An ePublishing Introduction

Do you want to publish an ebook but don’t know where to begin? The best place to start is to learn just what an ebook is and why it’s so different from its paper cousin.

An ebook is designed to be read on a portable electronic device. Some devices, like the Kindle reader, are about the size of a hard-cover book, only thinner and with monochromatic screens. Their features are limited to reading, purchasing and organizing books. Their battery charge is measured in weeks rather than hours and hundreds of books can be stored on the device at any given time. Readers who already have a mobile device such as a smart phone or tablet can choose to install one or more reader apps. The reader can begin a book on one device, then pick up right where she left off when she opens the same book on a different device.

Both ereader devices and apps offer a number of useful features to improve the reading experience. First is the ability to adjust the font style and size. For those of us with aging eyes, this is a blessing. You can also bookmark, highlight and add notes to the text. Most readers also offer dictionaries, giving you the ability to look up the definition of a word used in the text. Some even offer translation functions.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that right now ebooks are the Wild Wild West of publishing. Each major bookstore (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple’s iBooks) has their own line of readers and reader apps which will only read books bought from them. Amazon even has its own proprietary ebook format. Publishers are nervous and authors are confused. Traditional publishing is getting turned on its ear.

All this chaos offers lots of opportunities for do-it-yourself author/publishers. There is a pretty sigificant learning curve, but the results can be quite rewarding.

For those of us who grew up in the world of word-processing, ebooks aren’t that different. The biggest difference is that the document/publication never makes it to paper. The biggest challenge is that you aren’t formatting it for a specific size (letter, legal, card, etc.). You’re formatting it for all any and all sizes. You are creating one book file that can be read on devices ranging from the small screen of a smart phone to the large screen of a desktop computer and any number of devices in between. OMG!

Each of the current ebook formats uses HTML, the language of the Web, to present their books. HTML was designed to format and control “flowable” content – content that adjusts to the size of the container displaying it. If you are reading this article at my web site using your desktop computer, it will look different than if you are reading it on a tablet device or using a newsreader. I don’t try to place an image at a specific spot on the screen because I know that’s a waste of time. Instead, I place images within the flow of the text so it’s located near the text that discusses it. That way it will be in the same relative position on whatever screen or device is used to view it.

As with blogging, it’s much easier to format text publications than ones with lots of photos and graphics. I’m not saying you can’t include images. I’m just saying it’s going to require more time and effort. Bookstores like Amazon have a vested interest in helping you get your books published – without the publisher middle-man there’s more profit for both of you. They offer lots of helpful information on how to create a ready-to-publish ebook from your word-processing document. For more information on how to do this, I recommend Aaron Shepard’s books From Word to Kindle and Pictures on Kindle.

Another great resource is Smashwords. This publishing platform will take your Word document, convert it into an ebook and place it for sale in each of the major bookstores. Smashwords manages your sales from each of these vendors. There’s no upfront costs to use Smashwords but they take a commission from your sale revenue before sending your royalty check. They also have a detailed guide – The Smashwords Style Guide – which can be downloaded for free with step-by-step instructions on how to format your Word document for conversion to an ebook.

For people with books that are photo/graphic heavy with precise layout requirements, today’s ebook technology still isn’t ready for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of digital publishing. It just means you have fewer options. However, one of those options is quite impressive. It’s called Scribd. Scribd has been around for several years as an online library for documents. Then they opened the Scribd store so people could upload documents to sell. Recently they announced a subscription service – think Netflix for books – where for $8.95/month you can read any of the books included in the subscription catalog. At the same time, they announced an agreement with the Harper Collins publishing house to include their catalog as part of the subscription service. Scribd offers free reader apps for tablets and smart phones to take advantage of this service and their entire library.

The beauty of Scribd is that you can upload Word documents – even PowerPoint presentations – and Scribd maintains your formatting. The guide below was created using Apple’s Keynote presentation software, saved as a PDF document and uploaded to the Moultrie Creek library at Scribd. This guide can be downloaded as a PDF file – again keeping all the formatting and graphic elements intact. If this had been posted for sale, buyers would get the PDF document which can be read on most desktops and devices. Obviously, this would not be a pleasant read on a smart phone or dedicated ereader device, but it does look great on tablets.

Scribd has no upfront costs, but they take a 20% commission from each sale. If your book is included in the subscription service, you will receive revenue for each subscriber who reads all or part your book.

This is a broad overview of the current state of electronic publishing. Your next step is to take a look at the platforms and publications mentioned here for a more detailed description of the effort required to get the result you desire. I also recommend you wander through the archive here at the Gazette. There’s lots of good information here – and lots more to come.