The A to Z of ebook publishing

I thought it might be an idea to do a huge ebook-advice post based on the various discussions we’ve had here and on other sites, so that’s what I’ve done: an enormous A to Z of ebook publishing aimed at would-be ebook publishers. If there’s anything I’ve missed or got hopelessly wrong, I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments.

A is for Amazon

You don’t have to sell ebooks through Amazon, but if you don’t you’re missing out on a lot of potential sales. The combination of one-click buying, charts and “people who bought this also bought…” lists is a powerful one, and Kindle owners buy a lot of books.

B is for book bloggers

If you’re serious about reaching as many people as possible, book blogs are wonderful things – but before you start sending review requests to everyone on the planet, it’s important to keep two things in mind. One, book bloggers are inundated with review requests, and will generally only review books they really like the sound of. Even then, you might have to wait for months and months, because book bloggers have lives.

The second, much more important thing to remember is that book bloggers don’t work for you: they work for their readers, and their credibility depends on telling the truth – so if they think your book’s rubbish, their job is to say so. Most bloggers tend to cushion the blow, but even the most diplomatically worded negative review will make you cry hot salty tears. Will it upset you? Yes. Should you give the blogger a piece of your mind or argue with every single point he or she made? Not unless you want the entire internet to think you’re an arse.

C is for cover

Nothing screams “quality” like a crappy bit of clipart and some luminous pink Comic Sans text. You’ve spent months, maybe years on your book – why ruin things now by lashing something together in 30 seconds? If you can’t design for toffee, find somebody who can. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is an idiom, not a business plan.

D is for DRM

DRM is short for Digital Rights Management, or copy protection technology. The idea behind it is simple: by protecting digital content with DRM technology, nobody will every pirate anything ever again. The music and movie industries introduced DRM years ago, and that’s why there are no illegal copies of any music or movies anywhere on the internet. For law-abiding customers DRM often frustrates, so for example you can’t move DRM-protected ebooks from some devices to others, or from some computers to others. If you’re starting out as an ebook author, you don’t need DRM.

E is for editing

It’s quite possible to type THE END and have your ebook on sale a few hours later. This is a very, very, very, very, very bad idea, because your book almost certainly needs the attention of a professional editor (and by professional, we don’t mean your partner, or your pal, unless your partner or pal is a professional editor by trade).

There’s only one writer in the world whose first draft didn’t contain typos, plot holes, ill-advised detours, scenes that didn’t quite work or characters that needed fleshed out, and all the other authors ganged up and killed him. Nobody likes a smart-arse.

F is for formats

There is a dizzying range of file formats for electronic publishing, but thankfully you only need to know of a few: PDF, EPUB and AZW. PDF is the file format you’ve probably seen on your computer, and while it isn’t always the best format for ebooks it’s supported by many ebook readers and ebook apps. EPUB was designed specifically for ebooks and works on many e-readers and in apps such as Apple’s iBooks. AZW is Amazon’s version of the .MOBI ebook format: MOBI is widely supported but AZW is exclusive to the Kindle, Kindle apps and presumably the Kindle Tablet too.

From the author’s point of view, you don’t really need to worry about any of these: you can easily save your document as a Word file and then get your chosen ebook seller(s) to convert the file to their particular format. Services such as Amazon, Smashwords and Lulu provide extensive instructions on how to do that.

G is for genre

Most ebook services ask you to choose one or more genres to be listed under. Resist the temptation to say “ah! But my book resists lazy categorisation!” because such categorisation helps sell books. The trick is to narrow it down as much as you can. Listing your book under “Fiction” isn’t going to rocket you to the top of the charts, whereas “Fiction > Juvenile Fiction > Legends, Myths, Fables > Norse” narrows things down considerably. Getting to the top of that chart is much easier than taking on every single fiction writer currently in print, and getting into the charts really does help sell more books.

