Sunday, November 27, 2011

EBooks 101

*** EBook Giveaway ***
If you're here just for the free copy of Gray Matter, book 1 of the PJ Gray series by Shirley Kennett, skip to the last paragraph of this post.

Authors who published books before eBooks took off in popularity may be able to go digital on their own with those books. It's a great way to breathe new life into a series that has gone out of print. The tools are available now for authors to do this, the same way many people are creating original eBooks. I decided to undertake this with a series of psychological suspense novels I wrote under the name of Shirley Kennett, and I'd like to share some of my experiences here.

With a few exceptions, writers creating original works would go through the same procedures, so if you have a book ready to spread its wings, sink in its fangs, or transform under the full moon, this is for you. This is just one means to an end; the paths are many, including using a paid eBook conversion service. I wanted to know the details, so I did just about everything myself. I'm going to provide specifics for my path so if you're frustrated or in a muddle, as I was at various times, you can at least see something that works.

Make Sure You Own Your Digital Rights

If you have a contract from years ago, there may be no mention of digital rights. Still, the best way to make sure you're on safe ground is to have the rights you signed away in the contract reverted to you by the publisher. If your books are out of print (as defined in your contract) a letter to your publisher's legal department should produce a notice of rights reversion. Read the fine print. If your situation is not clear cut, consult your agent, editor, or an intellectual rights attorney for advice. Don't cut corners here. If your eBook is original, this is something you don't have to worry about.

Consider the Widest Distribution

Different eBook readers use different input formats. They can be simplified into Kindle (Mobi) format and everyone else (EPub, the international standard). This means you'll want to supply these two formats for your eBook to reach the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and a host of other readers. I puzzled over this for some time and chose two online services, Smashwords (ePub and other formats such as PDF) and LiberWriter for Kindle. Smashwords is free to use, distributes your eBook to markets like Barnes and Noble and iPad, and provides a page within the Smashwords site for you to sell your book. For all of this, they extract what I consider a reasonable fee from each eBook you sell (nothing up front). LiberWriter charges a flat fee of $25 (or $50 if you want them to do more of the conversion work) upfront for each Kindle book you produce and claims no fees after that. Amazon does, though. LiberWriter provides the output that you upload directly into Amazon. After tangling with other Kindle "converters" with no joy, I was pleased to discover LiberWriter and don't plan to use anything else. (No, I'm not connected with the company in any way.) If you want to offer your book for the Kindle only, you can just use LiberWriter from the start, including writing an original book. You might also investigate Vook, which will be available early in 2012. I'm just tossing out the name because I've heard good things about it.

Obtain an ISBN for Your EBook

You can get a free ISBN from Smashwords, or if you want one that isn't associated with Smashwords, you can go to ePubBud and get one for $5. Yes, you need one. Don't give me any grief over this.

Prep Your Text

I found that when I looked for my Word files of the PJ Gray series, I had files that were submitted to the editor but had never been updated as the books went through copyediting and proofing. In other words, my files didn't have the exact same text as the final published versions. (Not a problem if you're writing an original eBook!) There are two ways to go here. The first is the brute strength method of comparing the Word file to the published version page by laborious page and bringing it up to date. I did this for my first book, Gray Matter. The second method is to have the book digitized, meaning scanned in and converted using Optical Character Reader (OCR) software to a readable file. EPubBud does this for $20 per book plus $.15 per page. Because OCR is not perfect, you'll still have to go through the file you are sent line by line to make sure it's correct. Given the time I spent bringing my Word version up to date, I'm going to try digitizing the next book in the series and see how that works! Be warned it takes 4-6 weeks, so start early.

Then I did some minor revisions in my text because technology had moved forward since the book was published and some references would be jarring to a current reader. That means I now have the 2nd edition of the book. Smashwords provides a free, detailed Style Guide to help you get your book into the correct format for conversion. The Smashwords Style Guide is helpful and should be followed closely. You'll save time if you do. If you're writing an original book, use the Smashwords Style Guide from page one.

Design a Cover

Remember that even after the rights to the book are reverted to you, you don't own the rights to the cover. Those rights belong to the original cover artist. I'm fairly handy with Photoshop, and I had a lot of fun designing the covers for the eBooks of the PJ Gray series. I bought stock photos from iStockPhoto and combined them with the book's title, my name, and a juicy quote. It's very important that you have a professional-looking cover. Be honest. If you can't do this step on your own, pay for cover design. LiberWriter offers cover design, but I didn't use it so I can't personally vouch for them. There are other cover designers available, but don't skimp on quality.

