How to self-publish an ebook

Interested in self-publishing an e-book? CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy offers some basic tips for e-book publishing and lays out your best options for publishing quickly and easily.

iBooks on iPad
Apple

A while back I wrote a column titled "Self-publishing: 25 things you need to know," which was mostly about how to create and sell your own paper book. After folks asked me to do something similar for e-books, I created this article, which has now been updated a few times.

I begin with one caveat: The whole e-book market is rapidly evolving, and a lot of self-publishing companies are offering e-book deals bundled into their print book publishing packages, which makes them harder to break out and evaluate. It's all quite complicated, and in an effort to sort through the confusion, I've decided to offer a few basic tips and present what I think are some of the best options out there for creating an e-book quickly and easily. As things change -- and they will -- I'll do my best to keep this column up to date.

Tips:

  • It's gotta be good: The same rule applies to self-published e-books as it does to print books. You have to start with a good product if you have any hope of selling it.

  • Create an arresting cover: When it comes to e-books, everything starts with the cover image. Creating an eye-catching, professional-looking cover that also looks good small (it has to stand out as a thumbnail image, since it's being sold online) is easier said than done, but it can really make a difference in terms of sales. Ideally, you should hire a graphic designer who has some experience creating book covers. From a production standpoint, an e-book cover is easier to create than a cover for a print book (you just need a JPEG with decent resolution), but it shouldn't look out of place among traditionally published e-books. I can't tell you how many bad self-published covers are out there.

  • Price your e-book cheaply: You should sell your e-book for $5.99 or less. According to research done by Smashwords, an online e-book publishing and distribution platform for authors, publishers, agents, and readers, $2.99 to $5.99 yields the most profit for self-published authors, and although 99 cents will get you more downloads, it's a poor price point for earning income (see Smashwords' presentation on pricing here). On the other hand, Lulu, one of the bigger online self-publishing operations, says that authors who price their e-books in the 99-cent to $2.99 range "sell more units and earn more revenue than those in any other price range."

    It's important to note that Amazon's 70 percent royalty for authors only applies to Kindle books priced between $2.99 and $9.99; otherwise, the rate kicks down to 35 percent). As for going free, well, Smashword data indicates that free e-books get about 100 times more downloads than priced e-books.

  • Avoid any outfits that don't let you set the price: This is one of the cardinal rules of self-publishing an e-book. You must be able to control the pricing of your e-book. If you want to sell it for 99 cents, then you should be able to sell it for 99 cents.

  • Marketing is all about creating awareness for your e-book: I don't have any secret marketing tips to offer, but what I can say is that you can't sell a book if no one knows it exists. Most of book marketing is simply about creating awareness and you need to do that however you can, whether it's through social media or blogging or passing out fliers on a street corner. (I made a business card for my book, which I pass out if someone seems interested in hearing more about it.)

E-book publishing options:

Here are the three big questions to bear in mind with e-book creation: first, what is the easiest and most cost-efficient way to produce an e-book? Second, where will it be distributed? And third, how much of a cut do you get? With those in mind, let's take a look at some of the more high-profile options available currently. I'm limiting it to these options because I want to keep this as simple as possible.

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
This is Amazon's e-book publishing platform, and if you think you're going to sell a lot of e-books, you should figure out a way to upload your file (book) directly to KDP and avoid using any sort of middleman or e-book "aggregator" that takes a cut of the profits. If you're a true DIY person, you can create your own cover (though if you're not a professional designer, it's better to hire a pro) and format your e-book from a Word file using free software tools such as Mobipocket eBook Creator or Calibre. Mobipocket Creator allows you to create an e-book with a table of contents and convert it into Amazon's proprietary e-book format, AZW (MOBI, the file output by the program, is the same as AZW). You can start with a Word file, which then gets converted to HTML, then MOBI. (Check out the Mobipocket eBook Creator guide at the company's Web site).

Kindle KDP. Amazon

If you don't want to go the total DIY route, you can pay someone a few hundred dollars (or less) to format your e-book for you, but you'll still need to come up with a cover. J.A. Konrath, who's had a lot of success in the self-published e-book space and has written an excellent primer called "How to Make Money on eBooks," recommended Rob Siders at www.52novels.com. You can also try Ray Fowler at rayfowler.org. And Smashwords' founder Mark Coker maintains "Mark's List," which is a list of low-cost e-book formatters and cover designers with pricing starting at about $50. You can get the list via instant autoresponder by e-mailing list@smashwords.com.

