The Ebook Ebook
Now the Publisher Is You!
This book is a navigation chart for avoiding the dangerous reefs and rip tides of the new publishing mare nostrum. If it can fill in the gaps in your e-publishing knowledge and help you to avoid a shipwreck in your publishing projects, it will have been worth your time and money.
Like Almost All the Best Things in Life, This Book Was an Accident
“What’s a guy like you doing writing a book like this?” I asked myself. It’s not a long story. I’m an online fine-art-printmaking publisher. Over the years our printmaking websites accumulated a lot of good content, and it seemed a shame not to gather up the best of those articles and publish them as a book. When the new wave of online ebook self-publishing arrived, that seemed to be the way to go.
It looked simple. All we had to do was to clean up our web content, knock out some introductory text, create front and back covers, and upload the whole shebang to Amazon’s Digital Text Platform publishing service. They would then format it automatically and offer it for sale in the Kindle store. We would just wait for the compliments and reviews to roll in, not to mention the money. What could be simpler? Like everything else, however, it soon began to look more complicated.
So I started looking into it, a task which led me into a maze of self-publishing platforms, authors’ services, low-grade entrepreneurial schemes, format issues, digital rights management questions, e-reader compatibility choices, marketing tactics, and social networking strategies, all being touted by “experts” of all sorts, all of them with their own agendas. If I were going to publish an ebook there were a lot of decisions to make, but the objective information on which to base them was skimpy and confusing. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of information, too much in fact. But most of it was designed more to sell me something than to offer useful solutions. Everybody with interests in the business was skewing the information to their own benefit. If all that wasn’t confusing enough, all my options were morphing and multiplying at Internet speed.
I didn’t come out the other end of that maze for a couple of months. A few days into what turned out to be a period of intense research, it occurred to me that I probably wasn’t the only one faced with that cacophony of information en route to the publication of their first ebook. I suspected that many writers, in view of that panorama, would give up and turn back. Without some reliable and disinterested advice regarding their best ebook self-publishing and marketing options, a lot of worthy authors would not bother to take the first step.
Surprise! This Ebook Is Not About Fine-Art Printmaking
That group of writers who needed more — and more reliable — information before embarking on their ebook projects looked to me like “a market.” So I started nosing around, consulting my writer and publisher friends, and following the online commentaries on the subject. As I suspected, most of them were unclear on what publishing tools were available and what the options were. So I planted a Google Alert with a few ebookish keyword phrases (ebook publishing, online ebook publishing, self-publishing services) and started monitoring the Web. It didn’t take me long to decide that my first ebook wouldn’t be about contemporary fine-art printmaking, after all. It would be about ebooks. What writers need to know, I figured, was how best to publish their own work, with emphasis on the free online ebook self-publishing services.
There is quite a lot of information, both on and off the World Wide Web, dealing with the various aspects of ebook publishing, writing, editing, design, marketing and promotion, and tons of information on commercial goods and services—booksellers, makers of e-readers, editing and proofreading services, online publishing services, etc. But until now no one has provided aspiring ebook publishers with an orderly overview of the various available online publishing tools and associated expert services.
Anyone with the courage to set sail in unfamiliar waters deserves at least the encouragement of a thorough briefing and a reliable map. This book is a navigation chart for avoiding the dangerous reefs and rip tides of the new publishing mare nostrum. If it can fill in the gaps in your e-publishing knowledge and help you to avoid just one shipwreck in your publishing projects it will have been worth your time and money.
What This Book Is; What It Isn’t
This is a resource book for people who already know how to read and write, and who feel the need to polish their existing manuscript and publish it as a professional ebook, or people who want to sit down and write their first book with the secure knowledge that it’s going to be published. The Ebook Ebook is not another one of the get-rich-quick ebook-publishing schemes which abound on the Web. You know the ones: “Write ebooks and make money online!” or “How to Write an Ebook in One Hour and Sell It Online.” I am convinced that turning a quick buck is not the first priority of most writers who aspire to publish their first ebook. And I wouldn’t know where to start to teach someone how to write a book in an hour. Besides, there’s enough dismal writing around already. I don’t need to encourage that sort of thing here.
Nor is The Ebook Ebook a manual or a step-by-step guide. It does include some specific advice that you might not find elsewhere, but its mission goes beyond the paint-by-numbers approach. Its objective is to expand the author’s possibilities, not limit them. It’s to identify, explain and evaluate the publishing and marketing options (because you can’t publish without marketing!) and then let the author make his or her own decision on each subject.
Perhaps the main novelty of The Ebook Ebook, and its principal strength, is that it concentrates on the free online self-publishing universe, something that not many other books have done yet. It’s not clear whether this has to do with the novelty of the automated online publishing platforms — though they’ve been around since 2007 — or the tendency of the self-publishing establishment to stick to its ways. Let’s face it; the free online platforms represent a formidable threat to traditional services which charge fees every step of the way.
