Self-publishing e-books: How to get started

It's not difficult to put out your own e-publication, but there are several decisions to sort through first.

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Apple provides a list of companies it recommends for aggregation. Amazon has its own list of aggregators and formatters.

One example of an aggregator is BookBaby, which works with self-published authors, defined as people who do not have an agent or a signed contract with a publisher (some aggregators work only with agented writers or with publishing houses that have a printed book they want to convert into an e-format). BookBaby will accept content in Word files or as a PDF.

Smashwords, another firm that has become well-known as an aggregator and e-book distribution platform, also works with self-published authors. Smashwords does not accept PDFs but does accept Word files. It then puts your manuscript through its Meatgrinder converter to make the e-book available in different e-formats.

So it pays to look around to see which aggregator/formatter best suits your needs. For example, if you wish your book to go to the Japanese or Chinese markets, Apple requires it to be in ePub3 format (as opposed to ePub2), so your aggregation/formatting partner must know how to do that. Not all do.

Also, payment options vary. BookBaby, for instance, offers a variety of pricing packages. A Standard Package translates your text to both ePub and MOBI formats, provides a proof for your approval prior to distribution to booksellers and includes some other benefits for $99 plus 15% commission. If you opt for the $249 Premium Pack, you get all the same benefits as the previous package, and you get to keep all your revenue; BookBaby takes no cut.

If money's tight, BookBaby will take your ePub file (which you need to format yourself) and then distribute the book to the online sellers you choose. There's no fee for this, but BookBaby takes a 15% commission of all sales.

Smashwords, on the other hand, works strictly on commission; its rates depend on whether you sell your book at one of its partners or on the Smashwords site. Booknook's rates depend on how complex your manuscript is -- a medical textbook with multiple illustrations per page will cost more than will a memoir with minimal graphics or charts. For this reason, many formatters/aggregators charge more to translate nonfiction than fiction. Most will take a look at your manuscript and then quote you a price.

How do you choose? It depends on your needs. For example, we're still deciding on an aggregator and our criteria include the ability to translate into multiple formats (from our word processing document), how long the company's been in business and how many clients it has, what the overall pricing structure would be for our nonfiction book and what the aggregator charges for redoing any pages.

Next steps

After your book is formatted correctly, you need to figure out how and where to sell the book. You have a choice of working with aggregators that, as noted above, will also distribute your book for a fee, or you can skip the middleman and work directly with the e-sellers.

Currently, the Big Three e-book retailers are Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes.

Amazon has a program called Kindle Direct Publishing Select (usually known as KDP Select). Basically, you agree to list your book at Amazon exclusively for a term of three months (which you can renew). The book is eligible for Amazon's Lending program, as well as its Countdown Deals (which offer limited-time discounts) and other promotions.

Barnes & Noble, of course, has its own contractual terms, as does Apple and any of the other distributors.

As in all contracts, the fine print is important. For example, with Amazon's KDP Select, you have a choice about whether to take the 35% royalty or the 70% royalty. Your first thought would be to take the larger percentage, right? Well, if you take the 70%, Amazon assesses "delivery charges" (yes, even for digital books) based on how many megabytes of storage the book requires. And they do that for multiple countries -- Canada, India, the U.K., etc. It works out to pennies per MB, but still... Amazon doesn't charge delivery fees on the 35% royalty, however.

Confused? That's not surprising. It's a very confusing marketplace -- with no established "best practices" available. E-sellers want writers to stay true to them -- Amazon wants you only on Kindle, Apple on iTunes, etc. -- while aggregators, who mostly make a living by taking a cut of your sales, want you on as many e-seller sites as possible. Do a lot of research before you commit; one good resource is 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service by Jane Friedman.

In short, a large bottle of aspirin and an even larger calculator -- or perhaps the other way 'round -- will come in very handy as you're making some of these decisions.

And don't forget marketing

Beyond that, part of the deal with self-publishing (in electronic or any format) is to be prepared to market your own book. You'll get some help from the aggregators or booksellers, but you can't depend on them alone to get the word out.

For example, my co-author and I will be creating packets (which are essentially press kits) pitching local media, and figuring out a general plan for how to do that -- while keeping faithful to our day jobs, of course. We're also going to request help from the 50-plus people we interviewed for the book, asking them to get the book mentioned on their personal and/or professional websites. And, of course, social media will become our new BFF.

Self-publishing can be an exciting time, with all sorts of possibilities -- and some confusion as well. But when you've gotten through all the decisions and your book is finally finished and available, then the journey may become interesting in ways you haven't even begun to consider.

Johanna Ambrosio is Computerworld's managing editor, technologies. Her self-published book Charcoal for Lunch is currently planned to launch in late June.

This article, Self-publishing e-books: How to get started, was originally published at

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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