An Experiment in Digital Self Publishing

selfpub_feat

Creating the Book

So I had content, and I had a license. Now I just needed to make an actual eBook. Turns out, this is slightly more complex than you might expect.

There are a number of formats that eBooks are distributed in, and naturally the different eReader applications and devices support different selections of those formats. For my purposes however, I decided to focus on the free and open format EPUB. EPUB enjoys widespread support, and works out of the box on many eReaders, such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, but rather notoriously is not supported on the Amazon Kindle without conversion.

At the risk over oversimplifying things, EPUB books are essentially ZIP archives that contain the entire directory structure of a static website, with HTML, CSS, and image files. If you know basic web development, you could pretty much create an EPUB by hand, though there are tools that thankfully make this unnecessary.

One such tool is Sigil, a free and open source EPUB editor available for Linux, Mac OS, and Windows. Sigil is extremely easy to use, and the layout is very clean and logical. I found myself, with no previous experience in creating EPUB files, easily putting together a professional looking document in minutes. Sigil has an incredible amount of functionality, but manages to never feel overwhelming.

It features functions and capabilities that I didn’t even know I would want or need, and now seem so obvious that it’s second nature. For example, Sigil can detect chapters in your document and automatically create a hierarchical table of contents for the book. You don’t need to know how the table of contents works in an EPUB, or consciously think of it (simply be sure to put your chapter headings in the appropriate bold font), it just works. Of course, you are still free to manually edit the source code of any element in the book if you want direct control, which is another feature I really appreciate.

Sigil's easy to use interface lets you quickly create high quality EPUBa

Sigil’s easy to use interface lets you quickly create high quality EPUBs

Once you’ve gotten your text into Sigil, it’s easy to use the included tools to fill in things like the book metadata (author, subject, publication info, etc, etc), add a cover, and all the other little details that will be expected of a proper digital edition. Once things look how you like, you can then use the validation functions to sniff out any possible compatibility issues that may have come up with any special formatting or HTML/CSS code you added during creation of the book.

Taking a Test Drive

Now that you have the makings of an eBook on your hands, the next logical step is to see how it looks on the actual eReader hardware or software. Unfortunately, like most things, this turns out to be a little harder than I first imagined.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the most likely place somebody is going to read your eBook is from a dedicated eBook reader such as the Kindle or Nook (which seems a safe enough assumption to me, but I don’t have any data to back that up). It makes sense than that, to verify everything is how you intended it to be, that you would want to throw a copy on one of these devices and see how it looks.

But as already mentioned, the Kindle doesn’t support EPUB, so you can’t just copy it over and start reading. Similarly, while the Nook does support EPUB files, I found that the formatting didn’t look like what I intended in Sigil due to some Nook-specific caveats and oddities.

Luckily there is another open source tool which will take documents of various formats and format them properly for specific eReader devices, Calibre. Actually, that’s a considerable oversimplification. Calibre is a complete digital book management tool, which is able to manage your local book collection as well as what is on your various physical reader devices. It can handle everything from converting your source document to the appropriate format for your given reader (down to device-specific workarounds and fixes) to downloading metadata and cover art from online sources.

Using Calibre, I was able to get an EPUB file that worked perfectly on my Nook Simple Touch, which let me get a feel for what did and did not work on a physical reader. For such a simple document there wasn’t a whole lot to worry about, but if your doing a full length book with special formatting and a lot of images, you should really put it on a physical reader for a bit before submitting it to any distribution channels.

Digital Distribution

Once I was happy with the way the article looked on my physical reader, it was time to try distributing it online. There are a number of sites and services for digital distribution of text, but the main venues Amazon and Barnes & Noble, so I’ll limit myself to those for the time being. That said, a properly formatted EPUB should be accepted by any book distribution channels you wish to utilize.

On the whole, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s systems are very, very, similar. To the point that they even ask you the same questions about your book in the same order. The basic idea for both services is, you make an account with them, enter in your financial information (in the case of an individual, this will be your SSN and bank account information), then upload your EPUB and fill in the metadata for it. With both services, you’ll be able to get your eBook submitted in literally a few minutes, though the approval process will probably take 24 hours or so.

