It has never been easier to publish your own e-book. The wealth of tools, platforms, and services available to self-publishers continues to grow and be refined for an ever-broader reach and greater efficiency. But with so many good options, it is also more important than ever for authors to choose carefully how best to position themselves for the greatest chance of engaging the largest possible audience.
[Note: this article was originally published in Feb. 2014 and was updated on Oct. 27, 2016.]
Choosing a Retailer and Distributor
The first major choice a self-published author makes is which major retailers (Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble Nook Press, Kobo, Apple iBookstore) and distributors (Smashwords, BookBaby, Blurb) to use to publish his or her e-book. These services are for the most part nonexclusive, so an author holds on to her rights and can use any or all of them simultaneously—making revisions, price changes, or removing the work altogether, whenever she chooses.
This makes it desirable for an author to distribute across as many platforms as possible, typically publishing with Amazon and then using Smashwords or BookBaby to distribute to all other major retailers.
But Amazon has complicated this with its introduction of KDP Select. The program gives self-publishers the option to join the publishing giant’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (from which Amazon Prime members can check out as many digital books as they want) and the even more expansive catalog of Kindle Unlimited (in which those paying a monthly subscription fee can read as many books as they want). Authors can participate in the promotional tools Kindle Countdown Deals or Free Book Promotion.
The catch in all this is that authors have to publish exclusively through Amazon. For those who already sell most of their e-books through Amazon or whose top priority is getting more readers (rather than high payouts), KDP Select offers attractive benefits. For more established authors or those with significant sales on Nook, Kobo, and elsewhere, the math makes less sense. Either way, authors who do opt in to the program are only locked in for 90 days, so it is easy to experiment with what offers the greatest return.
“There’s chatter among authors that the algorithms have changed in a way that doesn’t favor books that are free or cheap as much as they used to, so there may be less incentive to use KDP Select,” says Jane Friedman, online editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, who covers e-book trends and strategies at https://janefriedman.com/. “But smart authors are always testing and experimenting with what works.”
Creating a Quality Product
Once an author has written a book of which he or she is proud, and gotten feedback from friends or other “beta readers,” it is worthwhile to pay a professional to review the text. At the very least, invest in a copy editor to review the manuscript for any typos or grammatical errors. A more thorough content editor may also be valuable to help with the story arc, or to spot inconsistency in character behavior or speech.
A great-looking cover is also essential for an e-book -- one that’s eye-catching and looks professional, but also easy to read when seen as a tiny thumbnail image on a smartphone or in Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section.
“E-book covers need to be simplified from print book covers,” says Joel Friedlander, a book designer who covers e-book design at The Book Designer.
He adds that author-designed e-book covers tend to fall short in their use of typography, since it is not an easy discipline to learn, and often suffer from an author’s “attempt to squeeze in lots of symbolic representations of plot points or characters, and this rarely works out well.”
Authors will also want to seek out blurbs and reviews to include on the book jacket or as part of the front matter. These can be responses from other authors, book bloggers, reviewers, or other well known figures to advance reading copies or other work by the author. There are thousands of book blogs and reviews you can consider reaching out to, including Self-Publishing Review, IndieReader, and of course BookLife. The IndieView provides a useful roundup of available reviewers.
All told, hiring a reasonably priced editor and designer should not put you out more than $1,500 to $2,000. If that seems too expensive, an author might consider crowdfunding the project, through a site like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or Fundly. While crowdfunding is a great way to pull in the money needed to produce a high-quality self-published e-book, it also creates an early buzz for the book and tests whether there is a market for the book before the author takes the next steps toward publication. If it proves tough to raise a few hundred dollars from friends and fans with a concerted Kickstarter campaign, selling a few thousand copies may prove even more difficult.
Manuscript to E-Book
While the manuscript is getting a final proof, an author can begin taking steps to actually turn it into an e-book. The text must be formatted so it wraps and resizes as readers zoom in or out or toggle between devices, the table of contents needs to be made clickable, and in a format that works for every retailer. Authors can do this themselves with a few hours of technical self-education, or pay for a service to take care of it.
For those going the DIY route, the manuscript will need to be converted into two documents (assuming you are looking to publish across all major e-book platforms): A MOBI file for Amazon Kindle; and an EPUB file for other e-book retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, Sony, and Apple iBooks.
Authors can utilize Smashwords Direct to upload their EPUB or Word document onto the Smashwords platform, following the company’s particular style guide. While just doing this could allow authors to distribute their book to every major retailer beyond Amazon, the Smashwords “meatgrinder” automated conversion technology gives authors limited choice in how their final layout looks.
“I want my e-books to look the way I want them to look,” says LJ Cohen, author of several self-published novels as well as detailed guides on e-book formatting. “So I send the Word document to the meatgrinder, and once it gets approved in the catalog, then I upload my hand-coded EPUB file on top of that.”
To do this for EPUB and MOBI, first use a word processor program that allows for cleaning up formatting and creating custom fonts, paragraphs, and headings. A number of software programs are available for converting documents into EPUB and MOBI files. These include free tools PressBooks, Leanpub, and Jutoh (which has a for-purchase version offering more functions) for both EPUB and MOBI, or Sigil for EPUB files. The programs Scrivener and Apple Pages can export EPUB files but cost money.
