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Posted by on Jul 29, 2013

Self-publishing lessons learned: formats, platforms, reading preferences

It has been about a week since I published my ebook on mobile learning, enough time to start to wade through some of the feedback I have been receiving, edit and republish as needed, and start to get a coherent sense of what I would do differently the next time around. I am providing some of that here as takeaways for those that might be interested in pursuing something similar for your own work. First off, the book itself in all three formats (Mobi, ePub, PDF). I have provided those three different versions based on feedback I was receiving. I outline this a bit below in the takeaways.

old london back copy

Formatting takes almost as long as writing the book

It is important to consider (as I should have known) what version you will be using to format the final copy. Version control matters at this stage. By all means write the draft in whatever application you find most useful (I use Scrivener), but do not bother spending any time formatting within this application. Finish the draft, edit it, review it, rewrite it and try to finalize the text as much as humanly possible before exporting it. I recommend exporting to Word, converted that to clean HTML (stripping away all the junk that Word throws in there) and then formatting that within the HTML (via an editor of your choosing). My sister (illustrator) and I did not do this initially and it added some time and steps to our process. We used Indesign (and a plugin for Kindle via Indesign) to format this book as we wanted the illustrations to really stand out. From Indesign, we generated PDF and Mobi files that took awhile to tweak. Long story short: start with clean HTML and scale out from there to the different versions you want to generate. Never upload your Doc format to Kindle; convert to HTML at the very least. A helpful guide here, if you want to learn more.

Consider distribution as part of the formatting process

I always knew that I was going to publish via Kindle, but I was on the fence about publishing via other channels (Smashwords, iTunes, etc.). I was going to wait and see based on feedback on the Kindle version. This proved, I think, to be a sound strategy as the feedback pointed me specifically to a few other file formats and channels that I had been neglecting. From what I have ascertained, Kindle is fine, but limiting. For any subsequent ebooks I write, I will be distributing it as a PDF or EPUB at a minimum. I consider this to be a part of the formatting process as it greatly affects the time spent on formatting. Each service has their own formats and specifications (Smashwords and Kindle are quite different) and each added channel will add considerable time to your publishing process. Choose these formats based on feedback. Poll your friends and colleagues to gauge their reading preferences. From there, choose your distribution channels. More on that in the next section.

Reading preferences and approaches are extraordinarily diverse

From the feedback I received from close to 20 of my friends and colleagues (or both), it came to my attention (quite starkly) that not everyone is down with Kindle. The reasons ranged all over the spectrum, but included:

  1. Perceived lack of compatibility with their ereaders. Many assumed that you needed a Kindle device (an actual Kindle Reader) to read Kindle ebooks. I suspect there is more a failure of Kindle marketing than my own, but it is important to consider when distributing an ebook. Many saw Kindle and moved on thinking it wasn’t accessible to them.
  2. Concern over Kindle’s DRM. This is a real concern with Kindle that I should have caught beforehand and it is a concern I express in the book over some of the application I use for field activities. Amazon locks you in to their service with DRM, making it impossible (or difficult) to access the ebook without using their Kindle service. As such, you are essentially renting the ebook from Amazon until such time as they close the service. To Amazon’s defense, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) does allow you to remove any DRM from your ebook, but that isn’t transparent when it appears on Amazon. The default perception, rightly, is that all the books on Kindle will have DRM.
  3. Some prefer paper, perhaps more so in academia. There are print as you go options from Kindle that were surprisingly easy to use so that is one possible workaround, but that is still a hurdle. An acceptably mitigated one as my ebook is specifically about the use of technology, but still it is an impediment for some.

Academic Reading≠Informal Reading (and distribution reflects that)

This might very well be a chicken and egg scenario, but the ways in which academic organizations access and read material is much different than the informal reading market. Three purchasing librarians from three universities were kind enough to provide me with feedback on what formats and channels they prefer and it was quite useful in making the book available in an accessible format. This feedback also had me thinking that self-publishing is generally at odds with academic ebook distribution.

Many if not most universities have payment mechanisms in place that encourage purchasing from traditional academic publishers or aggregates of ebook publishers. For most of us, this is the only game in town. I specifically wanted to avoid the drastic markup that an academic publisher makes (not faulting them as such, but just pointing it out) to keep this book accessible to the people I wrote it for (teachers). So I went the self-publishing route to set the price. Less prestige, certainly. More work on my side, certainly. No promotion or marketing team backing me. But it was mine and I wanted to keep the price low.

Case in point. Two books I have either written, co-authored, or contributed to as follows. One is through an academic publisher and one is self-published. The prices reflect that; just click on the link. Granted, the more expensive one is in print and is much more comprehensive than my own, but I am not sure it is $155 more comprehensive. At least not for me.

But this is the academic market and these librarians were kind enough to navigate me through it a bit. So I made the PDF and EPUB versions available through Sellbox (following point). I also placed a Creative Commons license on the book so that after they purchase it, they can do whatever they want with it. I hope it finds its way to as many of their students as possible.

Trust yourself, your own site, and your Dropbox

So Amazon didn’t support me selling an alternative version of my ebook (PDF, EPUB) to complement the Mobi version, so I looked for other channels to distribute it. I stumbled across Sellbox, which is a Dropbox plugin that allows you to sell your Dropbox content via Paypal. This proved easy and an agreeable workaround for the academic libraries I had been in communication with. It also made me reconsider my original intentions in distributing the ebook.

Publishing via Kindle is relatively easy and a great mechanism for those authors wanting more exposure to their work; many are making a living directly from their Kindle sales and it is awesome that Amazon has provided them a vehicle for doing so. But based on my limited audience and my knowledge that this work is a niche one (applicable to maybe a few thousand in the world), I am considering in the future strictly publishing my work through my own site (via a Sellbox or other configuration). I am quite pleased with the sales on Amazon; that really isn’t the issue. If I were writing fiction, I suspect that I would distribute via KDP. If I had visions of reaching a broader audience, I would publish there. But for my audience and the feedback I received from them, I am thinking that publishing through my site is a perfectly acceptable scenario. I will review this with each book I write, but I would only caution you against considering any of these channels as a given. Each channel has its strengths and weaknesses and each exerts greater or lesser measures of control over your work. Consider each carefully and then by all means publish wherever you might like.

So that is all, I am providing a few screenshots from the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) process in case anyone was hesitant about walking through that scenario. It is quite straightforward (even if the Mobi format was not). Lots of control over pricing points in respective countries and markets. Lots of help materials to push you along on your way.

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