As well as – or instead of – self-publishing your book in print, you can publish it in electronic format as a digital book. Many self-publishers start with e-books to test the water – and many never produce print copies at all. As mine is a children’s book that was never part of my plan, although I am sure things will change in time as more children migrate to e-reading.
If you know all about e-readers, skip down to the section on E-book distribution options. Otherwise, I’ve outlined the four main categories of e-reader below – as much for my benefit as yours. This is a fast-changing market so please leave a comment if I have something wrong or if there’s a glaring omission!
1 – Dedicated e-readers (handheld)
Dedicated e- readers are designed to provide a high quality ‘no frills’ reading experience electronically. They have non-reflective ‘e-ink’ screens which display light in the same way as on paper and so are easy to read in any type of light. Examples include:
- Amazon Kindle
- Nook (from Barnes & Noble – USA only)
- Sony Reader
- Kobo eReader (from Canada)
The newer models of these e-readers have tablet style colour LCD touch screens – to sit alongside rather than replace the e-ink models.
Tablets are distinct from e-readers in a two main ways:
- They offer e-reading capability alongside most of the features and functionality found on a PC, such as web browsing and (in most cases) working with documents and pictures.
- They all use backlit LCD screens and colour displays, making them more suitable than e-readers for colour magazine or newspaper reading, or for e-books with lots of images or interactive elements.
Most people find the ‘pure reading’ experience on tablets inferior to that on dedicated e-readers – but tablets still offer a huge potential market for your e-book! Some well-known models include:
- Samsung Galaxy
- Sony Tablet
- Blackberry Playbook
- Windows 7 Tablet
- Nook Color (USA only)
- Kindle Fire
NB The above lists may fall out of date due to the fast-moving market – please use the links at the end of this section to check the latest models. I aim to check this page once a month and update as necessary!
3 – Smart phones and iPod Touch
Most smart phones (iPhone, HTC Android phones, Samsung Wave, Blackberry etc) plus the iPod Touch offer e-reading capability thanks to a range of ‘cross-platform’ downloadable e-reading apps made available by the likes of Apple, Kindle, Nook, Sony, Kobo, Copia and more. As I understand it, most of these apps are free and enable users to read books from their personal e-library on the go.
4 – Desktop e-reader software
Besides e-readers, tablets and smart phones & iPod touch, there are several free desktop reader software apps that you can download and use to read e-books on your PC or Mac – such as:
- Kindle for PC/Mac
- Kobo for PC/Mac
- Nook for PC /Mac
- Sony Reader for PC/Mac
- Adobe Digital Reader
- Microsoft Reader
This Chamber Four comparions of e-readers article offers a useful overview of the different types of e-readers and is worth bookmarking as I expect it will continue to get updated.
This cnet article comparing e-book readers, tablets and apps is also extremely informative
Last, but by no means least, this Goodreads page on types of e-reader is invaluable…
E-book distribution options
Below I’ve outlined three main options for getting your e-book to market. For now I would recommend Option 2 .
Once you’ve weighed up these options, I’d suggest also reading the section on Word formatting tips – because whichever route you choose, you will save yourself time and/or money if your source Word document is as cleanly formatted as possible.
Option 1 – get a distributor such as Bookbaby or Smashwords to do it all for you
Bookbaby offers ebook distribution to over 170 countries through 12 stores. You keep 100% of your sales proceeds and instead pay an upfront fee (sometimes combined with small annual fee, depending on which level of service you choose).
I will update this section shortly with a full summary – in the meantime, check out Bookbaby’s different ebook packages here
Smashwords is a leading e-book publishing and distribution operation based in California.
If you prepare your Word file according to their free-to-download strict (yet highly entertaining!) Smashwords Style Guide, they will convert it for free into the required Mobi format for Kindle reading and ePub format for other e-books, then place it with most of the major online retailers, including the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBook Store and more. They will also offer you your own storespace on the Smashwords site – and throw in a free ISBN if you’d like one.
There is no upfront fee for Smashwords’ file conversion service – instead they take a small cut of your royalties in return for the distribution service they provide:
- For sales you make on the Smashwords site you receive 85% or more of the net proceeds (meaning after deduction of PayPal processing fees).
- You get 70.5% for affiliate sales (where approved third parties promote your book and send customers to the Smashwords site to buy it).
