How to publish an ebook
These days, having an ebook version of your book is not so much an option as a basic requirement. Even if you don't use e-readers yourself, it's important that you recognise how important they've become: print sales are declining, while sales of ebooks have exploded. Ebooks are particularly attractive for self-published authors, because they have no manufacturing costs, so you can earn a much higher royalty; and in a world where you'll be struggling for readers' attention against products from giant multi-national companies you can't afford to pass up any opportunity to get your book in front of your readers.
Before you start creating your ebook (however you choose to do it), it's worth taking a moment to set your expectations and to understand the inherent differences between print books and ebooks.
For authors used to print books, there can be an expectation that an ebook will be identical to the print book, just on a screen. This is an expectation that will invariably lead to disappointment or frustration – and if it doesn't, it will have led to a poor ebook for readers.
What you have to recognise is that – despite being called e"books" – and despite all the effort expended by software designers on fancy page-turning animations that imitate the real turning of a page – ebooks are not very much like print books at all. In fact, they are more like websites.
Print books are a static and fixed format. Authors and book designers working on print books will be used to having complete control over where pages start and stop; how the text appears; how colours are displayed; what size margins are; how images are positioned; etc.
Ebooks, however, are dynamic. The designer doesn't have control over any of the features listed above. The size of the page will be determined by the size of the device the user is using. The size of the text can be changed by the user, as well as its font and its colour. Depending on where the ebook is viewed, it will have a different numbers of pages, and they will start and stop in different places.
For the traditional author and book designer this can be horrifying. They will see pages breaking in awkward places and their first instinct will be to try and fix it – but the simple fact is that you can't. Anything you do to try and fix it on one device would ruin it on another, and if the user has selected a different font size it will all be different to what you are seeing, anyway. You can't even control colour, because many e-readers are grayscale.
The job of an ebook designer is therefore very different to that of a book designer. A book designer must work at pinning down the layout to precise and fixed specifications. An ebook designer, on the other hand, has to accept that they cannot control appearance, and must instead focus on delivering code which is simple, lean, and flexible: code which can easily render to a variety of different and unknown specifications without causing anomalies in the display. For an ebook designer, the very act of trying to control the appearance is what will ultimately create problems. When it comes to ebook design, less is more.
People often assume that the term "ebook" applies to a specific type of file which can be opened on any of the various e-readers, but unfortunately this is not the case. The term "ebook" applies to the general concept of a book which can be read electronically, and this covers many different platforms and file types, including .mobi for Kindle, .ibooks for Apple devices, .epub, .pdf, and many more.
So, just as a movie company has to release its films in multiple incompatible formats (DVD; Blu-Ray; 3D Blu-Ray; etc.), so too the book publisher has to release ebooks in various different formats to serve various different platforms.
The good news is that you can probably get away with only creating one of these files yourself, and this can be used as a basis for the others. The .epub format is emerging as something of an industry standard, and if you can create a .epub file you can submit this file to places like Amazon and Apple and they will convert it to their native file format for you.
And for those platforms that use PDFs you can simply use your press proof PDF, provided you created this yourself and it wasn't generated automatically for you by a self-publishing service.
There are online tools which will convert your book from a Word file to ebook format, and the most well-known of these is Smashwords.
We've experimented with the Smashwords conversion process, and used it to create an ebook compilation of winners of our First International Short Story Contest, which is available for free at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/148912
The system provides a simple push-button process to turn a Word file into an ebook, which is great – but the devil is in the detail. Once you get started you will find that preparing the Word file for this conversion requires quite a lot of work and painstaking adherence to the rules laid out in the Smashwords Style Guide. This is a document which is 70+ pages of instructions on how to edit, alter, and manipulate your file to meet the precise requirements for it to go through the conversion successfully.
This includes the recommended "Nuclear Method", which involves stripping out all the formatting from your file, reducing it to plain text, and then putting it all back in again in accordance with the Smashwords requirements. We agree that this probably is the best way of doing it, but it's by no means a small task.
Once you've been through all the work of reformatting your Word file, you can put it through the conversion program and you should get a serviceable ebook out the other end, which you will be able to distribute through the Smashwords platform to distributors such as Apple (but not Amazon).