Amazon offers a 70 percent royalty rate for authors, but some rules apply (see the complete list of terms). This is the same royalty that Apple offers iPhone/iPad app developers and authors who sell e-books via its iBookstore store. You can upload your e-book directly to the iBookstore, but you have to fill out an application and it's a bit of a process. That's why authors tend to use an "aggregator" like Smashwords or Lulu to get into the iBookstore (see complete list of Apple-approved aggregators here). Even though the iPad supports most of the leading e-book stores (Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, Kobo), getting into the iBookstore is becoming more important as Apple continues to sell millions of iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches.

That said, Amazon is offering incentives to authors to offer their works exclusively on Amazon. This program is called KDP Select and it comes with some key perks. Here's what Amazon has to say:

KDP Select is a new option that features a $6 million annual fund dedicated to independent authors and publishers. If you choose to make a book exclusive to the Kindle Store for at least 90 days, the book is eligible to be included in the Kindle Owners' Lending Library and you can earn a share of the fund based on how frequently the book is borrowed (click here to see how payments are calculated). In addition, by choosing KDP Select, you will have access to a new set of promotional tools, starting with the option to offer enrolled books free to readers for up to 5 days every 90 days. Authors and publishers can enroll a single title, their whole catalog or anything in between within KDP Select.

The Kindle Owners' Lending Library allows Amazon Prime members to "check out" your e-book for free (members can only check out one eligible title per month). Obviously, being able to offer your book for free to thousands -- or potentially million of customers -- increases the odds you'll "sell" more books. And what's nice is that even though people may not being paying to download your book, you're still getting paid -- and pretty well, according to Amazon.

"Every time a customer borrowed an independently published book in March [2012], the author earned $2.18," said Russ Grandinetti, vice president of Kindle Content, in a recent press release. "That's more than many authors earn when their books are sold."

I can't tell you how long Amazon will continue offering this deal -- and what future payout rates will be -- but I do know plenty of indie authors who are choosing the KDP Select option and not publishing on other platforms because they think it makes the most sense both in terms of number of sales (or downloads) and earnings. Kindle still has the largest market share with about 60 percent of the e-book pie (Nook is at around 25 percent, Apple 15 percent, and others are left to pick up the crumbs).

Of course, not everybody feels KDP Select is the way to go. Smashwords' Coker, who's also the author of the free e-book "Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success" (it's worth checking out), thinks authors should shy away from KDP Select and has written an article explaining why.

Needless to say, Coker has a vested interest in you not going exclusive with Amazon. But he's also well-regarded in the indie book world.

Smashwords
Smashwords, one of the e-book pioneers and largest distributors of self-published e-books, with more than 125,000 titles from over 40,000 authors, is very much a DIY operation. You bring your Word file and cover image, upload it into the company's "Meatgrinder" tool, and in a matter of minutes, you create your e-book in just about every format you'd want. You can then sell that e-book on Smashwords.com or have the company distribute it to most of the major e-book sellers, including Barnes & Noble's eBookstore, Apple's iBooks, Sony, Kobo, and Baker & Taylor's Blio and others. Smashwords also has deals in place for having its authors' e-books distributed to libraries.

As for the Kindle, well, Smashwords says it's still waiting for Amazon to update its KDP intake systems so it automatically can ingest Smashwords titles as other retailers do (the 200 or so titles that Smashwords has loaded into KDP have been loaded manually). Amazon encourages authors to upload directly through KDP, so I wouldn't count on this happening anytime soon.

Smashwords is an Apple-approved aggregator. Smashwords

Smashwords offers a free style guide for formatting your e-book. Although Smashwords encourages authors to keep things simple, you can still create a professional-quality e-book with Smashwords that includes a linked table of contents, NCX navigation, and custom paragraph styling. A couple of years ago, I created an acceptable-looking e-book in about 30 minutes after making some tweaks (usually they involve spacing between chapter breaks) and reprocessing my file three times. If you follow Smashwords' guidelines, you can end up with a professional-quality "reflowable" e-book that looks as good as what many of the big publishers are putting out and reads well on any screen size.

Smashwords prides itself on not charging you for creating your e-book and taking only a small cut of author's royalties (see Smashwords' overview ). Though the cut is small, it's still a cut, but that's the price you're paying for the convenience of having your book distributed on a wide array of platforms and having Smashwords track your sales.