Both services will convert your EPUB (even if it is already properly formatted for their readers, which is a bit annoying) and allow you to preview it in a virtual version of any number of eReader models. This will give you an idea of how the final product will look, but is absolutely not guaranteed to be accurate. In addition, you can also opt-out of each retailer’s respective DRM schemes for your final eBook file, which is a feature I appreciated greatly.

A few notes on the individual services:

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)

Amazon’s KDP is very simple to use, and offers a lot of helpful information along the way. It’s definitely designed to let absolutely anyone upload their content and start selling it, and it definitely accomplishes that goal.

One of the interesting features of KDP is the “KDP Select” program, which offers you some nice benefits like being able to give your book away for free as a promotional tool, and puts your book in a “Lending Library” which is exclusive to Amazon Prime members. Being able to do a “free weekend” is an excellent way to get some initial downloads (and the all-important reviews), and you’ll get a bonus every time somebody borrows your book from the Lending Library.

But, all that comes at a price. If you want to enroll your book in KDP Select, it must remain exclusive to Amazon for as long as it’s in the program. So if you want to get your book in KDP Select, you can’t also upload it onto Barnes & Noble (at least, not right away).

Speaking of price, Amazon also gives you the choice of making either 35% or 70% royalties on each copy of your book sold, though you can only get 70% if you price the title at $2.99 USD or higher. The selection of price is completely up to the author, so you should take a look at how long your work is and the prices of similar titles in your genre to determine where you should be. In general, it seems most people are coming out of the gate at $2.99, with anything lower being the domain of short-form works.

PubIt!

Barnes & Noble’s system is (ridiculously) called PubIt!, and to be perfectly honest, isn’t very good. It’s clear that B&N tried to copy as much of KDP as possible in terms of functionality, and indeed if you’ve already used KDP you’ll have no problems figuring out how to use PubIt. But overall, it feels rushed and unpolished compared to KDP, and there were numerous little glitches and layout problems in the pages.

I did however like the system PubIt had in place for assigning categories and tags to your book, as it seemed that was a little more specific than on KDP, and let me drill down farther. I also like that PubIt has a nice big counter that shows you how much money you’ve made, while KDP hides that under a number of clicks and links.

The basic royalty rate is slightly higher on Barnes & Noble than Amazon. no doubt in an effort to sway authors away from KDP. For titles between $0.99 and $2.99, you will make 40% royalty, though on higher priced books ($3.00 to $9.99) will get you 65% royalty. Oddly enough, if you price your title above $9.99, it drops back down to 40% royalty.

One thing I simply cannot write this article without mentioning was the very sketchy area of PubIt where I was asked if I wanted to write multiple reviews for my own book. That’s right, B&N lets authors submit their own reviews to their books, complete with fictional names. The only system in place to keep authors honest is a little note next to the box that says “Not written by you!”. Seriously.

Take B&N reviews with a grain of salt.

Take B&N reviews with a grain of salt.

This really surprised me, and I didn’t see anything like it on KDP. I understand the idea behind this, to let people “import” their reviews from other sites and services, but in my mind it can be too easily abused.

Another problem I had with PubIt was that, at the end of my submission process, it told me that there was an error and I should try again at a later time. But then when I looked at my book status a minute later, it said it was “Pending” and would be added soon. Again, the whole system just didn’t feel very well put together.

Approval Process

Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble say it will take at least 24 hours to approve a newly submitted book to their system’s. This figure seems pretty accurate, as I submitted my book on a Sunday afternoon, and it was up by Monday evening on both retailer’s sites. The approval process was not without event, however.

About an hour after I submitted my book to KDP, I received an email saying that more information was required before they could publish it:

We are writing to you regarding the following book(s):

Mobile Hacking with Android by Nardi, Tom (AUTHOR)

During a review of your KDP submission(s), we found content that is widely available on the web. You can do an online search for the content inside your book(s) to discover which sites are offering the content for free. Copyright is important to us – we want to make sure that no author or other copyright holder has their work claimed and sold by anyone else.

