What are my:

  • options
  • caveats / pro's & con's
  • reasonable expectations

for publishing my work digitally as e-books?

I remember Stephen King did something along these lines with his 'Dark Tower' series, but cannot find a breakdown of his experiences & outcome.

  • 2
    This is an incredibly broad question. Would be much better if broken down into sub questions. Also, a nod to genre might be good. I suspect a nonfiction book on a specific, popular topic might be more successful than say a romance novel. Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 12:41
  • What is it that you need to know that hasn't already been covered in these questions? Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 19:32
  • @NeilFein: thanks for the reminder, I've submitted a request to change this Q into a community wiki - it would serve better & the info pointed to by your link can be worked in.
    – slashmais
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 0:32
  • I appreciate that you're trying to work with us, but converting this into a community wiki would do no good. This question would need to be clarified quite a bit to be reopened. Please feel free to ping any of the mods in chat if you'd like to discuss this, we'd be happy to help! Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 3:39

6 Answers 6


Ebook publishing is no different than traditional print publishing. You're going to have to write a decent manuscript, find a publisher, go through the submission process, work with an editor and cover artist, and have your work released.

The are lots of benefits of being with a publisher that puts their books in ebook format. Ebooks are generally (supposed to be) cheaper than DTBs, allowing more people to be able to afford your book. You also (should) get a much higher royalty percentage since it doesn't cost the publisher as much to produce your book. More and more people are using ereaders, so having your book in ebook formats helps encourage more people to read it.

What many people think of as "ebook publishing" is skipping the publisher and putting their book directly in the marketplace for the Kindle, Nooks, Kobo, etc. This is a /bad/ idea. Unless you already have a following, you're not going to get many sales from self-publishing your ebook. There are hundreds of thousands of books in the Amazon Kindle store. Without spending a lot of time advertising and promoting your book, it's not going to sell more than a handful of copies.

Many people don't realize the work that actually goes into making a book publishable. No matter how good of a writer you are, you're book is going to require editing from a 3rd person. And no, your best friend/parent/sibling doesn't count. You're going to require an eye-catching cover art. You're responsible for copyrighting your book, for getting an ISBN, and for making sure it's available in the most popular marketplaces. This is all stuff the publisher is supposed to be taking care of to earn their cut of your royalties.

  • 2
    +1 Let the publishers do the publishin', and the writers do the writin'. Commented Dec 25, 2010 at 1:33
  • I'm wondering... why does my best friend/parent/sibling not count? Oh, and you're not responsible for copyrighting anything, copyright is automatic (you mean registering, I think, which I know next to nothing about, but I do know what copyright is) Commented Dec 27, 2010 at 11:08
  • Because your best friend/parent/sibling isn't going to be 100% honest. They're going to be biased toward you and they won't want to hurt your feelings. Copyright is automatic, but you still have to register it and fight against copyright infringement. Many publishers take on all of this for you. They'll pay the fee and do all the paperwork for registering, they'll send DMCA takedown notices to pirates, and, if needed, pursue legal action. Commented Dec 27, 2010 at 15:47
  • You'd be amazed at how little editing some of my books have received from traditional publishers. Lucky me. One publisher you've all heard of that I've worked with even tries to make authors pay for indexing services. Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 12:44
  • 1
    Some of what you say is true, but some is way off. First of all, I agree that you should not trust friends or family to either edit OR critique your book. Next, you do NOT have to obtain in ISBN for e-books, unless you go through Smashwords as your distributor, in which case they provide it. Also, it is wrong to make a blanket statement saying that e-book publishing is a BAD idea. The market is changing dramatically, and while it is true that there is more work involved, it CAN be very profitable. I reached BE on my books in less than a month, and I'm making a nice profit now. Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 2:23

Although Ralph is 100% correct in his statements I notice his answer kind of assumes your expectations, when you have asked what your expectations should be.

