E-books Are Not That Easy

Seems like all I ever read about making an ebook is how easy it is.

Either that or a story about how somebody has created the perfect online app to let you self-publish.

I’ve just self-published my first “real” e-book. It’s a step-by-step guide on how to set up an Agile team. The title is ScrumMaster. Here it is:

3-D Image of ScrumMaster ebook cover

I found there were all kinds of details to keep track of — whether or not you use a magic application or not. Here’s a brain dump of just some of the things in no particular order.

  • Market research: initial. Determine the size of the potential market, what the buying indicators are, and where the competition is.
  • Landing page for your book (that you own). That’s domain registration, formatting, JavaScript, email hookups — the whole shebang.
  • Actually writing the book.
  • Converting the book into EPUB or another format. Bonus points if you write the book in a text editor and make your own BASH script to pack it all up.
  • Finding reviewers.
  • Creating a cover image.
  • Creating a 3-D image of your book as if it were a real book.
  • Creating a marketing plan.
  • Locating a distributor. Amazon pays me 17 bucks for a 50-dollar book. Can you say “assholes?” LuLu pays me 43 bucks, but only if you buy on their site. Do the math. Platform vendors own authors and small publishers.
  • Setting up an “I’m interested” email list in MailChimp. Integrating that list with your site.
  • Locating or creating any relevant artwork that you want inside the book.
  • Testing the book on various reader formats. Yep, it’s back to the bad old days of browser compatibility. Looks great on my DX. Sucks on my Nook.
  • Validating your book. Just like HTML validation, it’s not strictly necessary, but if your book validates at least it makes you feel better.
  • Dealing with special tags. Kindle has a page-break tag. Should you use it? I didn’t. I’m not sure what the correct answer is.
  • Worrying about copyright issues. Remember that picture you took of the Sprint close with 15 guys all working at the story board? Got model releases from those guys? I didn’t think so.
  • Market research: execution. If you finally get a book completed, then the real work begins: marketing campaigns. From your initial research you know there is a market, now how to you reach them? Who are the thought leaders? Where do the people hang out? What are their selling points? Some of this you’ll only find through execution, but after you qualify the market though initial research, you had better be continuing the research as you put together the e-book.
  • Getting reviews. It’s a social world, and people buy based on social signals. Can you provide enough social signals to a potential reader to allow them to make the purchase? That means a lot of people explaining your book’s benefits to strangers. Where are you going to place those reviews, anyway?
  • Beta test. Yes, books, like computer programs, have beta tests. Who’s in your beta program? How are you going to manage it?
  • Buy an ISBN. Have you seen the price on ISBNs? Try over a hundred bucks for just one number. Then you need a new number for every format your book is published in.

I’ll be upgrading my book to version 2.0 over the next week or so. This is just “first publish,” which I imagine to be something like the first time your program starts working — pretty neat, but a long way from anything solid. The world is full of computer programs that solve all sorts of problems that nobody wants. I’m sure it’s also full of e-books that nobody wants. I still need to check how the book appears on LuLu and Amazon, tweak the sales copy, and receive and process about an half-dozen technical reviews. The content is the least of it — as a domain expert I imagine my content is 90% on-target. It’s all the other stuff. If my marketing and sales pipeline don’t work? Hang it up. It was a waste of time.

E-book publishing is not as easy as writing a MS Word document and pushing a button, no matter what the bloggers say. Even if you spend a couple of thousand dollars (I know somebody, not me, who spent over $4K on his e-book) it doesn’t guarantee much of anything.

E-book publishing looks very much like writing your own app. Yes, you shouldn’t spend all your time in the weeds, but just like any startup activity, the technical details of doing it and the actual business details of making it all work are two completely different things. The trick is making both the technical work and the business work mesh into one product. All this work I’ve done? I’m just barely getting started. Now the real work begins. Don’t believe what they tell you. E-books are not that easy. Not at all.

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10 thoughts on “E-books Are Not That Easy

  1. DanielBMarkham

    Thanks Scott!
    I’m still in information-gathering mode. I appreciate your sharing what you guys are doing.
    For really small publishers, like me, I feel like the deck is stacked against us. Happy to see so many other folks trying to help us out.

  2. rsdude

    Thanks for the summary. Very similar to my up-and-coming experience, although I would add: discover the complexities of CS5 across Kindle, i-whatever, etc. etc.

  3. Tim Margolis

    Great list of points, Daniel. I think you’re point of creating a realistic “3d” style cover is essential. While I think they were common in the early days of the E-Book, they seemed to fall out of favor. I read an interview ( http://www.insidersecrets.com/publishing-your-own-book) with Dan Poynter recently where he seems to seriously sing the praises of smashwords. No idea if he’s connected to them in any way.

