where the writers are
How to Publish Successful E-Books

In July of this year, Amazon reported to have sold 143 digital books for its e-reader, the Kindle, for every 100 hardback books over the previous three months. Sales continued to accelerate rather than to slow. Not long after that announcement, Amazon said the rate had reached 180 e-books for every 100 hardbacks sold.

Of course, authors sell e-books in other places as well—on personal and business websites, Smashwords.com, Borders.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and publisher’s websites. This means the actual numbers of e-books sold is much higher.

I’ve produced a few e-books myself—of the PDF kind—and I sell them from one of my websites. However, I plan to take advantage of the e-book rage and make sure any longer book I publish is available for all types of e-readers. For this reason, I want to know as much as possible about e-books, e-book publishing and the e-book market.

So I asked Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, a leading e-book publishing and distribution platform, to answer a few questions. His answers appear in this WNFIN blog post.

Can you give me a brief run down on what you see as the "state of e-books today" and why aspiring authors should consider publishing one?

Every author should release all their books and short stories as e-books now.  There’s really no reason not to and no time to waste.

The e-book market is on fire.  It’s growing faster than anyone imagined it would. E-books have been the fastest growing segment of the book publishing industry for almost 10 years now. A couple weeks ago, the Association of American Publishers announced that e-books accounted for nine percent of all trade book sales for the first nine months of 2010, up from only around three percent in 2009, one percent in 2008, and one half of one percent in 2007.

The rapid growth is being driven by several factors, including:

  1. Screen reading technology now provides a reading experience that for many readers is considered superior than paper
  2. There has been a proliferation of high-quality, low-cost e-reading devices in the last couple years, ranging from dedicated e-readers like the Kindle, Sony Reader or Barnes and Noble Nook, to multi-function devices such as the iPad, iPhone and smart phones.  Oh, and don’t forget the humble PC and laptop, which probably accounts for 40 percent of e-book reading.
  3. Early adopters of e-books become fanatical e-book evangelists to friends and family, so the joy of e-books is spreading through word of mouth.
  4. E-books are more affordable than print books.  At Smashwords, the average price of an e-book is under $5.00.
  5. E-books offer readers a more convenient purchasing experience than paper and instant reading pleasure.  With a click click click you can discover, sample and purchase your next read, and with another click you start reading.
  6. E-books make books instantly accessible to a worldwide market. This means indie authors immediately benefit from a larger potential market.
  7. E-book marketing, sales and discovery is catalyzed by social media.  As customers Tweet or Face-book their favorite reads, individual e-book titles can go viral very quickly.

E-books are faster, easier and cheaper to publish than print books.  The distribution of e-books has become completely democratized.  An indie e-book author can come to Smashwords, upload their finished manuscript as a Microsoft Word file formatted to the instructions in our Smashwords Style Guide, and start selling it in as little as five minutes.  Within days, assuming the book meets the requirements of our Premium Catalog, we can distribute the book to multiple major retailers of e-books such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and the Diesel e-book Store, and to the most important mobile apps, such as Stanza and Aldiko.

There are many e-book "specialists" who will tell you e-books are shorter, quicker to write, require less research, don't need much editing, etc. Is there a difference between writing an e-book versus a printed book?

E-books are easier to publish, but if you’re truly respecting your reader’s time with a quality read, they are not necessarily easier to write.  As the power to publish shifts from traditional publishers to indie authors, the author must emulate the best practices of traditional publishers, including professional editing, revision, proofing and production.  Readers have no tolerance for a shoddy book.

Should you also have a printed version of our e-book? If you write an e-book today, must you make it available for all the different e-readers or can you still simply sell it as a PDF off a website?

To reach the greatest number of readers, it makes sense for authors to publish in print as well.  I’d recommend using a free print-on-demand service, such as CreateSpace. With print-on-demand, the book is only printed after the customer purchases it.

Plus, it’s important authors publish their books in multiple e-book formats.  PDF, while still popular, is on the decline as an e-book format because it lacks reflowability, which means the customer can’t easily modify the font size of the book.  In addition to PDF, authors should also release their books in multiple other formats.  At Smashwords, we convert books to PDF, EPUB, MOBI, .TXT, LRF, PDB and to two online web browser formats.  Back in February, we analyzed the most popular e-book formats for our customers.  You’ll find the results here.