However, even after you've done all this, the results are not ideal. Because this is an automated process it's inevitable that you just generally don't get the kind of control you would if you were creating the ebook directly. For instance, we found that all the chapters and tables of contents etc. would run together. In a professionally published ebook you'd expect these different elements to be in different files, in which case they will all start at the top of a new page, but the Smashwords conversion just put them all in one big file. Because it's an automated conversion, there's nothing you can do to alter this. The style guide suggests adding "three or four" line breaks between chapters, but this is hardly ideal. This will leave you with chapter headings sometimes marooned at the bottom of pages, or starting part way down pages with nothing above them. It's not great.
In the end, we thought the Smashwords process didn't give good enough results to justify the amount of time you have to put in. The code for writing ebooks manually is not tremendously complicated, and once you have the knowledge you can do it using Notepad, so when you consider the length of the instructions for using Smashwords it may well be easier just to learn how to code the ebook yourself, and get proper control over the results.
If you're not comfortable with writing code yourself, and don't want to wade through the Smashwords style guide, or want to get a better quality of ebook than that created by an automated conversion, there are many services available online that will convert your book to .epub format at a reasonable price.
For your ebook cover you will no doubt want to use your print cover as a starting point. However, remember that your ebook cover will only include the front cover, not the back or spine.
Amazon and Apple have different requirements for the size of your cover, but fortunately they're not contradictory, so if you bear them both in mind you can make a single cover image which will satisfy both of them.
Amazon requires your cover image to be at least 625 pixels wide, but Apple demands at least 1,400 pixels wide, so we will have to take the Apple width requirement as the minimum in order to suit both. It's also worth bearing in mind that this is a minimum, not a maximum, and that this figure keeps rising, so it might be worth making it a bit larger than the minimum if you can.
In terms of height, Amazon wants you to aim for a height which is about 1.6 times the width (in fact they describe this as a minimum, but to be honest you don't want to go too much higher than this or your cover will be very tall and thin). So if your width is 1,400 pixels you should be aiming for a height of about 2,240 pixels.
Once you have created your .epub file and your cover, you need to get your ebook up for sale at retailers. The three main retailers you need to concentrate on are Amazon, Apple, and Google, but you'll also pick up some others on the way.
To get your ebook listed on Amazon just go to https://kdp.amazon.com, and sign in with your Amazon account (or, if you've never used Amazon, create one). There's a simple two-page process for supplying the necessary information and uploading your files, but bear the following points in mind:
- Don't sign up for the KDP Select program that Amazon will try to push you towards – this entails giving Amazon exclusive rights to sell your ebook, meaning you won't be able to sell it on iTunes, or Barnes & Noble, or anywhere else.
- Don't bother adding an ISBN for this version. If you were to add an ISBN it would have to be unique to the Kindle version (you couldn't use your print ISBN, or an ISBN used on other ebook formats), and since the Kindle version will only ever be distributed by Amazon you don't need anything more than the ASIN (Amazon serial number) that Amazon will assign for free. Adding an ISBN won't enhance your standing on Amazon, and in fact it won't even be displayed on the detail page.
Getting your book onto iBooks is, unfortunately, not quite so easy. Sure, you can sign up for a free account with which to submit your ebooks at https://www.apple.com/itunes/working-itunes/sell-content/books/, but in order to use it you will need a program made by Apple, which only runs on Apple Macs. For the other 92% of the world, the only choice is to use an "Apple-approved aggregator" – and of these, the one you will probably want to go with is our old friend, Smashwords. So, while you may not use the Smashwords converter to create your .epub file, you will now find yourself heading over there to submit your home-grown .epub file to their system in order to get it onto iBooks.
You can join Smashwords for free at https://www.smashwords.com/signup, and then you can add your ebook using the same files as you did for Amazon. Provided you follow all the rules for inclusion in the Premium Catalogue, you can then get your book distributed not only to iBooks for sale to Apple users, but also Barnes & Noble, kobo, Scribd, WHSmith, PageFoundry, and more.
Importantly, you will need to provide an ISBN for the Smashwords version, as this is a requirement for distribution to iBooks. Remember that this ISBN has to be different from the one you used for your print book.
The final key piece of the distribution puzzle that you need to have in place is Google, as you will want to be able to sell your books to users of Android phones and tablets through Google Play. In order to do this you need to join the Google Book Partner Program, which you can do at https://play.google.com/books/publish/. You will then be able to use the same files as for Amazon and Smashwords, and as with Amazon you don't need to provide another ISBN – you can just use the free ID number provided by Google.
Your book will then not only appear for sale on Google Play, but will also appear in search results on Google Books, providing more paths for potential readers to find your book.