Coker has chided me a bit for disparaging the middleman. He's quick to point out that a good middleman partner (distributor) saves you time, helps you reach retailers you can't reach, and helps you centrally and efficiently manage distribution and metadata updates (change your price or book cover and the change propagates out to all retailers).

Lastly, it's worth noting that Smashwords provides free ISBNs. I'm not going to get into a full on discussion of ISBN, which is "a unique identifier" associated with your e-book, but most companies provide a free ISBN for your e-book or roll the price up into a package. Smashwords has a good quick guide to e-book ISBNs that you should take a look at.

Some distributors are more transparent than others about disclosing exactly what cut they take from your sales. Smashwords considers itself especially transparent. As soon as you upload your book, you get a dynamic pie chart that estimates how the pie is split at each price point across the different sales channels.

Smashwords operates its own e-book store, where authors earn 85 percent of the net sale (what's left after credit card fees are deducted). That works out to between 60 and 80 percent of the list price, depending on the book's price (for more info on author earnings and payment schedules, see Smashwords' FAQ).

For books distributed by Smashwords to its retail network of the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel and Baker & Taylor's Blio, the author earns 60 percent of the list price, the retailer takes 30 percent and Smashwords earns 10 percent. The cuts work essentially the same for overseas sales, though in countries that impose VAT taxes, the VAT often comes out of the purchase price before the percentages are applied.

As far as international sales go, Coker says they're growing rapidly. Apple's in 32 countries already and Amazon, Kobo, B&N and Sony are all expanding their global operations. Coker says that 45 percent of its Apple iBookstore sales are from outside the U.S.

"Authors should think globally from day one," Coker says. He predicts that the market outside the U.S. for indie English-language e-books will soon be larger than the U.S. market. Indie book growth is slowing in the U.S., he says, but fledgling international e-book markets are on the cusp of entering their exponential growth phases.

BookBaby
BookBaby, the sibling of CD Baby (Brian Felsen is the president of both operations), has a slightly different business model from some of its competitors. Instead of taking a cut of your royalties, it makes you pay a fee of $99 upfront, then charges you a yearly fee of $19 per title you have in its system. It also offers print publishing services.

BookBaby has upfront costs but doesn't take a royalty cut. BookBaby

I haven't used BookBaby but I spoke to a customer service representative at length and was impressed with her responses. When I asked about what advantages BookBaby had over Smashwords, she didn't knock her competitor.

"Smashwords is great," she said. "But BookBaby is for someone who wants a little more hand-holding through the process."

Smashwords' Coker concurs and told me that he's sent people who wanted more hand-holding to BookBaby.

Of course, you'll have to pay a bit more to get that hand-holding. There's a Premium package that runs $199, as well as cover design services (the customer service rep recommended going with the $279 Deluxe option).

BookBaby offers distribution with all the major e-book sellers (see list here) and offers an Author's Accounting Dashboard to track and analyze sales data.

In all, BookBaby seems like one of the better indie e-book operations out there. If you only sell a few books, that $99 entry fee (or $199 if you go with the premium package) may not seem like such a great deal. But if you sell a lot, you'll quickly recoup your investment.

PubIt is B&N's self-publishing offering. Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble's PubIt
Barnes & Noble's PubIt self-publishing operation offers similar features to Amazon's KDP, but the two platforms do have their differences. Barnes & Noble has set the PubIt royalty rate for authors at 65 percent of the sale price for titles priced $2.99 and higher. The rate falls to 40 percent if you choose to go lower than $2.99 or higher than $9.99, with B&N setting 99 cents as the lowest allowable price and $199.99 as the highest. (For books priced under $2.99 or over $9.99, you actually earn more by distributing your book to B&N through Smashwords, which pays 60 percent list for all prices 99 cents and up.

B&N's 65 percent is close to Amazon's 70 percent royalty, but not quite as high (Amazon also has pricing restriction to get its highest rate). PubIt includes a free conversion tool that takes your Microsoft Word, TXT, HTML, or RTF files and automatically converts it to an EPUB file, which you then upload to Barnes & Noble's eBookstore (alternatively, of course, if your e-book is already an EPUB file, you can just upload it directly through PubIt). Barnes & Noble allows you to preview how your content will look on one of Barnes & Noble's e-reading devices using the Nook emulator.

Barnes & Noble says that going forward it will offer some unique features and is looking for ways to tie-in the Nook's in-store Wi-Fi streaming features and feature local self-published authors in stores specific to each location. For reference, here's a look at the PubIt FAQ page.

