The Road to Digital Publication – Part 3

by Amanda S. Green

We’ve talked about formatting your manuscript, titles and some of the programs you might want to have on hand. Before we get into detail about the programs, let’s spend a few minutes talking about where you can self-publish your e-book. Yes, I know that sounds like I’m putting the cart before the horse, but knowing the programs — and what format they sale — will help you determine which route to conversion you’re going to take.

There are, in my opinion, three main outlets for the indie author and small publisher. They are Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.

Smashwords is the old man in the group. For a very long time, it was the only place where authors who weren’t going the traditional route could publish their e-books. As with each of the sites that allow for indie authors and small publishers to list their e-books, there are strengths and weaknesses to the site. One of the strengths is that Smashwords does have a fairly extensive style guide to help you format your e-book to meet their guidelines. Smashwords also allows you to opt into their premium catalog (which does include more formatting requirements) and gives you access to stores such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, Diesel, Sony and Kobo. You’ll notice that I don’t have Amazon listed here. That’s because the two entities are currently “working to complete technical integration”.

The downsides to Smashwords can be frustrating. Because of how their review process is set up, it can often take several weeks to have a title approved for the premium catalog. Their “meat grinder” can also do odd things to a manuscript put through it for conversion. For example, one of the titles NRP put up, wound up having half the book capitalized after conversion. What that means is that you have to keep on top of the time it takes to go through the conversion process and then you have to check every format you’ve approved — and that can be as many as 10 files per title to be checked.

Another downside is the delay in payment. Smashwords pays quarterly. In and of itself, that isn’t too bad. But then you have to check to see if any of the outlets you’ve authorized distribution to pay quarterly as well. If they do, you payment for a sale may occur as much as six months after the date of sale. That also means you don’t have the up-to-date sales figures you can have through the KDP or PubIt programs that allow you to see your sales on a daily/hourly basis.

The biggest downside, in my opinion, is the format you have to upload to Smashwords for conversion – a DOC file. In fact, if you read the FAQ, you will see Smashwords actually recommends using an older version of Word (2003 or earlier), although later versions will work as long as you save as a DOC and not DOCX file. The problem with using a DOC file is you do have a lot of junk code and your formatting, picture placement, etc., can be altered in the conversion process. So, if you choose to use Smashwords, be sure to check each and every page of each and every file.

The newest addition to the three programs I listed is Barnes & Noble’s PubIt program. Unlike Smashwords that allows only the uploading of a DOC file for conversion, PubIt allows for TXT, HTML, DOC, DOCX and EPUB files to be uploaded. After you create your account with them, you can check their FAQ page for formatting recommendations for each of these file formats. My recommendation, since e-books sold through the PubIt program are sold in the EPUB format, is to upload your file as an EPUB. This allows you to have a better idea going in what it will look like after conversion. By doing so, I’ve had only a very few very minor issues to deal with after conversion.

Payment through the PubIt program is monthly — after a two month delay, iirc — and occurs only if you have earned a certain amount. This is pretty standard with all outlets. We’ll discuss contract terms of each program later on.

The time delay from uploading your file to publication on the site, is usually less than three days, although it may be slightly longer for your first title.

The downside to this program, imo, is the lack of a dynamic online community and support community. The other thing that I’ve noticed is that NRP has never been asked to confirm rights to “reprints” we’ve put out in digital format, something Amazon has done in all but one instance. As an author I appreciate the fact that Amazon has been vigilant in protecting another author’s rights. (And yes, we were able to prove we had the right to publish those e-titles.)

Then there is the elephant in the e-publishing world — Amazon. Unlike, e-books sold through Amazon are sold in the MOBI format.  Like PubIt, KDP (Amazon’s digital platform), allows you to upload your files in a number of different formats. I recommend using either the EPUB or MOBI formats. Personally, I upload the MOBI format since it will undergo the least amount of “conversion”. For those who are going to publish for the Kindle, check out Amazon’s new formatting guide, especially if you are going to be doing a graphics heavy title. You can find information here.