Putting It All Together

I worked with Smashwords first, because it offered the best way to clean up my text with its Style Guide. Once I was happy with the text, I submitted it for conversion. I learned that building the internal linked Table of Contents (yes, even for fiction) is very important and a touchy thing to do. The ToC produces the navigation that allows the reader to jump to various parts of the book and enhances the reading experience. In my experience, if I've built the ToC (the Style Guide directions are excellent), and then need to make corrections to it for any reason, the whole thing seems to mess up. I take a deep breath, count to 100, and delete what I have in order to start over from scratch. I've wasted hours trying to fix an existing ToC until I resigned myself to starting over. Maybe it's just me. ;-) Once Smashwords accepts the formatting of the book, it's made available for sale on their website. To get to Barnes & Noble and the iPad catalog takes longer, up to ten days, because there's a manual review by a Smashwords editor before your material is passed along. You can and should verify that your eBook looks the way you expect by downloading your free ePub copy from Smashwords to an ePub-capable reader or to your computer. An excellent ePub reader available as a free download for the PC or Mac is Adobe Digital Editions.

By the time your text is squeaky clean (or thoroughly edited if your book is original), using LiberWriter for the Kindle is a snap. Throw away your lovely ToC you built for Smashwords. Upload your text on the LiberWriter site, mark your chapter headings with their "Chapter" designation, and press the easy-squeezy "Build ToC" key that does all the work for you. Convert to Mobi format and check that your book looks the way you want the world to see it. Do this with a Kindle or with the free Kindle reading app for PCs, Macs, and other devices. When you're happy with your results, it's time to upload to Amazon. (Note: Amazon now accepts other files for uploading, including ePub, Word, HTML, and even PDFs. However, it's my impression that you'll get the best results when you submit Mobi format, and in my case I chose LiberWriter to produce that format. As I said, many paths.)

You'll need an account at Kindle Direct Publishing, so start with that. Then upload your Mobi file and book cover and set your price. Consider the pricing/royalty offerings carefully. You get a higher percentage royalty if you price your book at $2.99 or higher, but you may sell fewer books that way.

Keep Your Expectations Realistic

Sure there have been some great successes with eBook "reprints" or original works, but far more are published with little fanfare and even less profit for the author. Depending on how much you spent getting to this point, you may not earn back your investment. It's not all about the money, though. If you are a writer, you know what I mean. If you keep your expectations modest, you can always have a pleasant surprise if your eBook takes off!

Promote your eBook via your website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Offer some free copies. With Smashwords, you can create coupons that allow readers to purchase your book for a reduced price or for free. With Amazon, you can give away gift certificates. LiberWriter allows you to give free Kindle copies to individuals, such as reviewers, with their names embedded in the copy. Join the Amazon and Barnes & Noble Associates programs. These marketing programs give you a small rebate whenever a reader clicks on your book link on your website or blog, goes to Amazon or B&N, and then purchases that eBook. You referred the reader and a sale resulted, so they're willing to pay a small amount for that referral. And I do mean small. But even small amounts can add up.

I hope you find this guide useful. Poking my way through this blind wasn't fun, but the results were rewarding. I know that my next eBook conversion will be much smoother and more fun. I hope this post might help writers out there and readers who want to tell their own stories. If it isn't relevant to you, maybe you know someone who might be interested. Questions? I'm not a pro at this, but I'll answer what I can.

If you'd like to see how Gray Matter, book one of the PJ Gray series, turned out, I'll give away a free copy to anyone who leaves a comment here by Friday, December 9th. Let me know if you want the Kindle or Nook/iPad version (ePub). I'll be sending it to you as an email attachment, so I'll need your (disguised) email. If you prefer, you can email me at dakota @ dakota-banks dot com. Be sure to add my email to your whitelist for my response.

Enter to win a Kindle Fire by “liking” Dakota’s Facebook Fan Page!


  1. Dakota, great wrap up here on the process! Thanks for pulling all of this together. -Donna

  2. Thank you for taking the time to share this. I have two short stories that I need to figure out if I have the rights to-- one I know I do, but the other I'm not sure about. The one I think I would off for free, but the other would be a great .99 novella. I'll bookmark this post so I can read it again when I'm ready. I kind of like Smashwords as a starter point because I can put the free story on there, and the .99 novella, plus I can offer coupons as you mentioned. I know a lot of authors that use it for that reason.

    I'd love to read Gray Matter:) I have a kindle.
    wayfaringwriter at gmail dot come

  3. Brenda, if you're going to use Smashwords, I want to stress that it's really important to use their style guide to prepare your text. Everything in there represents good word-processing techniques anyway, and my recent manuscripts wouldn't require much adapatation at all. I have to say I was a bit, er, sloppy in my earlier manuscripts! I'll be using the style guide in my writing from now on whether the book is destined for self-publishing or not (except for the single spacing the guide calls for). I figure that editors will soon be wanting initial manuscript submissions for their e-readers.

  4. Thanks Dakota, that's good to know. I might as well learn to do it right from the beginning. At this point I think I'll wait til after the new year.

  5. HI Brenda good to see you here. When you like it why don't you start learning this right now. Why to wait for more time.

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  6. I would love a copy! Thanks:)
    sstogner1 at gmail dot com