Lulu
When you publish a print book at Lulu -- and a lot of people do -- you also have the option of just publishing an e-book. Lulu e-books are distributed to Apple's iBookstore, Lulu.com, and Barnes & Noble (Nook).

Lulu is also an approved Apple aggregator.

The main benefit Lulu offers in the e-book realm is that it's one of the designated aggregators for Apple's iBookstore.

It appears that Lulu doesn't charge you anything to create an e-book (it offers an EPUB conversion tool and eBook Creator Guide), but like some competitors it offers fee-based premium services.

Lulu has greatly improved its royalty terms in last 18 months. As far as I can tell from its royalty calculator tool, Lulu takes a 10 percent cut of your net earnings from Apple's iBookstore and B&N's Nook Book Store. That's good.

It's hard to say what advantages Lulu has over competitors like Smashwords but at least the royalty rates appear to be the same. Weirdly, I found the Lulu Web site to be straightforward yet convoluted at the same time. For instance, I couldn't figure out whether Lulu distributes your e-book to any retailers beyond Lulu.com, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. From what I saw on the site, it appears they don't.

Click here to check out Lulu's e-book creation options.

Booktango

Author Solutions, one of the largest self-publishers in the U.S., has entered the DIY e-book market with Booktango. Whether Booktango should be called an "e-book generating app" or "self-publishing platform" is hard to say, but it basically provides a free and simple way to upload your manuscript, edit it for proper formatting, then automatically serve it up to various e-book stores, including Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks.

Author Solutions recently launched Booktango, a new DIY e-book publishing platform. Booktango

On the surface, Booktango, which bears the "beta" tag, looks fairly slick and should improve as the company adds more features. The ability to have WYSIWYG formatting capabilities is nice (even on the iPad) and you can either upload a cover image of your own choosing or design one using some provided templates. All in all, it looks like a perfectly decent way to get your e-book formatted and distributed to all the major e-book stores quickly. Like its competitors, Booktango also manages your e-book sales -- it rolls them all up into one account -- and you can have your royalties sent directly to your checking account.

Booktango is free to use, but the company is working off a freemium model and provides additional fee-based services, such as copy editing, custom cover design, and marketing packages.

Booktango's Web site advertises a "100 percent royalty," which is misleading considering you get that rate only from the e-books you sell on the Booktango Web site and Booktango charges a fee for each book you sell (30 percent of the list price -- the same as Amazon). For other outlets, Booktango takes 10 percent of your net profits, resulting in a "90 percent royalty," which is also misleading because the net profit in its sample royalty rates seems smaller than it should be. Honestly, Booktango's royalty rates don't look too good and can't match its competitors' rates.

However, in an effort to attract authors Booktango is offering a true 100 percent royalty rate until July 4. And the Web site says that if you publish an e-book with Booktango by July 4, you'll retain that 100 percent rate for the life of that book. That means if you make a sale through Booktango's e-book store, you'll get the full amount of the sale (I'm not sure if credit card fees are deducted or not). You'll also get the full 100 percent net of the sale when selling through other e-booksellers (Apple, Amazon, and others will take their 30 percent cut, of course).

Since the service is so new I can't vouch for it, but Booktango's limited-time 100 percent royalty offer certainly has some appeal.

iBooks Author
A lot of people ask me about creating children's books or other types of graphically rich books and e-books. I can't say I'm an expert in this area, but when you're dealing with graphics and images, the self-publishing equation becomes more difficult and expensive (formatting costs tend to go up as you add more images). However, Apple's trying to change all that with iBooks Author, which allows you to build multitouch interactive e-books that you can upload and sell in the iBookstore and view in the iBooks2 app on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.

iBooks Author is a free download for Macs. Apple

The software program is a free download for Mac owners and using it is not so different from creating a PowerPoint presentation. It's not perfect, but overall it's pretty impressive, and Apple will undoubtedly continue improving it with updates.

You work from a selection of templates and can add multitouch widgets to include interactive photo galleries, movies, 3D objects, and more. When you're done, you then have to fill out an application to create an account before you can upload your creations to the iBookstore or iTunes U (Apple has billed iBooks Author as a multifaceted tool for creating everything from textbooks to cookbooks to picture books, and anything else you can think of).

If you can't find a template you like, there are already third-party vendors, including ibooksauthortemplates.com, selling additional templates. (Yes, Apple's spurred another cottage industry).