The Ebook Ebook
Just What Is an Ebook Anyway?
Briefly, it’s an electronic document — think of a Word document or a PDF, for example — designed to be read on a computer or, better yet, an e-reader, which is nothing more than a mini computer designed for reading books, magazines and newspapers. That’s the essence of it, though e-readers can do more things depending upon the model. They can connect to the Internet, via your normal Internet connection, Wi-Fi, or the cell-phone network, for example, and permit you to download ebooks instantly.
And they have lots of neat features that old-fashioned books lack. You can search their text. You can bookmark them at the push of a button, and change their font size at will, or even the font itself. The ebook reader’s digital memory permits you to store hundreds or thousands of books. So when you go on a long vacation or a year abroad you don’t have to take along a suitcase full of reading material. And if you forget to include a book on your e-reader, you can download it right from the beach. Sound like the future? It is the future. It’s also the present, with profound implications for readers and publishers, as well as writers.
Free Online Ebook Self-Publishing Rears Its Beautiful Head
After years of second-class citizenship in the publishing world, both self-publishing and the ebook are finally being taken seriously. Self-publishing has come a long way from the days when it was known as “vanity publishing,” for authors with no chance of having their work published by a “proper” publisher. Over the past few years, as proper publishers of all sorts have entered in crisis and cut back staffs, publishing schedules, and services to authors, more and more writers have begun to ask themselves why they need publishers. Furthermore, this unhappy state of affairs for proper publishers coincided with formidable technological advances which made it feasible for authors to publish and promote their own books at little or no cost.
The surge (if I may be permitted to rescue this word from the Pentagon…) in ebooks has to do not only with the intrinsic advantages of books in electronic formats, but with economic realities, ecological considerations, the evolution of consumer tastes, and innovations in the way ebooks are published and sold. It also has to do with powerful companies — Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Barnes & Noble, Sony, etc. — finally taking a serious interest in electronic publishing and giving it a tremendous impulse in the past few years. The world of the ebook is beginning to grow and evolve at Internet speed, which can be dizzying for authors and publishers who suspect they need to set sail in the vast and mysterious waters of electronic publishing, but haven’t dared yet.
Do You Need More Convincing?
Do you need more convincing that the ebook’s time has come? Consider this: Schools are beginning to adopt the ebook for classroom use, as a logical alternative to the 30-pound backpack or that diabolical wheeled trolley which noise-pollutes most every sidewalk in most every town in the world. Some schools and universities in the US are already using the iPad, and Barnes and Noble are bringing out for this fall’s back-to-school season their new Nookstudy application for use with their Nook reader. Their website says that it will also function on Macs and PCs, where it will probably work better, as the Nook reader’s second, color screen, set below the E Ink reader screen, is only three-and-a-half inches high (“elnk” is a technology which imitates ink on paper and is easier on the eyes than LCD light-emitting computer screens). Either way, Barnes & Noble is promising a 40% savings on school texts, as well as half a million free books.
For a fascinating look at the past, present and future of ebook publishing, have a look at “A New and Powerful Book Industry Sector Is Born”, Eugene G. Schwartz’s article in Book Business Magazine (www.bookbusinessmag.com/). There Schwartz mentions a feature article published in the Wall Street Journal on June 3, 2010: “Vanity Press Goes Digital” by Geoffrey A Fowler and Jeffrey A Trachtenberg, which is an excellent summary of the state of the ebook publishing art and also deserves a look in: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704912004575253132121412028.html.
A confession: The Ebook Ebook is also an electronic publishing advocacy initiative. I confess I’m bewitched by the ebook, its halting past, burgeoning present and passionate future. I’m convinced that this moment in electronic publishing is just as pivotal as the moment when our great great grandparents picked up a telephone receiver for the first time. There’s a lot left to come! The ebook is a natural evolution of the way that societies create, read and disseminate — and ultimately share — information, and it’s going to open up as-yet-untapped possibilities in human communication. It is already according to Bob Stein in this fascinating article about how online games are engendering “networked books:” http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog.
Is the “Real Book” About to Disappear?
There’s controversy as to whether the ebook will ultimately replace the “real” book. Some people are distressed because they fear their familiar reading pleasures are in danger of disappearing: the smell of opening a new book, the joy of curling up on the sofa before an open fire with a good book… These fears are largely unfounded. E-publishing implies far-reaching, long-term changes in society, and major social changes don’t occur overnight. Ebook use will be more of an evolution than a revolution. As ebook technology improves and today’s digital natives grow older they will associate the same warm nostalgia with a great screen that today’s bound-book lovers associate with a “real” book. Besides, a new e-reader also has a nice smell.