To confirm you have publishing rights to and control where you distribute the book(s), please provide all of the following information:

1.    The URLs for all websites where this content is published
2.    An explanation as to why the content is available online

If the books are in the public domain, please confirm this and include the information you used to make this determination. We may request additional information to confirm the public domain status.

Please respond within 5 days to title-submission@amazon.com, and include the title and ID of your books in your reply. If we do not receive the requested documentation, your book will not be made available for sale.

Well, this could be a problem. My article is freely available from at least two places online (possibly more), which is exactly how I want it to be. Would Amazon refuse to publish a work which was available elsewhere for free? I searched online and found a number of similar issues, though none with very clear cut resolutions. We even published a similar account here on The Powerbase in the past.

I immediately sent the following response:

In regards to “Mobile Hacking with Android”, this it is an article I originally wrote in 2011 and retain all rights to under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en_US).

It is available online from my personal website at: http://www.digifail.com/text/droidhacking.shtml

I also republished it on “The Powerbase” last year: http://www.thepowerbase.com/2012/01/mobile-hacking-with-android/

The Kindle version contains some changes and fixes, and represents the most up-to-date version of the work.

Within literally 30 minutes of sending this response, I got another email back telling me that my article was accepted for publication, and by the end of the day I received another email telling me it was now up for sale.

It seems the concern was that I was attempting to republish somebody else’s work for a profit, and Amazon only wanted to confirm I was the original author. I have no problem with this process, and I applaud Amazon for both knowing enough to check up on content which is available elsewhere online, and to understand the original author’s wishes as it pertains to publishing it in a different medium.

As for Barnes & Noblewell, let’s just say it was expeditious. Never once did I receive an email from Barnes & Noble about the submission process, which would have been nice, since I was still unsure if the submission went through or not (remember, I received an error when attempting to submit it). I didn’t even get an email informing me when the article went up for sale, and I only knew it was live by checking the site every couple of hours. Once again, sloppy handling on Barnes & Noble’s part.

Finished Product

Once the article was finally available online, I checked it out in the Kindle and Barnes & Noble apps on my Nexus 7. While both versions worked well enough, I did notice neither looked much like the preview both retailer’s offered me during the submission process. Indeed in the case of the Kindle version, it actually looked slightly worse than the EPUB I submitted. But there were no problems major enough to go back and try and fix, so I suppose I can’t complain too much.

Now that its been a few weeks since I put the article up for sale, most people want to know, how much did I make? Well, keep in mind that we’re talking about free content here, that anyone could read or download from my site. The article was placed online as nothing more than an experiment, and was never intended to actually make money. That being said…

Mobile Hacking with Android” has inexplicably moved up to the number 17 spot under the “Android” books section on Amazon, and has been enjoying a relatively steady flow of purchases. Amazon doesn’t give me any kind of analytics, so I don’t know if it is just keyword rich enough that people are downloading it on a whim, or if purchasers are people who have come from my personal site and want to donate to my future work. In any event, people don’t seem to have a problem paying $1 for something I have clearly made available for free.

Now, on Barnes & Noble, the story is a little different. I have had a grand total of ZERO purchases on the Nook. Absolutely nothing. To be honest, I knew that the sales would be lower on the Nook for nothing more than the fact that the Kindle is the more popular eReader, but I didn’t expect it to be so hugely slanted.

Conclusion

So what have I learned from this experiment in self publishing? It’s simple:

If you have something written, get it up on Amazon.

That’s it, basically. The process is insanely simple, and there is absolutely no risk involved to you. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell. But if it does, then you only stand to profit.

Honestly, my experience with Barnes & Noble has left me pretty disappointed. It’s one thing to deal with the rough edges and inconsistency of their system, but the fact that it hasn’t generated even a single sale is pretty sad.

Of course this little test is hardly indicative of the whole marketplace, but so far it seems that you would be better off putting your work into “KDP Select” and reap the advantages it offers you. You can always add your work to Barnes & Noble later on, after the exclusivity period has gone up.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

Related posts

  • Britt

    This article is very informative. Do you feel Sigil is a program that can be used by anyone, no matter their technological ability?

Top