Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Down and Dirty Anatomy of Digital Publishing


Did your eyes glazed over? I don't blame you; there is pretty tangled system of information out there on the topic, and more options pop up daily for how to make your cool million publishing online.

But it's important to realize that you are not without allies in this (in fact, that's the whole point of having an agent, but that's another post). It's also important to realize that you have to learn. At least a little. "Print Only" publishing does NOT exist anymore--unless you're doing it yourself. I've summed up the process here in this novella-length post as a launchpad for your own research.

The problem with ebook illiteracy is circular and (at least) twofold:
  1. If you don't know what the steps of the process are, it's incredibly easy to get taken advantage of.

  2. BUT

  3. There's a "shut-off" reaction to a lot of things Information Technology. The thought is "There's no way I will understand this." So then you never do.

Over a year ago, I literally didn't know what an HTML tag was (and if you're like "What the heck is that?" that's OK--you don't have to know; that's not the point of this post). It took me 60 hours to code my first ebook (now it takes me...significantly less). Somehow (Youtube and I figured it out, and if that's the case then you certainly could too. If nothing else, you will definitely understand what I'm about to tell you. And it's in your best interest to know.

Here follows a very bare bones step-by-step of what it takes to put a book online:

  1. Is the book available in a .doc format? If not, it needs to be. If yes, go to #2.

  2. This is primarily of concern with backlist books which were never digitized--they're only in printed form. If this is the case, the book has to be scanned and converted through OCR (Optical Character Recognition) into a Word document (or a PDF, which will be converted to a Word doc).

  3. Convert the Word doc into an HTML file and, in an HTML editor (not Word), do your formatting.

  4. Here, in the HTML file, is where you'll do your formatting and yes, unfortunately, you have to do it in plain, hand-coded HTML. There are programs out there, such as inDesign, which can facilitate this process as long as you're coding a plain novel. But if you're dealing with any hyperlinking or index or anything remotely complicated, I'm afraid you're looking at hand-coding. inDesign allows you to export as an ePub file.

    Don't forget that you need a unique ISBN (separate from any print edition of the book published by someone else--like a publisher) and a copyright page (a list here of what MUST appear on the copyright page).

  5. Convert the coded HTML file into a .mobi file and a .epub file.

  6. These are the only two file types you need in order to put your book on every platform you can think of (and some you can’t). .Mobi is for Amazon/Kindle, .ePub is for everything else.This process is automated via MobiPocket (.mobi) and programs like Calibre (.epub).

  7. Upload!

  8. There are a couple of ways to do this, and it will take relatively little time. I've used in my freelancing to some success (Smashwords also allows you to publish across pretty much every major platform--Apple, Amazon, Borders, etc.--from one place). You can get a free ISBN from Smashwords as a part of the publication process or you can pay for a "premium ISBN," which I'm not sure would do you any good.

  9. Monitor your sales and royalties.

  10. You can set up payment via Paypal or, at least with Amazon, you can be paid with paper checks. Paypal does charge fees, so Smashwords (for instance) will pass that on to you. For Smashwords, it's a $10 fee. Also, most places will report, but not pay, if earnings are less than a certain amount ($75 in a lot of cases).

  11. Market (we don't have to get in to that here, but for godssakes don't forget it needs to be done!.

So that's it. It's not impossible, but it is labor intensive, time consuming (especially the conversion process), and, My GOD is it frustrating at times. You may suddenly realize that publishers do a lot more than just mess up somehow when they're publishing a book. A lot more.

More than likely, if you're looking to put titles online you're going to use a freelance coder for your conversion. Or you're begging to spend 60 hours coding your first ebook. Things to consider:
  • Ask to see some books they've done to get a sense of their skill level.
  • Be sure to sign something (both of you) that states what formats they will convert to (they should do both .mobi and .epub for you) and set a deadline.
  • Make sure they're going to deliver you the files without claiming ownership of any "design" (there shouldn't be any if we're talking straight conversion) or content. This must be explicitly stated in the agreement!
  • Don't be afraid to lobby for a payment schedule so you're not paying it all up front and to keep the freelancer on deadline. 1/2 on signing, 1/2 on delivery would be a standard way to divide it.

Be careful, authors. Do research, and take your time. There is so much more to the process--more nuances and anomalies that I could write coherently here.

In the comments section, please let loose on questions, or share your pitfalls/anomalies with others. It's so important that authors understand the process of ebook publication, even if they don't understand the mechanics (which is OK!). It's particularly important on this blog, because I'll be posting about the ethics of ebook agreements, especially as related to agencies now acting as publishers, tomorrow.


  1. TY for this timely post. I'm currently getting my book coded for Smashwords. It's already available as an ebook but was done by another distributor, whom I'm pulling the plug on.
    Question: Once it's uploaded via SW, how long will it take to be pushed to all the different platforms? I want to make sure it's up before I inform my other company to pull from theirs.


  2. Eden,

    Most platforms, including Smashwords, have a window of anywhere from 2 to 24 hours for a book to upload. Smashwords' FAQ is here:

    Highly recommended reading.

  3. Great overview! Authors should really not fear technology. Wanted to add that saving as "filtered HTML" from Word rather than just HTML will strip out all the unneeded tags that Word puts in the document, so highly recommended.

    The other day I listened to an Apple rep expound the virtues of Pages for creating EPUB books. It appears to automatically code up the table of contents, and adding audio/video (for enhanced ebooks) was as simple as dragging and dropping. Not a heavy Mac user but I'm going to give it a spin.

  4. Beware the "drag and drop" sales pitches, everyone. Especially with Tables of Contents, which must be hyperlinked to your chapter headings so that people can navigate easily. Every hyperlink has two unique components that are different from all other hyperlinks in the book. I've yet to see a program that can facilitate that. Indexes present similar issues. If they make one I'd be the first on board, for sure.

  5. Thanks for this well organized and easy to understand overview. Those of us who weren't born into the tech world tend to have tech anxiety. This helps. Do you have a breakdown of your fees anywhere?

  6. Anne, contact me for a quote! proseblog@gmaildotcom.

  7. I've just given your service a shout-out on my blog. I've also quoted you and linked back here. You are a font of publishing wisdom!