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Self-publishing tips: ebooks

Sony eBook Reader

I recently wrote a long email to a friend who is looking to publish his first novel as as an ebook and asked me for some tips. Over 1600 words later, it dawned on me that other people might find this information helpful, so here’s a slightly edited version.

This deals exclusively with publishing ebooks only. I may write up a similar resource for self-publishing paper copies. 


Copyright, ISBNs, imprints

You don’t need to do anything to copyright written work; in fact, there’s nothing you can do. However, when you make a digital or paper copy, ensure you have a copyright statement at the beginning (usually right after the title page/title matter). It looks like this:

Awesome Novel Title

by Author Name

Copyright 2012 Author Name

Published by imprint

ISBN 978-0-9999999-9-9

You’ll notice two things: the “published by” and ISBN. The first is optional, the second mandatory.

When you self-publish, you are the publisher (obvious, I know). Some marketplaces (Amazon is one) include this information on the sales page. There’s nothing wrong with using your name as the publisher.  

This becomes particularly relevant because it is the publisher that is responsible for obtaining the ISBN. All books need one, and a different one per edition (separate ISBNs for ebooks, paperbacks, hardcovers etc.) Most distribution methods (Amazon’s Kindle Direct PublishingSmashwordsCreateSpace, lulu.com – more about these later) will provide an ISBN for you, some with a fee, some without. In many cases you can find a way to get ISBNs for free. 

However, if you are a Canadian publisher, you are entitled to free ISBNs. This is what I do – assign my own ISBNs, which ensures that I am always listed as the publisher. While I understand that Amazon et al haven’t enforced their rights to be listed as the publisher of work for people who used their ISBNs, they possibly could, therefore reducing your options if you wanted to publish elsewhere or remove your work from their marketplace.  Given Amazon’s recent play to corner the ebook market further, I’m a little paranoid and prefer to control my own ISBNs. And, did I mention it’s free?

Canadians can set up an account and get a block of ISBNs at Canadian ISBN Service System (CISS) – Library and Archives Canada If you are resident of the US, you can purchase blocks of ISBNs at Bowker. Residents of other countries should check with their own governments’ websites, as Canada is not unique in offering this service to its residents. 

Formatting Ebook Files

Turning your manuscript into an ebook can be simple or complicated. There are pay-for services (Jim and Zetta are well respected, but I’ve never used them) who will take a manuscript and make ebooks for you. There are also programs, like Scrivener (which I use anyway for writing) which will export in kindle (.mobi) and .epub formats. 

You could also download Calibre, which is open source ebook library/conversion software. You could then use it to make ebook files from a .rtf version of your manuscript, though you’d need to carefully check the output. 

However, for most people there is probably a better method, which is part of the next section.

Another issue is the cover. If you’re an artist, you can do a fine job on your own, with some research about what makes a good ebook cover. I’m not an artist and I did my own covers for my first three books. I’ve hired an artist the current one and the difference is astonishing (I’m working with JT Lindroos and am very, very happy). There are several good resources on what makes for a good ebook cover – I like this list at Unruly Guides. Also, browse through the various ebook stores and the covers there. You can see what works and what doesn’t. 

Where/how to sell ebooks

I understand the thinking that Amazon is the 900 lb gorilla of ebook sales, so one should just stick with them. I do sell kindle versions of my books directly through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, though if you aren’t a US resident, I’m not sure I recommend it. If you don’t have a US (not US dollar, US bank) bank account, Amazon doesn’t send you any of your earnings until you reach $100. However, if you do have a US bank account, the threshold is $10, and they’ll directly deposit the amount into your bank account.

Regardless of the US bank account thing, I still strongly recommend you take a serious look at using smashwords.com to convert and distribute your book. Thier business model is pretty much the same as Amazon’s: you give them a cut of each copy sold, and there are no upfront fees at all. Smashwords has the following advantages:

  • They take a .doc copy of your manuscript and do the conversion to all ebook formats for you for free
  • They distribute via all the major ebook markets, including Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, the Apple iBookstore, Kobo and others
  • Your book appears on these partner marketplaces exactly the same as it would if you published there yourself
  • If you need ISBNs, they will supply them for free
  • Smashwords takes a slightly larger cut of these distributed copies (60/40 split), but pays via paypal quarterly for earnings over $10 USD, regardless of where you live
  • You can also sell directly on smashwords’ site for a greater cut of earnings (85%)
  • They create file formats which work for anyone with a computer – no need to restrict your audience to people with Amazon Kindles (or any other particular hardware) 

There a good rundown of how the process works here: http://www.smashwords.com/about/how_to_publish_on_smashwords

I publish with smashwords and am very happy with them. If your manuscript is simply structured (eg. all the chapters start with the word “Chapter”) or you have MS Word and follow their detailed by simple instructions for formatting, I think their conversion process is as good as any other.

If you are not a US resident, you’ll need a US International Taxpayer Identification Number to sell on Amazon or smashwords. It took me a few months to get mine, so apply early. You can get the application form here[pdf] and more information at the IRS.


Oy. Among self-publishing circles, this is the topic with the most discussion and the least agreement. Here’s what I can tell you: most of my books are prices at $2.99 USD. A new release I start out at $4.99 and reduce when the next one is coming soon. My first novel is priced at 99¢, but is also available for free download at various sites. I plan to reduce the price on the first book in my series to 99¢ when the third book is released in 2012.

Some people argue that pricing your book “too low” means that readers expect it to be schlock. Others argue that a low barrier to purchase means more sales/readers, and there’s a whole school of thought about the 99¢ ebook –  there are forums and websites solely devoted to free and 99¢ Kindle books.

Ebooks of novels published by the big 6 traditional houses are priced all over the place, many over $15-20. The consensus among ebook readers seems to be that it’s too high and I agree. I don’t buy an ebook priced over $8 and $5 or less is my sweet spot. I’m quite cheap, though, so not a good bellwether.

This is a hard question and I don’t have the answer. If you figure it out, please tell me. How you price your book depends a lot on the answers to the next question:

What is your goal?

If you’re trying to make a living as a writer, the above probably isn’t the best way to go. The traditional route of agent -> traditional publisher will probably net you more money if you’re successful and build a career. However, few people are, in fact, successful at building a career that way. 

If you just want people to read your work, you might do better releasing the novel for free on sites like Feedbooks.com and manybooks.net. I released my first novel on those sites and have had over 30,000 downloads on one site alone, plus dozens of excellent reviews. I probably got a few paying fans that way. I definitely got paying fans by releasing the books as a free audiobook download, but that’s a lot of work. If it sounds fun, look at the guidelines for authors at podiobooks.com.

If you’re looking to make a non-living career out of writing (my own goal – it’s never going to pay the bills, but it pays for itself with a bit left over), then going the pay-for ebook release is a good choice. You do need to be aware that just making the book available will not bring you readers. You need to find ways to let people know about it – get interviewed on podcasts about the kind of thing you write, get recommended by similar writers etc. 

Podcasting the audiobooks through podiobooks.com got me most of my fans, with word of mouth next on the list. The marketing part is the aspect of the process I find most difficult, and there are several better resources than me to look at for that information. I recommend ePublish Unum and The Self Publishing Review as places to get started. 

The executive summary is this:

  • Think seriously about what you want out of this endeavour
  • Honestly determine what you can and cannot do yourself
  • Determine how you can get paid
  • Consider using smashwords.com
  • Try to find a way a way to get your ISBNs for free
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