How to Sell eBooks as a Small Publisher

If you’re a small publisher or a self-publisher, you’ve got multiple options to create and sell eBooks. Though Amazon is the 900-pound gorilla in the eBook world, a lot of eBooks get sold through other channels. Here’s a snapshot of eBook retailer marketshare based on our internal data for the last year:

eBook Retailer Marketshare
Amazon 71.5%
Apple iBookstore 17.5%
Barnes & Noble  8.0%
Kobo  2.0%
Google Play  1.0%

In addition, library wholesalers such as Overdrive and Ebsco sold the equivalent of about 2.3% of the retailer volume, and new wholesalers—3m, Brainhive—have come online.

Other published statistics do not match ours exactly (some show Barnes & Noble with a larger share, Amazon with a smaller share, etc.). However, from the point of view of maximizing your eBook sales, the moral is the same: if you’re selling only through Amazon, you’re likely reducing your potential sales by about 30%. The tradeoff is time and effort—each sales channel you add takes more time to manage and will involve creating new eBook files. You have to balance the effort required against the potential revenue. If you are a very small publisher or a self-publisher, access to channels is limited to those that support self-publishing. However, as the top four—Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo—comprise around 97% of the market according to our stats and others, and they all support self-publishing, that’s not a big deal. Another alternative is to work with an eBook aggregator, rather than with the big resellers individually.

eBook Aggregators

eBook aggregators can help reach more sales channels. They provide services to self-publishers similar to what distributors provide to traditional publishers: they can create eBook files for you, distribute eBooks to retailers and wholesalers, and pay you the money they collect for sales of your eBook. You just provide your book text and information to the aggregator, and you don’t have to provide it to each reseller individually because the aggregator does that for you. That can mean a considerable time savings. Aggregators charge setup fees and/or a percentage of sales revenues for their services. eBook aggregators include blurb.com, bookbaby.com, publishgreen.com, and others. If you do a Google search on “self-publish eBook” you’ll see plenty more.

Two Self-Publishing Strategies

Keeping in mind the balance of effort vs. revenue, it seems to me there are a couple of viable strategies for selling self-published eBooks:

• Use the self-publishing services of each of the top four eBook resellers.
OR
• Use an eBook aggregator to distribute to the top four plus other channels.

In both cases, you’ll reach at least 97% of the market. With an eBook aggregator you’ll spend some money, likely save a bunch of time, and reach a bunch of channels you couldn’t otherwise reach, including libraries.

What You Need to Supply

Whether you are working with an eBook aggregator or dealing with the major resellers yourself, you need to provide these four things:

  • The eBook file itself.
  • A cover image.
  • Title information, a.k.a. metadata.
  • Banking information.

eBook Files

eBook files are of two major types, reflowable and fixed-layout:

Fixed-layout eBooks are designed to fit on the screen of a particular device, like an iPad or a Kindle Fire. They are for the most part created using software from the device manufacturer—Apple, Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Because of this, you have to recreate the eBooks over and over again if you want to sell fixed-layout eBooks. For this reason very few titles are sold as fixed-layout eBooks. We get many requests for making fixed-layout eBooks, and almost always the publishers decide not to go ahead because of the expense and the complexity of producing them for each device. Given that, I’m not going to discuss publishing fixed-layout eBooks in this post, but I have written elsewhere about them.

Reflowable eBooks allow readers to change the size of the type. When you change type size, the pages reflow because increasing the size allows fewer words per page and decreasing it allows more. Reflowable eBooks also adapt easily to to different screen sizes: you can readily read a reflowable eBook on a phone, an eReading device like a Kindle or Nook, or a tablet like an iPad. By far, most eBooks sold are reflowable.

If you’re using an eBook aggregator, use the tools they provide to create your master reflowable eBook, and they will convert to the different target formats for Amazon, Apple, etc. If you are working directly with the major eBook resellers (Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble), use the tools they provide to create eBooks for each store. In either case, the tools should be adequate for creating books with simple typography (novels for example). However, more complex books, such as academic monographs, will likely require extensive hand formatting, which you’ll either have to pay the aggregator to do or figure out how to do yourself. Hand coding eBooks requires a whole body of expertise, which may or may not be up your alley. Knowing website programming is helpful because an eBook is essentially a mini-website zipped up in a package.