H is for Hocking 

At the time of writing, Amanda Hocking has sold eleventy billion ebooks. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the wider world, and as a result there are stacks of Hocking-related stories that strongly suggest that writing ebooks will make you a millionaire within three or four weeks. Sadly, that isn’t true. Hocking’s story is newsworthy because it’s exceptional, and Hocking herself is quick to point out that luck played a big part in her success: other authors in similar genres, with similar books, doing similar marketing things, haven’t sold a fraction of the books that she has. By all means let Hocking’s story be an inspiration, but don’t think of it as a template.

I is for internal sales 

I first saw the term “internal sales” in a post by Carolyn McCray. External sales are the sales you have some control over – sales generated by you through promotional activity, blabbing on Twitter or whatever. Internal sales happen without your input, and they’re particularly important on Amazon.

As McCray explains: “These sales are generated by your book either being randomly found through genre searches (which is the lowest yield of all), by your book being placed in front of a potential buyer through one of the many recommendation queues that Amazon has running, or by a reader finding your book by browsing a Top 100 Bestseller list.”

McCray’s post goes into some detail about this, but here’s the gist: chose your genres carefully, make full use of tags and  get as many reviews as you can.

J is for Joe and John

Joe Konrath and John Locke are the rock stars of ebook publishing, and they both happen to have ebooks that promise to share what they’ve learnt – although Konrath also shares stacks of advice for free on his Newbie’s Guide to Publishing blog. Of the two, Konrath is the one I’d recommend paying attention to: his blog is packed with useful information and his ebook has been warmly received. As for Locke, as one Amazon reviewer notes, his how-to book is about how he sold lots of books, not how you might. As I blogged a while back, “the book is a pamphlet padded out to book length, and most of the advice is Marketing 101.”

K is for Kindle apps 

A lesson I’ve learnt the hard way: when most people hear the word “Kindle” they think of the Kindle device, and many people are completely unaware that you can read Kindle ebooks on iPhones and iPads, Macs and PCs, Android phones and tablets, Windows Phones, BlackBerries and pretty much anything with an internet browser. Similar apps are available for other platforms, such as the Nook and Kobo e-readers. If you’re promoting an ebook on Facebook, Twitter and so on, if there’s an app available, make sure you tell people about it. Don’t assume they already know about it.

L is for lending 

Some ebook formats, such as Amazon’s Kindle, enable ebooks to be shared for a very short time – usually a couple of weeks. You can disable that if you wish, but perhaps you shouldn’t: how many books have you bought because someone else said “hey, borrow this, it’s great!” or because you borrowed the author’s other books from the library? Restricting lending, to these eyes at least, is just mean.

M is for marketing

Marketing is often confused with advertising, but advertising’s just one part of marketing: the process is often described in terms of the four Ps of product, place, price and promotion. You already have the product, which of course you’ve polished to perfection; the second P is to get it into the right location, which means not just the right ebook shop(s) but the right section(s). Promotion encompasses everything – reviews, word of mouth, Twitter posts, blogging – and price is self-explanatory. If you want to sell a lot of books, you’ll need to think about the whole marketing mix.

N is for networking

Writing is a lonely process, but publishing needn’t be: there are all kinds of networking opportunities (online and in the real world) where you can meet other authors and steal all their best ideas. Online there are discussion forums such as the and blogs dedicated to all books, some books or very specific types of books, and like the rest of us authors are often very visible and vocal on social networks – particularly Twitter. Networking doesn’t just keep you sane and introduce you to great books you might not find out about otherwise; it can lead to friendships, collaboration and even the odd book sale.

O is for offers

People like bargains, and ebook-buying people are no exception. It’s easy to create special offers: ebook services such as Smashwords enable you to create discount coupon codes that you can share on social networks or give to book bloggers to pass on to their readers, or you can create limited-time special offers by cutting the price of your ebook for a few days, weeks or to mark a particular occasion.