- For sales via the online retailers you’ll earn around 60% of the list price.
For more detail, check out the FAQ page on the Smashwords website – but first read the note below re distribution to the Kindle store.
Smashwords and Kindle distribution
Customers can buy Kindle versions of your book from the Smashwords store. However, although Smashwords has a distribution agreement with Amazon to place books into the Kindle store itself, this service is limited to just a small number of high volume selling titles. This is because Amazon (as at July 2013) can’t yet accept bulk upload of all of Smashwords’ titles. My recommendation if using Smashwords would therefore be to opt out of the Amazon channel and go for Option 2 distribution method below. In fact I’d recommend Option 2 in any event – read on to find out why!
Option 2 – Upload your Kindle file direct to Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing and to Kobo via Kobo Writing Life, then use Bookbaby or Smashwords for everything else
The second option is to sign up with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Kobo Writing Life and upload to those stores yourself using the instructions they provide, and then (separately) get Bookbaby or Smashwords to get your book to the rest of the market.
The benefits with this approach is that:
- Kindle is likely to account for the highest number of your sales and you get to keep the 15% of your royalty that Smashwords would otherwise deduct.
- Smashwords only offers very limited distribution to Kindle – see previous section.
- Kobo has a very user-friendly interface – why not keep control if it’s easy to upload yourself?
Note: even when/if Smashwords starts to distribute fully to Amazon, it will probably be much quicker to get a new title into the Kindle store if you go direct. Reading around, it looks to take weeks rather than days for titles to appear in Smashwords’ partner stores. If you publish direct to Amazon your title will normally appear within 24-48 hours. This is not a criticism of Smashwords, but a fact of life if you use an intermediary. The same applies for making changes to your title such as price or info changes.
If you choose Option 2, you then also need to decide whether to:
- use the instructions on the KDP and Kobo websites to convert your Word file to the required formats yourself and then upload, or
- use a specialist to create the required files and then upload yourself using the KDP / Kobo dashboards, and/or
- in the case of Kindle, use Amazon’s $65 service to convert your print file into Kindle format – only available if you already have a print book published via CreateSpace
With regard to Kindle, unless you are comfortable working with HTML files I would definitely recommend using a specialist to convert your file. Having initially tried to do it myself I can vouch that preparing the perfect Kindle file is not nearly as easy as is implied by the many blogs that happily point you to the KDP sign-up page. I won’t pad out this section with the problems I (and many others) encountered here – but if you’re interested, read the later section Kindle formatting – is it really that simple? And be sure also to read the separate section on Word formatting tips because a correctly formatted Word file will save you a lot of headaches.
I’ve not used, so can’t comment on, the $65 service for existing CreateSpace customers even though I have my book on CreateSpace. My nervousness would be how much control you have over the quality that comes out the other end – many of the issues I had when trying to convert my own file using the KDP recommended software (which I assume the $65 service must use) centred around minor formatting issues which (a) I know from the many forums I have read are very common and (b) when added together, would have made for an unprofessional product. I wonder how easily and quickly the Kindle service would be able to deal with these niggles and whether any such changes would be included in the price? If anyone knows, please do leave a comment and I’ll update this section.
Kobo Writing Life -which accepts ePub files – offers a free eBook conversion service, however I’ve not tried it so can’t vouch for it. Please leave a comment if you have! Personally I’ve preferred to use a specialist to create my ePub file and then have used that for upload to Kobo (and the iBook store).
Option 3 – Pay a specialist to convert your Word document to both Kindle (Mobi) and ePub format then upload to each online store yourself
(ePub is the file format needed for nearly all non-Kindle books.)
Taking this direct approach versus going for Option 2 will save you Bookbaby’s upfront fees, or the 15% slice of your royalties that Smashwords would otherwise take on your non-Kindle sales. However, you need to weigh this up against the cost of the time you have to spend uploading and managing your e-publications across a range of e-stores – and (in the case of Smashwords) the absence of any Smashwords e-store from which to promote your book and other promotional extras offered by Smashwords, such as giveaways and coupons
In my view this approach is a non-starter, unless you have bags of time on your hands!
To get an idea of the cost for having someone convert your file for you, see the section on E-conversion services in the Word formatting tips section.