But perhaps the most popular conversion program in the industry remains Calibre, which converts documents to both MOBI and EPUB. It is free, versatile, and works for both Mac and PC as more than a simple e-book converter.
If all this sounds like more trouble than it’s worth, it may be easier to reach out to a conversion service, which charges a flat fee to convert text into e-book. Providers of this service include BookBaby, eBook Architects, Bowker, and 52 Novels. Smashwords offers its own referrals for e-book formatters.
Final Steps to Publication
Before uploading, be sure to preview each file format on its respective devices (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.). For those who do not have access to the devices, Kindle Previewer (or the Kindle Previewer 3, in beta stage) from Amazon and Preview from in Nook Press’ Manuscript Editor allow for desktop-based previews of the files and can be downloaded for free. With your cover and your e-book file, uploading just takes a couple minutes. Authors are asked to provide basic information such as name and address for royalty payment, as well as the book’s metadata.
This metadata—title, ISBN, description, etc.—is key to how your book will come up in searches. Your book’s description should be crafted to catch a reader’s eye and appeal to fans of books in a similar genre and style.
Aim for categories as specific as possible (you get only two with Amazon) keeping in mind that selecting a more distinct category (such as Noir or Heist) will automatically include you in a number of general categories (Mystery and Crime Fiction). The advantage of drilling down into subcategories is that your book will be more likely to appear in the top 100 or top 10 of those subcategories, getting it in front of more readers who browse the bestseller lists.
Similar advantages can be found in getting specific with keywords. An extensive list of both KDP keywords and categories can be found here.
An author will also have to select the book’s price. Opinions differ on the ideal amount to charge for an e-book, and it can vary depending on the author, genre, and format, but generally lower is better for sales, especially since many readers still expect e-books to cost less than print books.
Amazon royalties reward authors for charging between $2.99 and $9.99 for their books (receiving a 70% royalty for publishing direct with Amazon Kindle in that range, and only a 50% royalty outside of it). Outside the U.S, UK, and Canada, Amazon pays 35% royalties no matter what the price.
However an author prices her books, it is key to be flexible about the number, ready to raise the price at the right times (e.g. when sales at a low price point have been steady for a few weeks), or lower them at other times (e.g. when a new book in a series is being released, lowering the cost on previous installments will boost sales).
Selling the E-Book
Of course, writing and publishing an e-book is not all there is to self-publishing. Without the marketing and promotional apparatus of a traditional publishing house, authors must invest a sizable portion of time and energy into getting the word out about their books and connecting with new readers.
This should start as the book is being written and edited: Authors should create a professional website and a basic social media presence through which to connect with fans and post updates and information about their e-book and the progress they are making. This can include profiles on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, a personal blog, and other platforms where the author can find interested readers, such as Amazon’s Author Central and Goodreads. Authors who find this proliferation of social media outlets too time-consuming or overwhelming may want to focus on just one or two platforms that they enjoy and seem like a natural fit.
An author mailing list is a valuable but often overlooked tool for e-book writers.
“[E-mail] is older and for that reason it’s overlooked, but I can’t think of any author I’ve heard speak who didn’t say ‘my email list is indispensable,’” says Friedman. “There’s been a little shift from social media to more of a focus on promotional pricing and giveaways.”
When books are released, authors should announce it on their social media pages and the Book Bazaar section of www.kindleboards.com. They may consider a blog tour in which they write guest posts or offer interviews to websites that cover similar genres, or self-publishing and e-books more generally.
“A lot of authors I work with have found that being on that free list gets them more visibility,” says Kate Tilton, an author assistant who offers an extensive list of available free listings at katetilton.com/free-books/. “But it shouldn’t be overused—don’t constantly offer books for free, avoid holidays and weekends, and I wouldn’t put it free close to when you are releasing it.”
Rather than giving away the entire book through the drawing-style platforms, the e-book format allows an author to also consider giving away a portion of the book—whether the first few chapters of a novel, a summary version of a how-to book, etc.—to anyone who would like to download it.
Authors should be sure to include links at the end to where the full-length version can be purchased, and in the back matter include links to their website, social media platforms, and other books.
In all of this, remember these efforts are investments in a long-term career. Social media and marketing work are as much about selling your new book as boosting sales for your back catalog—and building connections to help your next book succeed.
It is for that reason that personality-driven marketing is likely to prove more valuable in the long run than paid advertising. While Goodreads, Facebook, and other sites offer affordable ad schemes, these are less likely to give an author the kind of return that an active social presence or live events (promoted through Goodreads Events and elsewhere) can provide.
While this has covered the self-publishing industry as it currently stands, the industry is constantly evolving and changing. New services pop up continually and established players regularly offer new promotions to make it easier for indie authors to succeed.
With this in mind, self-publishers will want to stay abreast of developments by reading industry news sites, such as Digital Book World, Kindle Boards Writers’ Café, and of course BookLife. A number of self-publishing authors also cover the industry, including Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Joe Konrath.
The e-book landscape is always shifting and authors who stay current and remain flexible will find rich opportunities.