When iBooks Author launched, some people were upset by the fact that your project can only live in Apple's e-book ecosystem and nowhere else. So it goes. At the moment, the iPad is far and away the best-selling tablet and represents arguably the biggest market for graphically rich color e-books, not to mention the best way to view them (particularly on the new iPad's Retina display). Yes, Amazon has sold a lot of Kindle Fires and the Barnes & Noble's Nook Color and Nook Tablet have found their way into a lot of homes. But the iPad's still king, and Apple's calling the shots here.

I don't have a problem with that and think it's great that Apple offers iBooks Author for free. But the one thing that does bother me is Apple's failure to provide a free ISBN for your e-book. Instead, it tells you to get your own and provides a link to Bowker's Identifiers Services page. Bowker's charges $125 for a single ISBN or 10 for $250. The price drops to single digits when you buy thousands of ISBNs as other self-publishing outfits do. (You can buy a single ISBN for less than $125, but I'd prefer not get into all that). In short, it's patently absurd that Apple's making its authors pay $125 for ISBN number, and I think it's deterring a lot of people from publishing an iBook directly with Apple.

Apple's the exclusive publisher here. It needs to provide free ISBNs to its authors. If Smashwords can afford to do it, so can Apple.

CreateSpace, iUniverse, Xlibris, AuthorHouse, and other POD self-publishing outfits
Most of the large print-on-demand self-publishing operations offer some sort of e-book conversion service and distribution -- and sometimes it gets bundled into a print-publishing package (these companies usually charge a few hundred dollars for converting your e-book). In some cases, this can work out OK for authors who don't care about extracting as much money as they can from each sale and don't want to work with a separate company to create an e-book once they've uploaded their PDF file for their print book. For those who don't think they'll end up selling a lot of copies of their e-book, this can be a fine arrangement, but just beware that in many cases you can't set your own price and more money is being taken out of your net profits than should be. Again, you should strongly consider avoiding companies that don't let you set your own price.

Scribd
Scribd.com offers one of the fastest and easiest ways to get an e-book or even a short story up on the Internet, though Scribd isn't a serious player yet as far as e-book sales go. After you create an account, you simply create a PDF of your book with the cover image embedded in the first page of the PDF and upload the PDF to Scribd.

Scribd is trying to become the YouTube for documents. Scribd

Its online software quickly converts your document into a file that can be viewed on a PC, iPad, or other portable devices. You can also choose to allow people to download your file for viewing.

Scribd has added HTML5 coding, so your document can easily be read on the iPad via the Safari browser (this allows you to use Apple's finger-based, pinch-and-spread touch zoom controls). Currently, the majority of documents posted to Scribd are free to view or download (it's a great way to post samples of your work), but you can sell your work on Scribd as well. (If you want to see an example, I posted a free excerpt of my own book to Scribd. Alas, I should have made my cover larger so it didn't have a white border, but so it goes).

In sum

To be clear, there are other ways to go about self-publishing your e-book. For example, I haven't talked about such outfits as Ingram Digital, Overdrive, or LibreDigital, because they're geared toward larger publishing or self-publishing operations rather than individuals. To help focus your decision-making process, I've tried to stick to what I consider the important players right now.

I should also say that everybody comes to the self-publishing process with a different agenda -- and a different book --and some e-book self-publishing options will appeal to you based on the type of book you have (aside from the iBooks Author reference, this article is slanted to publishing more text-based e-books rather than books with lots of illustrations or graphic images, such as children's books). For those who are publishing an e-book as an experiment or "just to get it out there" and who are less concerned with making money and extracting every last dime out of a sale, aggregators offer a convenient solution to get your book in a variety of e-book stores and roll up your sales into one single record that you can easily track (most companies pay out earnings from e-books within 60 to 90 days; Amazon is 60).

It's also worth noting that you can mix and match and go direct with Amazon (KDP), uploading your own file and managing your account, and then use an aggregator such as Smashwords for additional distribution to other e-book stores. At this point there are no hard and set rules and, as I said in the beginning, the e-book market is very fluid, seeing significant changes almost every month. As always, please feel free to post your opinion in the comments section, particularly if you've had experience publishing your e-book already and can share your observations with others. And remember, Google is your best friend for the finer parts of self-publishing, such as converting a Word file to a PDF.

Editors' note:This story has been updated a few times, most recently on June 1, 2012, since it was originally published on July 27, 2010.

 

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