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The Basics of DIY E-Book Publishing

Here's an overview of e-publishing principles and skills, as well as specific services you should be aware of given their current prominence in the market.

About 10 years ago, the most prevalent self-publishing option called for a significant up-front investment and reliance on a publishing service company. Authors had to forfeit more than half of their royalties and grant exclusivity to a single company to sell and distribute their work.

Just as traditional publishing has been transformed by the rise of e-books, today’s self-publishing market has been transformed by new distribution tools that are free to use, take a smaller percentage of authors’ sales, and operate on a nonexclusive basis. Authors have far more control over where their work is sold and what they earn. And there is a growing field of bestselling authors who’ve launched their careers by publishing e-books alone—including Amanda Hocking, Darcie Chan and John Locke, to name a few.

However, the digital publishing landscape is still evolving daily (one way to keep up with it is to own this collection of amazing resources, all bundled up for one low price). There is not yet a single e-book format that works across all digital readers, and devices and services come and go. Some have likened it to the Wild West, and it’s an apt metaphor.

Since the services and tools will keep transforming, this article provides an overview of e-publishing principles and skills that are slower to change. But it also covers specific services you should be aware of given their current prominence in the market.

—Jane Friedman

Before You Digitally Publish

Even though e-books are skyrocketing in popularity, ask these questions before you begin:

→ Do your target readers prefer print or digital? Look for these indicators: Is it common for authors in your genre to release e-books only? Have publishers launched e-book imprints in your genre?

→ Is your book highly illustrated? Does it require color? If so, you may want to avoid e-publishing for now, as current services can be limited in their handling of heavily illustrated or full-color work.

→ Do you know how to reach your readers online? If your answer isn’t “yes,” you may have some more groundwork to do first. People who buy e-books will probably find out about your work online.

An author who is primed to succeed at digital publishing has an entrepreneurial spirit and is comfortable being online. Ideally, you should already have an online presence and an established website. You also need to be in it for the long haul; sales usually snowball over time, rather than occurring within the first months of release.

How E-Publishing Services Work

The first and most important thing to understand about the leading e-publishing services is that they are not publishers. They are distributors or retailers. That means they take no responsibility for the quality of your work, but neither do they take any rights to your work. Here are the characteristics of the major services:

→ Free or low-cost distribution: Depending on the service, your e-book will be distributed either for free or for a one-time fee. If distribution is free, then the distributor/retailer will take a percentage of your sales. Fee-charging services typically allocate 100 percent of net sales to you.

→ At-will and nonexclusive: You can upload your work at any time and make it available for sale; you can also take it down at any time. You can upload new versions; change the price, cover and description; and sell your work through multiple services or through your own site.

→ Little technical expertise required: Major services offer automated tools for converting your files, uploading the files, and listing your work for sale, as well as free guides and tutorials to help you format files appropriately.

Again, it’s important to emphasize: By using the major services mentioned here, you do not forfeit any rights to your work. If a traditional publisher or agent were to approach you after your e-book has gone on sale, you’d be free to sell rights without any obligation to the services you used. That said, a service may modify its terms at any time, so always check the terms of use before uploading your work. Also, it’s important to stay up to date on news and developments in the e-publishing industry so you’re alert to significant changes in terms of use across all services.

Two Key Categories of E-Publishing Services

Most e-publishing services fall into one of two categories:

→ Single-channel distribution: These services—typically retailers—distribute and sell your work through only one channel or device. Examples: Kindle Direct Publishing and PubIt! by Barnes & Noble. Single-channel distributors do not offer any assistance in converting your e-book files, although they may accept a wide range of file types for upload.

→ Multiple-channel distribution: These services act as middlemen and push your work out to multiple retailers and distributors. This reduces the amount of work an author must do; instead of dealing with many different single-channel services, you deal with only one service. Examples: Smashwords and BookBaby. Multiple-channel distributors may offer basic and advanced conversion services.

Multiple-channel options are multiplying, and each works on a slightly different model. Some act as full-
service publishing operations, requiring no effort from you, the author. However, in exchange for the services of a multi-channel distributor, you typically have to pay an upfront fee and/or give up a percentage of your sales. (See chart at left for a comparison of leading services.) One popular approach is to start by using Kindle Direct Publishing, then add on multi-channel distributor Smashwords, which distributes to all major devices and retailers except Kindle.

A note about ISBNs: While an ISBN is not required for e-book distribution through the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook, some services and retailers do require one. Therefore, to maximize distribution, you’ll need an ISBN for your e-book. Some services will provide you with an ISBN as part of the fee for their services, or you can buy your own through

Converting and Formatting Your Work

Each service asks you to upload a completed book file that is appropriately formatted. Services vary widely in the types of files they accept (see chart). Because standards are still developing in the e-book world, you may find yourself converting and formatting your book multiple times to satisfy the requirements of different services.