So to deal with your bullets:

  • Options: Anything from producing a PDF using OpenOffice to as complicated as you want to make it. You can publish e-books on Lulu, Amazon or directly into a "sharing" service like Scribd. What you do rather depends on what you want out of it. For which reason I'll slightly reorganise your bullets:
  • Reasonable Expectations: Maybe three readers if you give your stuff away free. I'm being unkind actually. If you really pimp your stuff I imagine you might be able to get twenty or thirty people to read for free. I don't push my stuff on anyone and the downloads of my entirely free e-novels are non-existent. Just because it's free people don't browse and download accidentally, it doesn't happen, that's a fantasy. If you want people to read your book someone has to grab them by the collar and shout "read this!" into their faces insistently; metaphorically speaking. People in the modern world just don't have the time to read obscure stuff, I know I'd be hard pushed to find a slot for a new author I have a reading list good for about four or five months at present and no shortage of new stuff to get through after that. I'm a keen, open-minded reader and I'm a very rare breed. Most people just won't care about your stuff at all; you will always lose to established names. It's what publishers have spent the last century training the readership to and the problem with independents is they don't have the marketing muscle to retrain the audience. The Kindle/Nook explosion may have an impact but it's still early days.
  • Caveats: See above. Do not expect to be buying a country house and signing the dotted line for a multi-million dollar six book deal any time soon. Expect to work hard and feel unfairly treated no matter what you do. It's all a matter of degree. Seeing a Stephen King or a Dan Brown gives new authors a sense of entitlement I see over and over. Lose it. Lose it quick. Those guys are the exception not the rule.
  • Cons: If you DIY e-publish you will have a lot of work of your own to do to get very few readers.
  • Pros: If you publish via what people would describe as a "legitimate publisher" you must subscribe to a world view which states that surrendering control of the means and method of production of your product, how its bought and sold and how you, therefore, interact with the world as a writer is just part of being a writer. If you retain control you are almost 100% certain to kiss goodbye to the dreams of multi-million dollar success but you have a chance at winning success as a writer on your own terms. The difficulty with that is that you have to know what your own terms are. One day I would like 100 people to buy one of my books. Not one of the ones I have available currently, one of the ones I have written but not finished. One of the ones I'm really proud of. That's all. Or at least, that's my current goal. If I achieve that goal I'll work on something else. I don't want someone else to control the way my work is presented and I am happy to remain a hobbyist because of that. If that's not for you then this e-publishing lark isn't either.
  • +1 The points about control over the work, and reasonable expectations whether you self-publish or go through an established house are both excellent. Commented Dec 26, 2010 at 13:11
  • 1
    What Larry said. Just want to add that the bit about Expectations contains a good argument not to go through traditional(!) publishing at all, for any reason: you give a good argument why publishers aren't really interested in pushing new stuff (see recording artists/musicians for some related horror stories on that front). BUT: you shouldn't underestimate word of mouth. It's what works lots better than any other form of advertising (and which the industry tries to emulate/use these days under the name of "viral advertising") Commented Dec 27, 2010 at 11:18
  • 1
    @jae: That's a good point. I was surprised to find how frighteningly effective a mailing list is also. All this social media marketing and whatnot is way overrated but just having people sign up to an e-mail newsletter apparently can get some good results.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Dec 27, 2010 at 14:29
  • 1
    That social media marketing is just an buzzword, a way to get at their (the publishers or equivalent) money. Grassroots still does work... what the "smm" people try is to sell the idea that you can plan this. Which you can't. You can fool the people some of the time, but it's hard, it takes some money and mostly a lot of courage, which most businesspeople (publishers and record labels included) lack. Which brings me back to the "risk" angle (which is a big part of this): risk betting money on "One Monkey" or go with the surefire "Stephen King" (he sells, whatever he writes...) Commented Dec 27, 2010 at 23:37
  • @Jae and One Monkey, you both make good points about what we can do to help marketing. There should probably be another question about how to best do that. Commented Dec 28, 2010 at 14:25

If you ask this question and you hope to make money, it is probably not going to work for you, but have a client (yes, one client) who has had some success doing this.