What are the top three or four things a writer must do to create a successful e-book (one that sells)?

A few weeks ago I explored this topic with a blog post titled The Seven Secrets to E-book Publishing Success.  The top four things a writer must do are:

  1. Write a great book. Your reader's time is more valuable than their wallet. Readers have unlimited choice for high-quality content, so authors must respect the reader's time by publishing the highest quality book possible. As I mentioned above, as the publisher, it's the indie author’s responsibility to do what many traditional publishers do so well, and that's to honor the editing and revision process.
  2. Write another great book. The best-selling authors at Smashwords offer deep backlists. Think of each book as a fish hook in the ocean. When each book cross references the other books with simple hyperlinks (both inside the book and within the retailer's merchandising systems), you create a net. A deep backlist also offers you the opportunity to earn the trust of the reader. Once the reader trusts that you'll respect their time with a great read, they'll be more inclined to sample and purchase your other titles.
  3. Maximize distribution. Availability is the precursor to discoverability. If your book isn't serendipitously discoverable in multiple places via topical or themed search engine queries or via keyword or categories searches at retailers, it might as well be invisible. Get your books distributed in as many online bookstores as possible. Many readers go to a bookstore with the intention to find a great read, and they're not necessarily looking for a specific title, so if your book isn't there it's not discoverable or purchasable. Some of the same rules of print publishing apply to e-book publishing. The more bookstores that carry your book, the more chances you have to connect with a reader.  At Smashwords, we distribute to multiple major e-book retailers, including the Apple iBookstore, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and the Diesel e-book Store.
  4. Give (some of) your books away for FREE. The highest grossing authors at Smashwords offer at least one book for free. FREE is one of the most misunderstood and underutilized e-book marketing secrets. Free works best if you have a deep backlist.  For example, let’s say you wrote a series of 10 romance novels.  Give the first one away for free.  Once you earn the reader’s trust and approval, they’ll seek out and purchase the other nine.

To read the other tips, or to view an online presentation on the seven secrets, see the link above or read my updated version over at the Huffington Post.

There are a variety of ways to publish an e-book now and places on line to sell them. Can you tell me how someone should evaluate these methods and sites?

An author should work to get their book as broadly distributed as possible.  Smashwords is an e-book distributor, so it’s fair to say I’m a big believer in the value provided by a distributor such as Smashwords or Ingram.  We currently publish and distribute over 20,000 e-books.

At Smashwords, an author uploads their manuscript as a Microsoft Word document, we convert it to multiple formats, then distribute it to major e-book retailers.  Smashwords is a free service.  To get distributed via Smashwords, the author must meet certain simple, easily achievable mechanical requirements mandated by the retailers.  For a complete summary, you can learn about our distribution process on our e-book distribution information page.

The advantage of working with a distributor is that the distributor manages a lot of the technical and time-consuming headache involved in getting your book quickly listed at multiple retailers. If there’s a problem, the distributor has the relationship with the retailer to get the problem fixed for you.  The distributor also aggregates payments and reporting for you, so you can spend more time writing and less time managing individual relationships with retailers.  Distributors take a small percentage of the retail price as their fee.  At Smashwords, we take only 7.5-10 percent of the retail price as our commission.

If you prefer to work direct with a retailer, several retailers have publishing portals that allow this.  In the case of Sony and the Diesel e-book Store, Smashwords actually powers their publishing portals.  You can also decide to work direct with some retailers and then utilize a distributor for other retailers that don’t work direct with individual authors.

As the author and publisher, you now have complete control over all the business aspects of your publishing venture.  It’s an exciting time to be an author.  The opportunities for indie authors to reach readers with books has never been greater.

About the Author

Mark Coker is founder of Smashwords, a leading e-book publishing and distribution platform.  Smashwords publishes and distributes over 20,000 e-books from 10,000 indie e-book authors and publishers around the world.  Mark is also author of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market an e-book) and the Smashwords Style Guide (how to format and publish and e-book).  Mark is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post’s book section, where he writes about e-books and the future of publishing.  Mark blogs at the Smashwords Blog and tweets at @markcoker.