The ebook will no doubt co-exist with the traditional book for years to come. By the time it supplants the paper book entirely — if it comes to that — ebooks will be so highly evolved and people will be so accustomed to reading on screens that they won’t miss “real” books. By that time there won’t be many open fires, either. So, between one thing and the other, all the trees in the forests will breathe a sigh of relief.
I think in the end at least some of the bound-book fetishists will start looking at the comparative prices and get tired of paying more for their books. Then they’ll change over to ebooks with the rest of us. As for the traditional publishers, I can foresee them diving into ebook publishing like a flock of hungry pelicans into a goldfish pond. In fact, they have already begun. And woe to those who haven’t!
Larry Dignan in his ZDNet.com article, “E-reader Devices, the Fun is Just Starting”, mentions another fascinating possibility. Dignan poses the question of just how far e-reader technology will go beyond the paper book. It’s entirely possible that the e-reader won’t content itself with replacing one reading mode with another, the way the automobile replaced the horse and cart. Maybe the shift will be to a whole new dimension, what time travel would be to the automobile. After the changes we’ve experienced over the past quarter of a century, who’s prepared to say that such a radical change is impossible?
Weary of the Old Way? Discouraged by Rejection Slips? The Last Laugh is Yours!
Tired of receiving rejection slips from agents? Bored with being dependent upon the established book publishing system? It was never very responsive to authors and is even less so now, as it has its own grave problems. Publishers today are issuing fewer books and offering fewer services, so authors have an ever-tougher row to hoe. It’s not a pretty picture, especially for beginning writers with their first book manuscripts in their hands.
Even so, take heart! You have an exciting new alternative to old-fashioned book publishing on paper. It’s called the “ebook,” and it’s creating a revolution, altering the way our society reads, writes and publishes, just as Gutenberg’s moveable type did half a millennium ago. And it’s already on the march. Victor Hugo said, “There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
What Has Happened in the Publishing Industry That the Media Devote So Much Space to Ebooks Lately?
There is a date which marks the before and after of the new publishing era: November 19, 2007. That’s when Amazon introduced its Kindle e-reader, along with their Digital Text Platform. A new e-reader was somewhat less than a revolution, but the DTP, the first online application which permitted authors themselves to publish their ebooks online, opened the gates to a flood of activity which was destined to change the face of publishing forever. Suddenly the movers and shakers — Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Google, and others — started getting into the game in a serious way.
Writers could upload their own manuscripts, which were then automatically converted to the proprietary Kindle AZW format and offered for sale on the Kindle Store, all within 24 hours. So authors, who previously measured their manuscript-to-finished-book time in years, could now have their books for sale online the following day. The frosting on the cake: This seamless all-in-one publishing and marketing service was free, subject only to a commission on books sold. This innovation sent shockwaves through the industry. Book publishers felt the way all the rock guitarists in the world did the day after Jimi Hendrix came on the scene: Their world would never be the same again. The technical and commercial innovations of the online publishing services, the exciting evolution of the medium, and the constant flow of new technology and products are what keep the ebook buzz in the mass media.
Some of the publishing establishment began to react, but surprisingly few. Even today you can count the automated online ebook publishing-and-marketing services on the fingers of one hand. We have Amazon’s Digital Text Platform, Myebook, Lulu, and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit, for trade books.. (PubIt was developed in collaboration with Smashwords. It will not work for publishers outside the U.S.) Then, for publishing mainly free books and documents, there are Scribd and obooko. Apple’s iTunes Connect offers an online ebook publishing service, but it’s only for Mac users, who are additionally submitted to a selection process.
It was not only the paper publishers who were caught unawares, but also the established ebook publishing companies and editorial service providers. After looking at their websites while researching this book, and I have yet to find one which takes into consideration the new comprehensive, automated, and free Kindle/Smashwords model of ebook publishing and marketing. They’re still mired in the traditional manual pay-as-you-go mode. It’s as if they perceive the online publishing only as competition — which it certainly is — and don’t want to acknowledge that the future is overtaking them on the right. That view is shortsighted, however. The online publishing platforms will encourage many more writers to publish ebooks, and many of them will require editorial services.
Ebooks Are Deadly Machines for Eliminating Middlemen
The advantages for writers of electronic publishing are massive, since the online ebook publishing process pares overheads to the bone. You and your fellow writers can now skip lightly over the entire conventional publishing industry and publish your work yourselves online as ebooks. As we have seen, there are several online services which will automatically convert your edited manuscript into an ebook, and offer it for sale in their online bookstores.