Quality matters when you’re making eBooks. If your eBook is full of typos and terrible formatting, the comments on Amazon and elsewhere will let you have it, which will dissuade others from buying the book regardless of how good the content of the book is. Besides that, of course, is your self-respect. Do you really want to publish a crappy eBook after all the effort you put into creating the book in the first place?

Cover Image

Despite the fact that eBooks have no physical covers, the cover image is critical for marketing the book. The absence of a cover image signals to buyers that no effort has been put into the book. Secondly, the quality of the cover design matters. Readers interpret the quality of the cover image as a representation of the quality of the book: an amateurish cover signals an amateurish book, a professionally-designed cover signals a professionally designed and published book. People definitely do judge a book by its cover—if you’ve written a great book, don’t shortchange your effort with a lousy cover.

If you have design expertise, it may not be a big deal for you to produce a cover image. If you don’t, you would be well advised to hire a professional graphic designer. eBook aggregators will also design a cover image for you. From what I’ve seen these designs vary a lot, from slapdash to pretty good.

Cover images are produced in Adobe InDesign or Adobe Photoshop and exported as jpeg files in the dimensions specified by each store for uploading. If you use an aggregator, you should only have to produce the image at one size and the aggregator will resize it for the various sales channels.

Title Information, a.k.a. Metadata

Metadata is all the information about the eBook that appears on the sales page: title, author, description, editorial reviews, price, ISBN, author bio, etc. Metadata is critical to telling your readers what your book is about. Given that they will only buy your book if they can tell what it is about, it’s pretty important. Some elements of metadata are simple (the title, the author’s name, and the price, for example). Other elements—the description, any sales handles, author bios—need to be well-written, because they are critical for reader’s decision-making process. Study the descriptions provided for the top-selling paid books on Amazon: those are the ones produced by traditional publishers, who put a lot of effort into writing book descriptions. Have the description edited.

If you use an eBook aggregator, you’ll have to put the metadata in just once, and the aggregator will distribute it to the various sales channels. If you work directly with the major resellers, you’ll have to put the metadata into each of their systems yourself.

Banking Information

When you sign up to sell your eBook, the other party—whether an aggregator or a big reseller—has to have a way to pay you. For most of them, this means a direct deposit to your bank account. Therefore, you’ll have to give them banking information so they can do this.

eBooks and Quality

There are thousands of garbage eBooks on Amazon because it is so easy to publish through the Kindle platform. For a while, authors who were only concerned about making money kept making shorter and shorter e-“Books” in order to get the most revenue for the least effort. (Amazon has responded by changing payment terms.) Sometimes they didn’t even write the books: there have been plenty of cases where people copied and pasted somebody else’s content and published it as their own. Readers are not stupid; once burned they will shy away from anything that looks amateurish, as they come to expect not only poorly edited—possibly pirated—text, but terrible formatting and other production attributes. This is why eBooks published by traditional publishers continue to sell, and at much higher prices than self-published titles: readers can expect that the books are real books, that they are professionally edited and designed, and they have at least a basic level of readability.

This is not at all to say that all self-published eBooks are worthless; on the contrary, I’ve read a number that had a quality level equivalent to a book published by a traditional publisher. In those cases, though, the author invested time and dollars into good design and editing, not to mention the fact that they wrote a good book to begin with. (To be honest, many of these authors had, in addition, already been published by traditional publishers and so had already crossed the basic quality hurdles.)

What this means for a self-publishing author is that if you want to stand out from the self-published crowd, invest time and money in quality: have your book edited, have it professionally converted to eBook format, get a professional cover design. (If you think your book doesn’t need editing, I guarantee you’re mistaken.)

Bookmobile’s eBook Services

Bookmobile was actually a pioneer in eBooks. We created an eBook creation system for book publishers in 2001 called Pagewing, which fizzled because the eBook market didn’t take off until 2007 when Amazon launched the Kindle. We restarted our eBook services in 2008 and have made and distributed hundreds of eBook titles since then.

We’re a good choice for publishers with five or more titles to convert into eBooks and sell. For those with fewer titles, a better choice may be to research eBook aggregators or work directly with the major resellers as outlined above.

Some eBook Aggregators:

Major Resellers’ Self-Publishing Services:

Need a printing quote, eBook conversion quote, or more information?

You can request a printing quote here, or request an eBook conversion quote here.

I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email.
 I welcome any feedback, including that pointing out my errors!

Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.