Note – there is a possible fourth method. I have seen some bloggers recommend using your Mobi file created by Smashwords to upload to KDP and I can’t see why this wouldn’t work. I think my only question would again be around controlling how the final product looks. (I should add that I have seen some KDP forum members advising against using this method, but I don’t know why and don’t know whether Smashwords has a view on this. I will leave for you to research and decide for now, but may add more on this later. Please feel free to add a comment for if you know more about this.)
Kindle formatting – is it really that simple?
This section is only of interest if you are considering formatting your Word file for Kindle yourself using the instructions on the KDP website.
I had read a lot about how simple it is to convert a Word file into the native .Mobi format required for Kindle, and was reassured by the very organised-looking KDP Welcome page – so I duly signed up to do everything myself.
However the devil, as always, is in the detail… I wish I could report that I found it easy to convert my file, but I didn’t! For the time it took going around in circles, looking for help in the KDP formatting forum and waiting (sometimes 2 days) for a response from the KDP support team, I’d have done better simply to outsource the formatting to a freelancer in the first place. Before I go on, you may also find this quote from a trusted conversion specialist of interest:
“Most DIY authors don’t see/realize how much hidden junk there is in their document files – and a Kindle version that’s made without cleaning all that out can be ugly at best, and nearly unreadable in some places at worst.”
Issues I found with KDP
I must stress that the issues below were personal to me. Some may have been easier to deal with were I expert in html – but I am not (and nor, I suspect, are most authors!). And some may just have been me having bad luck, but I suspect not, because I found many people in the KDP forums experiencing similar problems.
- Ambiguous instructions. KDP started off recommending I save my file Word file as ‘filtered html’ then use Mobipocket Creator software for conversion. However, on opening up the Mobi software program, this suggested that it was just as simple to upload a Word file. I found working with the html file confusing – because somewhere along the line the KDP instructions required me to understand more about html than I did – so opted to use my Word file instead. As you’ll see later, the results were less than perfect.
- Incompatibility problems between Mobipocket Creator conversion software and Internet Explorer – despite the latter being cited as the only compatible browser for Mobi. It turned out that there was a ‘known issue’ with IE9 dating back several months but which KDP and Mobi had failed to mention. The outcome was many wasted hours and needing to fire up my old PC to access an earlier version of IE in order to carry on with my conversion. Looking at recent forum postings I think the EI9 issue still persists.
- Poor quality instructions on the Mobipocket Creator website itself – particularly in relation to how to create a linked Table of Contents. (I truly thought I was going mad until I again checked the Mobi Forum and found endless threads, current and historic, from authors all pulling their hair out over the same problems I was encountering…!) I wrote a detailed email to KDP insisting they send me plain English bullet list instructions as to how to make the Table of Contents work. That email worked (and enabled me to solve my problem). I posted it in the Forum and, should you need it, you will find a copy here.
- Other minor, seeming unexplainable formatting problems – such as random extra line spacing appearing half way through a chapter; indentation of all paragraphs even though some of mine were carefully formatted to be blocked left; chapter headings justifying left when I had centred them; paragraph indents displaying deeper than I had specified…and so on. Whether these problems would have been avoided had I worked with a ‘filtered HTML file’ I don’t know – I had wasted too much time by then to be inclined to go back and try and in any event am not confident using HTML.
- Throughout I received often poor quality email front line support from KDP, who (a) sometimes took two or three days to respond and (b) quite often gave an utterly unhelpful generic response which ignored the specific question I had raised; this was infuriating and required me to send further emails (with caps on and many asterisks!) in order get their attention…! Once I received a tailored reply it was quite good – but days had usually passed by that stage…!
I came very close to getting my file perfectly formatted for Kindle. It looked ‘good enough’ once I finally got the Table of Contents to work – however, as there were random niggles still remaining I finally accepted the help of a specialist.
I could have settled for less but I had read widely about poorly formatted e-books leading to customer complaints and knew that I didn’t want to find my book placed in that ‘unprofessional’ category. I’m this sure is the case for all authors.
If you do decide to go direct to KDP my strong advice would be to read the whole converted book through very carefully using the Kindle Previewer software (you need to scroll down to find it) and checking what happens in different font sizes. If your e-book renders perfectly then fantastic! If anything is less than perfect then you need to get it corrected. And that may be easier said than done!