I know there are drawbacks to this program but they haven’t slapped me in the face yet and I can’t think of them right now. As with PubIt and Smashwords, you can choose not to apply DRM. (This is the biggest misconception I’ve come across. There are still a lot of folks out there who think DRM is automatically applied.). But the benefits of this program far outweigh the drawbacks, imo. The KDP program gives you access to the Amazon store and, if NRP’s sales are indicative, this is where most digital sales will be made. There is an active online community and support community. But the biggest advantage is their up-to-date sales reporting. It makes it a lot easier to spot sales trends than the other programs do.

That’s a long way of getting to programs. Based on these three publishing outlets, you need the following programs:

  • Word/Open Office/something similar
  • Sigil
  • Calibre
  • Photo editing program such as Photoshop, Gimp, Paintshop Pro, etc

Sigil is a WYSIWIG editor that lets you take your HTML filtered file from your word processing program and convert it into an EPUB file. It has a very easy to follow wiki instruction page that will walk you through how to build your e-book, including how to make sure you have an active table of contents. Because it is an editor, after you’ve previewed your e-book in a program like Adobe Digital Editions or Nook desktop — or you’ve checked it on your e-reader, you can open it back up in Sigil and make any corrections you need to

Once you have an EPUB file you like, you can import it into Calibre for conversion into MOBI or other formats. A note here, it is easier to get a clean conversion from EPUB to MOBI than the other way around.

Be sure to check each format in a native reader, whether it’s a desktop version of Nook or Kindle or the readers themselves. Do not rely on the preview features built into the conversion programs. Also, don’t rely exclusively on the preview features on the websites for KDP or PubIt. You need to see the files in the Kindle and Nook reader programs to get the best idea of how your e-book will look.

Sunday, we’ll continue the series with more on pricing, your contracts with Amazon/Smashwords/BN, etc., and I’ll try to finish up the general considerations. I foresee two more installments after that in the series. One for covers and one to go step by step from initial manuscript to e-book creation. So if there is something you want to discuss, make sure you leave a comment about it. (Pam, as for your comment earlier about blurbs, we’ll get to that in the next installment. In the meantime, there are rules from some of the “stores” that do require the legal language/copyright notices to be at the beginning of your e-book, no matter how long that e-book might be.)



4 thoughts on “The Road to Digital Publication – Part 3

  1. Minor correction: Amazon’s ebooks are published in a proprietary format that is derived from .mobi, the current iteration being something called .azw. Kindles and the Kindle simulator can read ebooks in .mobi format, but that isn’t what’s downloaded from Amazon. Supposedly, .azw allows all kinds of new bells & whistles in a book, particularly as regards images and interactive content, but if what you’re dealing with is plain text with a few or no illustrations the difference is nil.

    This is one of the few objections I have to Amazon. Format lock-in reminds me unpleasantly of the early days of computer systems and programs, particularly IBM, DEC, and (much later) Adobe. Bezos & Co. could reassure me that they aren’t going down either of those paths by allowing .epub as an alternative, but it isn’t cold enough yet in the Pit for that to happen.


    1. Ric, actually, the AZW is one of two formats they sell right now: it depends on the age of the e-book. There’s another that has the DRM lock on it. THAT is the one I detest.

      And while I understand your objection to this format lock-in, it isn’t that much different from what some of the other stores do. At least Amazon gives us the option of not applying DRM, something we don’t have with a some of other “stores”. As for allowing EPUB, well, since they own the MOBI program, iirc, I’m not sure that is going to happen any time soon. No sooner than BN is going to allow MOBI on the Nook. At least you can side load EPUB readers onto the Fire and, unless I’m mistaken, you can side load MOBI readers onto the Nook Color.

      While it does mean we have more hoops to jump through as authors and publishers, those hoops are at least easily navigable if you know a little HTML coding and have a working knowledge of programs like Sigil and Calibre.

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