  4. Skott Klebe

    I don’t know why the 35% royalty rate from Amazon cheeses you off so much. If you published under the old retail model, Barnes & Noble would keep 50% ($25) and you and the publisher would roughly split the other 50%. Amazon’s 35% on a $50 book is much better than the 25% you’d get in the traditional model.
    Plus, you can run pricing promotions and investigate your revenue-maximizing price point. It’s almost certainly lower than $50, by the way. I can’t stress this point enough – traditional publishers do not do enough price experimentation.
    LuLu gives you such a big cut of sales on their site because they have to – lulu.com is worth relatively little as a sales tool. Amazon charges 70% to list on their site because it’s by far the best market in the world for eBooks – something like 80% share, depending on whose numbers (guesses) you believe. You get what you pay for.
    And, at that, it’s still more revenue per copy than you’d have made from the old retail model.
    Good luck, and have fun!

  5. DanielBMarkham

    Thanks for the comment. Your question about why the 35% pisses me off so much got me thinking.
    Seems to me, your argument consists of “it’s always been worse, count your blessings!”
    I’m sorry to put this so bluntly, but that seems very lame to me.
    Let’s look at the services provided. A secure sales site. Trust. A reviewer system. A good delivery mechanism.
    These are all salesman characteristics, not channel characteristics. I pay a salesman to establish trust. I pay a salesman to provide me with reviews. I pay a salesman to make sure I receive the product.
    Quite frankly, I think Amazon is giving themselves a bit too much credit here. Comparing what’s happening now to the old model does really work with me. Sorry.

  6. Matt Harrison

    As a recent eauthor many of these points resonated with me.
    I think it is harder in some ways as a non-fiction eauthor. It seems like a lot of the howto self-pub material is focused on fiction and there are some aspects of technical writing that are hard to do in ebooks. For example my book is on Python, I ended up writing own mobi/epub generation mechanism from restructuredText. I also wrote a epub/mobi css stylesheet based on my experiences, that has had some collaboration with other professionals working in the eproduction industry. It works well, but I think many of the other Python self publishers and other industry recognized tech publishers do a real shoddy job of formatting. This is a pain and infuriating especially for Python where whitespace is important. But for fiction writers, throwing the text into Word (or just using Word) and uploading into Smashwords is probably sufficient.
    WRT Amazon, they really want the price to be under $10 for ebooks and incentivize that behavior. On that point how did you come up with pricing for your book? I think (right now at least) it is a huge advantage to be on Amazon since they have about 60-70% of the US ebook market. Unless you are a really niche book, I think it is in your best interest to be there. If you aren’t where most people buy books, you are losing sales.
    WRT to Lulu, why even use them at all? I’m also using e-junkie for distribution and for a monthly fee you basically get all the profit. Plus you don’t need to fork out for an ISBN (you don’t have to on Amazon or Barnes and Noble either), or a new ISBN everytime you tweak the book.
    My understanding is that Amazon and BN are about 80-90% of the US market. They other guys are a pain to get onto or you have to use smashwords, which requires using Word (at least until the middle of this year).
    I’m not trying to sound harsh, everytime I see a self pubbed technical book I try and examine what they have done. I want to learn from you what I can. You are correct writing ebooks is hard and a pain. But for some reason I’m in the middle of two more…

  7. Tanner Christensen

    You’re right about all of the work that goes into publishing an ebook these days, but that’s where the changing model of publishers comes in, isn’t it?
    At Aspindle we do most of the leg work for our authors (new authors signed for 2012) and all they have to really worry about is writing the book.
    Sure, you could do it all yourself, but I imagine the future will be filled with more digital publishing houses that are about helping the authors more than anything (we’re not here to simply re-create the record industry, for example).

  8. Jim Kukral

    No, self-publishing isn’t super easy. You are right, there are a lot of factors that need to go into it to do it right.
    But it’s not expensive. A good cover can be obtained for a few hundred dollars and you can use a site like Pressbooks.com to format your book easily to create an epub doc for upload.
    The hard part is the marketing. Just like artists, writers, new or old, have to learn how to be marketers, or pay someone to help them do it.

  9. Mark Coker

    This is a good checklist, especially as a reminder to writers that it’s a lot of work to become a professional self publisher. Just a few suggestions: 1. I think you’re making the ebook piece more difficult than it needs to be. The Smashwords Style Guide will show you how to create a high quality reflowable ebook using a word processor http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52 Distribution to major retailers will put you in front of the most readers (Smashwords is a distributor). Good Ebook cover design is $35-$100 see my list referenced in the Style Guide). 2. I’d recommend against pseudo 3D cover images. They say “scammy” to most readers. For Ebook cover best practices and inspiration, view the bestseller lists in you category at Apple, B&N and Amazon. 3. Use a free ISBN (we offer them). Isbns are required for distribution to Apple, Sony and Kobo. 4. I won’t comment on the price because I’ve seen some high priced ebooks do well, counter to conventional wisdom. Experiment.
    Good luck!
    Mark (Smashwords)


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