Misconceptions about digital publishing

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Interview with Euan Mitchell

Photo of Euan Mitchell
Euan Mitchell

As more authors move into publishing their own ebooks, the sometimes confusing implications of their decisions are becoming more and more important. In the lead-up to his new Digital Makeover for Writers in March, Euan Mitchell explains the truth behind some common misconceptions in digital publishing.

If Smashwords accepts an ebook for its “Premium Catalog”, then it will be made available for sale through Amazon’s Kindle ebooks.

Smashwords is a writer-friendly ebook convertor/distributor/retailer that accepts book manuscripts in Microsoft Word format. Smashwords uses its “meatgrinder” conversion process to turn a Word file into a range of ebook formats, including the two big ones: EPUB (suitable for Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and others) and MOBI (suitable for Amazon’s Kindle). Smashwords charges no up-front fees. It can sell ebooks directly from its own website, for which it pays writers 85 per cent of net sales revenue.

But writers are generally more interested in accessing the larger ebook retailers to which Smashwords distributes, particularly the Apple iBookstore and Barnes & Noble (a large US book retailer). Smashwords will distribute to these larger retailers if your book is written and formatted to a high enough standard to be selected into its “Premium Catalog”. For “Premium Catalog” sales, Smashwords generally pays around 60 per cent of net sales revenue.

These are fairly generous terms that make Smashwords a popular option for indie (self-publishing) writers.

But there is a condition buried in the fine print: Smashwords won’t normally offer your book to Amazon’s Kindle program until your sales reach $1000. And since Kindle accounts for something like two-thirds of the world’s ebook sales, it is difficult to reach $1000 worth of ebook sales without Kindle’s help in the first place. A big catch-22 for many writers.

To make matters worse, unless your ebook is exclusive to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) you cannot use the “KDP Select” program to make your ebook available for free for five days out of ninety. Offering free days is a helpful way to stimulate sales, and gives you a regular excuse to talk about your ebook on social media. So if your ebook is with Smashwords, forget about using KDP Select.

The PDF version of a book can easily be converted into an EPUB or Kindle ebook by using software such as Calibre.

Some writers, particularly those with out-of-print titles, have access to the final PDF version of their book that went to the printers. The PDF version of a book has fixed pages with static text. If a writer wants to turn a PDF into a dynamic ebook, with text that reflows to fit different screens and font sizes, this will means converting to EPUB and/or MOBI formats.

On the internet you will find free ebook conversion software such as Calibre. You can add a PDF to Calibre and it will convert to EPUB and MOBI formats, but the result will be a dog’s breakfast. Those headers, footers and page numbers will be scattered randomly through the text, making a mess of your carefully edited sentences.

The easiest way to convert a PDF to EPUB and/or MOBI is with the help of an online or locally-based aggregator. This is a specialist who can reformat the PDF properly before converting. The fee will vary but expect to pay around $200 if not too many graphics are involved. Or you can do it yourself if you are prepared to invest time to learn the process.

Making your ebook available to millions of readers via global retailers will mean you can quit your day job.

It is mind-boggling to think how many potential readers can purchase your book through any website, including your own, if it is set up with e-commerce facilities. But turning that global digital potential into dollars can be a lot harder than selling a few print books locally. The global marketplace can be a lonely place among millions of competitors.

Many writers I’ve spoken to have been disappointed at the low level of their digital sales. Yes, big sales can be achieved with a good ebook that is well publicised, but don’t quit your day job until your first big (net) payment actually arrives.

Using social media to plug an ebook will bring a healthy return on time invested.

Social media can offer great ways to help build relationships with readers. But when it comes to selling ebooks, the many hours invested may result in relatively low financial returns. Plugs for your ebook may be seen as spam that turns readers off. Social networks are already buzzing with a mass of noise about new ebooks.

You usually need to offer something of value for free to build readers’ interest in your writing via social networks. To make matters worse, social media can easily distract a writer from actually spending enough time writing.

Any Australian writer can publish directly with Barnes & Noble through its program Pubit!

Barnes & Noble (B&N) claims a huge 20 per cent of ebook sales in the US market. B&N’s Pubit! program allows writers to directly upload Microsoft Word files for conversion to ebooks suitable for their Nook e-reader. It sounds like a no-brainer for a writer to make an ebook available via the Barnes & Noble website.

But if you want to sell or even give away your ebook via Pubit! then you must have an American bank account. This is possible for Australians, but very difficult without minimum deposits totalling thousands of dollars. The solution is a local or online aggregator. B&N will not remunerate writers via PayPal.

You can earn 70 per cent from Australian Kindle sales.

You may have heard Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) offers writers a 70 per cent royalty on sales of ebooks priced from US$2.99 to $9.99. Outside this range, ebook royalties to writers are 35 per cent. Many Australian indie writers have therefore priced their books from $2.99 to $9.99 to double their revenue share.

But certain countries are excluded from their 70 per cent deal. Australia is one of the countries excluded. New Zealand as well. So if your Australian and New Zealand friends or relatives are buying your ebook from Kindle, you will be earning 35 per cent regardless of the price you set with KDP. It is currently the sales from only seventeen countries in the world that are eligible for the 70 per cent royalty. In fourteen of these countries, English is a second language, and six are among the smallest nations in the world, including Andorra and Vatican City. The other three are the US, UK and Canada.

About Euan Mitchell

Dr Euan Mitchell is a former senior editor for a major publisher. As a writer he has three novels and a range of non-fiction books to his credit. He has also successfully published other writers in a range of genres. Euan has taught writing, editing and publishing at Monash University, Victoria University, Swinburne University and Box Hill TAFE.

Update: Euan will be running a one-day Summer School workshop on ePublishing called Your Digital Publishing Options at Writers Victoria in January 2017.