Marketing a self-published book is the first hard part, if we assume that you had something worth saying, and did a good job of committing it to text. Practically no one writes reviews of self-published books. Still, you can market yourself if you are well connected; the best marketing opportunities are open to those who are prominent within well-established, active communities of expertise (my one success story fits this).

Quality is the other hard part. If you want a professional-looking finished product, you will need to make substantial use of the skilled services of an independent editor —better two, most preferably three— a graphic designer and a typesetter. There are some bureaucratic issues associated with publishing a book, namely getting an ISBN (you may be able to get away with a cheaper, ISBN-less DOI), assembling a copyright page, and ensuring that front matter is properly structured. Marketing a quality product without a publisher's good name and sales infrastructure is hard; marketing an obviously shoddy product without it is an exercise in desperation.

The good news is that there are options that make distribution and sales easy.

On the other hand, you can land a contract with a major-league publisher only to have them put your manuscript through hoop after hoop and then either decide their contract doesn't oblige them to publish anything by you, or publish it and make zero effort, besides putting your book in their list of publications, to market it. Investing a bit of effort into a weblog that drums up interest in your writings has to beat this, and the good thing about self-publishing is that you should acquire the DIY ethic to make the most of the resources you have.

Only self-publish if you can afford to see no income on a big investment of time.

  • 2
    +1. Going through a publisher has its pitfalls. I got burned on a book project I did for a major technical publisher (they canned the book after I'd turned in the final draft -- part of a mass purge of duplicate titles at the publisher's various imprints that, they said, had nothing to do with the quality of my work). Another writer I know of has had a NY Times bestseller; the publisher allocated no promotional budget for his most recent book and it sank with out a trace (he had to pay me to put up a Web site for it). With friends like these publishers, who needs enemies?
    – kindall
    Commented Dec 28, 2010 at 20:42

First of all, there is no guarantee that you will get rich doing this, but there is a guarantee that you will have to work a little harder (or longer) to make it work. You will have to learn to do graphics to create your own cover, or else pay someone else to do it. You will have to learn how to create an e-book file or pay someone else to do it. You will have to find a beta group of readers or a professional editor to help edit your book, and that may cost money, depending on which you use.

As an example, I have two fantasy novels I have self-published as e-books. I paid $100 for each of the book covers, and that was it. As an IT professional, I had no problems figuring out how to create the e-book files. I have a family member who is a professional editor, so she did that for free. I also have a group of four beta readers who helped critique and edit the book as well. So my total cost for each book was $100, and I made that back on each book in a month or less. I now make a profit on every book I sell. It isn't a large amount, but it is increasing every month by about 5-10%, and I do absolutely no promotion.

My example is not at all uncommon. In fact, I can point you to at least 200 people who are actually doing BETTER than me, and virtually all of them started with little or no experience. (I belong to a writer's group with over 300 active members, all of whom have become self-published authors within the last six months.) You can do a Google search on names like JA Konrath, John Locke, Amanda Hocking, and Blake Crouch to find examples of people who are selling hundreds of thousands or even a million e-books! My examples are much more modest and realistic for the "average" unknown writer.

Everything you need to know to do this yourself is available online, and I would be more than happy to help point anyone in the right direction to get them started. (For starters, try "Let's Get Digital" by David Gaughran.) It isn't difficult, and it does NOT cost a single penny to publish. If you choose to go with print on demand (POD) service like CreateSpace, you can still publish at no cost. (You may have to purchase the first proof copy, but you'll probably wnat your own copy anyway!)

To get back to the specific question, your self-publishing options that I highly recommend and that I see most authors using are Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords. KDP is Amazon's e-book publishing service, while Smashwords is a distribution company that will create half a dozen different types of e-books for you and then distribute them to Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBooks Store, and Sony readers. For print services, I highly recommend CreateSpace, because it is free and easy to do.