Some authors even offer their books for free, and while you can’t technically do that on Amazon – the minimum price is 99p – there’s a way around that: offer the same title for free on another service such as Smashwords, and then use the “tell us about a lower price” link on your book’s Amazon page to notify Amazon that there’s a better deal elsewhere. Amazon will cut the price accordingly, although of course you won’t get any royalties on your giveaways.

P is for pricing

How much is an ebook worth? There are as many answers as there are ebooks, but they tend to fall into two distinct camps. Camp one says that you shouldn’t undersell yourself, while camp two says that pride doesn’t sell ebooks.

The key arguments go something like this:

  • SELL CHEAP! People will take a punt on an unknown author if the price is right – and the lower the price, the more right it is. Would you pay £9.99 for a book by someone you’d never heard of? Of course you wouldn’t. Forget about money now, because what matters is building an audience. Give book one away and you’ll make your money on books two, three and four.
  • DON’T SELL CHEAP! People who buy books on price don’t necessarily read them, and by lumping yourself in with the 99p crowd you’re saying that your work isn’t worth any more than that. 99p buyers will expect books two, three and four to be 99p too, and that simply isn’t viable: that’s a royalty of around 30p a book, so you’ll need to sell thousands to see any cash.

There’s no right or wrong answer here: what works for one book might not for another. The price you set is entirely up to you and ebook stores provide near-realtime sales reports, so it’s worth experimenting to find out what works best for you.

Q is for quick pitch

“What’s your book about?” Can you sum up your book in a paragraph, or better still a sentence? The quick pitch – also known as the elevator pitch – is a crucial part of your book’s marketing, and the more arresting and exciting it is the better. It’s a soundbyte that you can use again and again: in your book blurb, in your emails to book bloggers, on radio programmes, on your Facebook “please buy my book!” updates, and at a wide range of social occasions including weddings and funerals.

R is for reviews

Ebooks need reviews like Jordan needs attention, and the more good reviews you get the more interesting your book will appear. It’s tempting to get all your relatives to pile onto Amazon and explain that your book’s better than The Bible – or worse, to create a fake account and do it yourself – but that’s a very bad idea, because such reviews are visible from space (and, if you’re a business, illegal under EU law). Instead, seek out book bloggers who also post their reviews to Amazon, Smashwords, Goodreads, Shelfari and so on: these are people with credibility, people whose reviews will sell your book in a way a glowing tribute from Auntie Flo won’t.

Never, ever argue with a bad review unless it’s downright libellous. Fighting reviewers never ends well.

S is for social media

Social media – blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google+ and so on – can be great ways to make people aware of your ebook, but as you might expect there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. For example, a Twitter account that posts nothing but “buy my book” links and retweets of messages saying how great you are isn’t going to attract an enthusiastic following, and if you’re blasting your Facebook friends with adverts all day long you’ll generate more bad feeling than ebook sales.

Social media isn’t about broadcasting adverts; it’s about sharing interesting things. Those things depend on you: some authors post about the minutiae of their lives while others prefer to talk about great books they’ve read, films they’ve seen or the people they’d like to see up against the wall when the revolution comes. Other authors don’t blog, or tweet, but do hang around other people’s websites making interesting comments on other people’s posts.

If you see social media as a conversation rather than a loudhailer then the odd “hey! I’m number 27 in the chart!” or “Two more days till the price goes up!” message won’t be irritating, and may well persuade a few more people to check out your book.

T is for tags

Ebook shops such as Amazon and Smashwords enable you to add tags, which are words or short phrases that can help classify your book – so for example Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre has the following tags on journalist, murder, police, thriller, thrillers, investigation, black comedy, comedy fiction and crime. These tags do two things: they help people find your book when they’re searching the site, and – in Amazon’s case, anyway – they appear to affect which top 100 charts your book appears in. It’s a good idea to think of appropriate tags and apply them to your book, both in your book’s listing and by adding them on the book’s product page.

