amazon sold out of our paper books and the shipping time rose to 2-3 weeks, our ebook sales rose dramatically to take up some of the slack. Overall, we haven't had any problems with e-books yet and they haven't seemed to hurt the sales of the paper versions, it's as if they have two distinct audiences.

"Print-on-Demand Book Publishing" is $14.95 through Amazon or a $9.95 e-book from the publisher