Pros: You have full control of your e-book. You decide the cover, you decide the price, you make all the decisions. Also, once you publish, it stays out there forever. With print books, they will stay in a book store for 1-6 months (assuming you get picked up and distributed by a publisher), and the ones that don't sell get remaindered and then never seen again. Also, the royalties for e-books is 70%, compared to 6-17% for traditionally published print books. E-books currently outsell ALL paperbacks as well as hardbacks

Cons: Since you have full control, you also have full responsibility. You have to obtain or create the cover. You have to pay an editor or find one for free or take your chances without one. You have to do all the marketing and promotion. (However, traditionally published authors will tell you they do a LOT of this themselves anyway.)

BTW - The best form of promotion is your next book. If people like the first one, they are going to be looking to see if you have anymore books out there. If not, you're missing a sale. My sales for my first book increased after I published my second.

Reasonable expectations: Depends on the type of book you have written and the amount of social media buzz that gets genrated around it. For a mediocre book you can probably expect to sell a dozen or less in the first month. If you do any promotion, you might see that double the second month. From there you might get 5-10% increases each month.

If you write a great book, then word of mouth will help you sell more than you could ever imagine. Then you could be looking at hundreds or even thousands a month. (Don't scoff, I can name at least a hundred "average" writers already doing this.) The key is to write a good book, make sure it has a good cover, write a catchy blurb that draws people in, and then hope and pray it catches on.

  • BTW - Here is a link to a site where the author is offering a free pdf version of his how-to book. David is one of the authors in my writer's group, but I don't really know him professionally. However, his information is spot on and is an excellent starting point for anyone looking to self-publish an e-book. davidgaughran.wordpress.com/lets-get-digital Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 2:54

You can find answers to all these questions, and read the e-book publishing experiences of 33 writers in David Gaughran's book Let's Get Digital: How To Self-Publish And Why You Should http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005DC68NI/ You can also get a free PDF version from his blog. http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/lets-get-digital/x


I thought I would add a little perspective as someone who has had some experience on both ends of this. I will try to be as honest as possible, so that you can see any bias that I may have.

First off, I had an idea for a book and started writing. Sought to a publishers, found one and started the journey. However, I soon started to far outpace my editor. I was writing maybe 15-20 A4 pages a week. It was draft, but my editor failed to keep up. I was one of many books she had on the go. I was also writing a technical book, and although she had some experience, technology moves so quickly, she did not fully understand the subject matter, and this made it difficult. It felt very much one sided. I even started editing the book myself, so as not to let the process get too slowed down. I printed a copy, read it over and over, looking for grammatical errors, and good prose.

To cut a long, painful story short, we parted company when the book was nearly complete (or at least I thought it was, the editor felt otherwise). The main reason was that the book was not in the publisher's style, and I did not want to do a re-write when I felt I could have been guided much earlier in the process, and wasted a lot of time.

Instead, I decided to publish as an eBook. I made very few changes after parting company with the publisher, saved my book as a PDF and wrote a small website and implemented a little shopping cart and sold it myself. I manually emailed the book to buyers. I advertised the book on the technology's technical forum, and sold 20+ in the first day. I quickly changed from my own emailing solution to using Lula.com as the provider. They charge a lot more (take 20%, plus about £0.66 for credit card charges and hosting), but they handle distribution for you.

My main reason for moving to Lula though, was that I did not realise that eBooks were liable for VAT in the UK. Made me wonder what else I was missing? So, I went with a professional solution that just handled everything for me. It also gives me the option to sell as a paperback book quite easily in the future quite easily.

A week on, I am still making steady sales, I won't make a huge amount, but I feel totally in control of my own work. The feedback I have had is excellent, so the concern that I cannot publish quality work without an editor has been unfounded.

I have found the self publishing route, albeit for a niche technical book with a very targeted audience, fulfilling and rewarding and very glad I chose to do it. I do not, and will not make a living from it, but my self esteem, and security are far far higher!

  • 1
    Good experiences, but I have to stress that what works for a technical book doesn't always work for a fiction book. Self-publishing can be good for technical books since you have a limited audience anyway, and that can make it more accessible to them. Commented Jan 2, 2011 at 19:52

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