U is for using every sales channel

You’d be forgiven for thinking that ebooks are all about Kindles, but of course they aren’t: there are lots of ebook platforms and ebook stores, so for example you can sell ebooks not just through Amazon but also through Lulu, Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Diesel, Sony and Scrollmotion. In many cases it’s just as easy to sell through multiple outlets as it is to sell through one: Smashwords will happily reformat your book and sell it via all of the retailers I’ve just mentioned.

Don’t forget about your own website too, assuming you have one: there’s nothing to stop you selling directly to your customers. Making the appropriate files is a doddle – with a PDF, EPUB and MOBI you’re covering all the big ebook players, including the Kindle – and services such as will do the credit card processing for you. You probably won’t sell as many books as you would via Amazon, but your profit per book will be considerably higher.

V is for visibility

The more visible you are, the more books you’ll sell – and the more books you sell, the more visible you become. You can boost your visibility in a number of ways: by being active on social networks, discussion forums and blogs; by having several ebooks on sale simultaneously; by offering guest posts on other people’s blogs; and by getting reviews and doing your very best to get internal sales too.

It’s also an excellent idea to keep a steady stream of activity going. Don’t fall into the trap of doing everything around the launch of your ebook and then relaxing: self-publishing is an ongoing process, and if you want your book to keep selling you need to keep plugging away.

W is for writing something you love

If you’re not passionate about your ebook now, I can promise that you’ll hate the very thought of it after a few months of editing and a few more months of marketing. The reality of electronic publishing is that in most cases, it’s quite a lot of work for relatively little reward – so if you want to make enormous sums of money you might want to consider becoming a plumber instead.

X is for X-rated

We’re all grown-ups here: we know that in the real world people do bad things, say bad words and do rude things to one another, and we all know that an angry junkie in a Scottish housing estate isn’t going to say “my goodness! I appear to have lost my heroin! That’s awfully disappointing!” Of course books should have violence, swearing and sex in them – but should yours?

There are two kinds of adult content in books: there’s adult content in the “we’re grown-ups and let’s face it, this character’s going to say motherfucker quite a lot” sense, and there’s adult content in the pornographic sense. In the former case, go to town if it’s appropriate for the book, but be aware that strong language, violence or sexual content may offend some of your readers. For some audiences violence is fine but sex isn’t; for others, you can bash heads in with shovels as long as your protagonist doesn’t take the Lord’s name in vain and so on.

In my own case I cut lots of swearing out of my own novel because while it was realistic, the dialogue didn’t really need it, and I didn’t write any sex scenes because (a) the book didn’t need any and (b) they’d be rubbish.

With the other kind of adult content it’s important to know what is and isn’t acceptable, and the ebook publishers don’t always help too much with that. In the case of Amazon, “we don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts” and the definition of offensive is “probably about what you would expect”. Other services, such as Smashwords, ask you to state whether your book is inappropriate for under-18s.

Y is for your next book

It’s important to start on your next book as soon as you can, because nothing sells books like having other books on sale at the same time: if you’ve ever devoured a book, thought “that was great!” and bought up the author’s entire back catalogue, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here. To your readers, having multiple books on sale is seductive, a promise that you’re not looking for a one-book stand but a long-term relationship.

It also suggests that you’re serious about this publishing lark: as the cliche goes, everyone has one book inside them – but look! You’ve got two!

Z is for zeitgeist

One of the most exciting things about electronic publishing is its speed. With traditional publishing, the writing is the quick bit: you then need to find an agent, who will in turn try to interest a publisher, who will then want to make some changes to the book, which will then be scheduled for publication. That process can take years, but with electronic publishing you can publish a book in a matter of hours. That means you can react to the zeitgeist much more quickly, so for example if everyone’s writing vampire novels and suddenly the market decides it wants books about werewolves instead, you can respond to those changes much more quickly than the major publishers can – although of course it’s a bit more complicated than doing a Find and Replace in Word to change every instance of “Dracula” to “Wolfman”. At least, I think it is.

And that’s about it – thanks to everyone who’s contributed ideas, advice and links so far.