The cost of this mind-boggling service for writers up to this point? Zero. Then, when your book starts to sell, they take a commission on your sales. Their slice of the pie, by the way, is always less — sometimes dramatically so — than that charged by traditional book publishers. Until recently most of the providers of online ebook services were paying authors 35% of their books’ selling prices, but a recent across-the-board change has substantially increased that amount. Amazon currently pays a 70% royalty rate on all ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Above or below that it’s 35%. The Smashwords royalties are the highest. They pay authors up to 85% of the net proceeds from the sale of their works, somewhat less if the sales come via distributors or affiliates. Compare either of these rates to the standard 8-17.5% paid by the conventional publishers. No wonder they’re trembling.
Some Economic Good News for a Change
The new economic realities of electronic publishing make these seemingly extravagant commissions possible. The online publishing services have automated most of the work, so salaries are minimal, as is office space. There’s no paper or handling to worry about, so that expense is zero. There’s no printing involved. Have you ever seen a printing press? The ones used by your traditional publishing company competition are as big as locomotives. No, bigger. Nor do the costly logistics of packaging and delivery apply any longer, no matter the distance, as the ebook is delivered free over the Internet or the cell-phone networks. More savings.
Updating an ebook is just a question of uploading your new version. Compare that with setting up a printing press for a second-edition print run in conventional publishing. What about marketing costs? I am convinced that ebook marketing budgets will never reach even a significant fraction of “real” seven-figure book advertising expenditures. Online marketing is smarter. We’ll talk more about that in Chapter 7.
The price of a book remains a vital factor affecting sales. Here again the ebook has the advantage due to those economic factors of online publishing just mentioned. Conventional publishers, with their extravagant expenses starting with felling trees and ending with wrapping up their customers’ books and shipping them, will never be able to compete in price with the elegance of the ebook production cycle. Having said that, pricing policies are in major flux right now. Some legacy publishers who offer ebooks in their online stores are overpricing them, as if they were intent upon discouraging ebook progress. This looks like a futile rear-guard holding action, however. Prices, like water, will eventually find their natural level, and since we’re working in Internet time, I suspect it won’t take long.
Amazon, which originally established low prices for most trade fiction, was obliged to revise upward the prices of the books published by a consortium of five major book publishers (Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Hachette and Penguin) under the not-so-veiled threat of withdrawing their books from the Amazon Kindle store. It was Apple who first reached an agreement with book publishers regarding what has been termed the “agency model” for pricing, in which publishers get to control the price of books offered for sale in Apple’s iBookstore.
Until that point Amazon had been buying ebooks for the Kindle at wholesale prices, and charging $9.99 for the books in their online store even if they lost money on them, in order to gain market share. After tough negotiations with publishers, who held the upper hand in view of their recent deal with Apple, Amazon was obliged to accept the “agency model.” Sony tamely followed suit in its Reader Store. This whole process — with the big publishers joining forces to impose their joint pricing model — sounds like price-fixing to me. Didn’t that used to be illegal? This is a question which is far from resolved. Don’t be surprised if we see some law suits in the future.
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, pussyfooted around the issue for a while. He had the following to say on the subject in an interview with Fortune magazine in early June of 2010:
Fortune: “In the past, you’ve been a big proponent of lower prices for ebooks and an open opponent of the book publisher agency model, which allows the publisher to set the final retail price whether there’s an intermediary retailer or not. Now that you’ve switched to an agency model, will ebookstores like Amazon’s get hurt?”
Bezos: “No. First of all, there are a bunch of publishers of all sizes, and they don’t all have one opinion. There are as many opinions about what the right thing to do is as there are publishers. So you’re seeing that some of them are being very aggressive on prices, pricing their books well below $9.99. Others are trying to do everything they can to make prices as high as possible. And what you’re going to see is a share shift from one group of publishers to this other group of publishers.”
Then, on July 22, 2010, Bezos and and authors’ agent Andrew Wylie surprised the big publishing companies by dropping the hammer, but on the other foot. Wylie announced the launch of Odyssey Editions, a new e-publishing company created to sell ebook versions of their clients’ books exclusively via Amazon’s Kindle store, leaving conventional publishers out of the distribution chain. The Wylie Agency represents some 700 authors and estates ranging from Philip Roth to John Updike, Jorge Luis Borges and Saul Bellow. The new company was created to sell ebook versions of modern classics, starting with 20 backlist books by several of Wylie’s clients, including Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
This initiative is at least partly in response to authors’ struggles for what they considered fairer royalties on ebook sales. Until then the traditional publishers were offering 25% and authors were demanding twice that rate. According to the Wylie-Amazon deal, the books will be sold at the Amazon-preferred price of $9.99 and authors will receive 70% of that sales price in royalties. Random House, which publishes the bound versions of the books of several of the authors involved with Odyssey Editions, was outraged and fired off a letter to Amazon “disputing their rights to legally sell these titles”, which it said were “subject to active Random House publishing agreements.”
Wylie and Amazon, however, insist that any rights not specifically ceded to the publishers remain property of the authors. And most of the books in question were published before the ebook business even existed.