Here are the most commonly used formats for e-books:

→ EPUB (.epub): This is considered a global standard format for e-books and works seamlessly on most devices. While you cannot directly create an EPUB file from a Word document, you can save your Word document as a TXT (.txt) file, then convert and format it using special software (see list on the following page). There are also plug-ins you can buy for Microsoft Word that enable you to convert Word docs to EPUB files.

→ Mobipocket (.mobi or .prc):Amazon Kindle uses a modified Mobipocket format for its e-books. You can create Mobipocket files by using the free Mobipocket Creator (, which allows you to import Word and PDF files.

→ iBooks (.ibooks): This is a new proprietary format introduced by Apple in January. You can create an e-book in the .ibooks format by using Apple’s free iBooks Author software. The advantage of this software is that it allows you to easily create multimedia e-books optimized for tablets. However, there are two major drawbacks. The first is that, as of press time, Apple has restricted the sale of any e-book created specifically through the iBooks Author tool to Apple’s iBookstore. You may not sell your iBooks anywhere else. The second is that iBooks can be read only on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.

→ PDF (.pdf): PDFs are still one of the most common formats for selling and distributing e-books, because they can retain the exact formatting, layout, color and illustration of a print edition. However, PDFs can be difficult to convert to standard e-book formats, and do not display well on grayscale reading devices.

Fortunately, many e-publishing services accept a Word document and automatically convert it to the appropriate format, but you still must go through an “unformatting” process for best results. All major services offer step-by-step guidelines for formatting your Word documents before you upload them for conversion.

Note that there is a difference between formatting and converting your book files. Conversion refers to an automated process of changing files from one format into another, without editing or styling. It’s often easy to convert files, but the resulting file may look unprofessional—or even appear unreadable—if not formatted appropriately.

Useful tools for formatting and converting e-books include:

→ calibre ( Free software that converts e-book files from more than two dozen different file types.

→ Sigil ( Free editing and formattingsoftware for e-books in the EPUB format; you can start with plain text files saved from Word.

→ Scrivener ( Paid software that supports editing, formatting and converting for a variety of e-book formats; it can act as a replacement or companion for Word.

If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of converting and formatting your own e-book files—especially if your e-book has special layout requirements, heavy illustrations or multimedia components—then you may want to use an e-publishing service that does this for you. But if your book is mostly straight text—say, a novel—you should be able to handle the conversion and formatting process without much difficulty if you’re starting with a Word document or TXT file.

Designing an E-Book Cover

There are a number of special considerations for e-book covers, not least of which is how little control you have over how the cover displays. People may see your cover in black and white, grayscale, color, high resolution, low resolution, thumbnail size or full size. It needs to be readable at all sizes and look good on low-quality or mobile device screens.

For these reasons and more, it’s best to hire a professional to create an e-book cover for you. Look for recommendations at the resource sites mentioned at the end of this article, or ask for a referral from an author whose e-book covers you admire.

Maximizing Your Sales

With print books, your success is typically driven by the quality of your book, your visibility or reach to your readership, and your cover. With digital books, the same factors are in play, plus the following:

→ Price: If you check the e-book bestseller lists, you’ll see that independent novelists charge very little for their work, usually between $.99 and $2.99. Some argue this devalues the work, while others say it’s appropriate for a digital edition. Whatever your perspective, just understand that if you’re an unknown author, your competition will probably be priced at $2.99 or less to encourage readers to take a chance. Typically, the more established you are, the more you can charge. Note: Nonfiction categories can be an exception to this. Sometimes their prices are just as high for digital editions as for print editions. Nonfiction authors should price according to the competition and what the market can bear.

→ Amazon: As of this writing, books for the Amazon Kindle accounted for at least 50 percent of e-book sales in the U.S. and sometimes as much as 70 percent, depending on the category. Your Amazon page (especially as displayed on a Kindle) may be the first and only page a reader looks at when deciding whether or not to purchase your book. Reviews become critical in assuring readers of quality. Also, the Kindle bestseller list can be a key driver of visibility and sales—and is watched closely by just about everyone in the business.

→ Price + Amazon: Amazon is well known for paying 70 percent of list price to authors who price their e-books between $2.99 and $9.99. The percentage plummets to 35 percent for any price outside this range, which is why you find authors periodically switching their price between $.99 and $2.99. They maximize volume and visibility at the lower price point (and attempt to get on bestseller lists), then switch to $2.99 to maximize profits.

Looking Toward the Future

The only thing for certain about digital publishing is that the model, services and devices will continue to evolve and improve. Here are some of the best online resources for staying up to date on what’s happening.

→ Digital Book World ( This site (by F+W Media, parent company of WD) offers news, analysis and interviews about e-book publishing. Start by reading the series of articles about maximizing sales through the Amazon Kindle by Carolyn McCray.

→ The Book Designer ( Joel Friedlander offers practical advice and information on self-publishing digitally or in print. (Editor’s Note: You’ll also find Friedlander’s article about savvy self-pub strategies on Page 28.)

→ Kindle Direct Publishing forums ( While most digital publishing
services offer their own forums, the Kindle forums host some of the most active and comprehensive discussions. Whatever your question is, you can probably find it answered here.


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