Four Options for eBook Production

Anyone who has even a half an ear to the publishing world has heard the horror stories—books by well-known authors from big publishing houses in eBook formats that are an embarrassment to all concerned. I suppose this type of thing is inevitable with any new cultural phenomenon, especially a phenomenon in which a buck can be made.

It’s understandable, since there’s a mad race going on between the technology of the eReading devices and the folks at the top of the software food chain struggling to establish industry standards for the eBook formats. It is, of course, a race with no end in sight, in which the runners—the devices and the software—keep pulling our front and then falling behind.

So what’s a small publisher to do? Or, even worse, a self-publisher? It’s been hard enough for both types of publishers to put out quality work when the profit margins are so small and the costs of production so high. The eBook option certainly looks attractive. The promise, real or imagined, is large profits with little investment. But what about those horror stories? An eBook that’s poorly formatted, riddled with errors, or just plain difficult to read isn’t going to go viral. I can promise that.

Basically small and self-publishers have four options:

1) Buy one of the many inexpensive (some free) software applications like Hampster that promise to take a Word .doc or .pdf and turn it into a salable eBook with a few clicks

2) Use one of the several “aggregators” such as Smashwords, who will not only convert your manuscript into an eBook, but distribute it for sale with the major retailers such as the iBookstore

3) Trust your book to one of the eBook conversion services that seem to be mostly based in the US or India

4) Learn to do create eBooks themselves

Here’s the benefit of my years of experience (for whatever that may be worth).

1) If you have a novel with a very basic formatting—such as chapter headings and body text only, you can probably get away with using free or inexpensive software. But be prepared to forget about anything in the way of design, including your choice of fonts. Like Henry Ford’s famous line that his buyers could have “any color car as long as it was black,” you’ll get what you pay for.

2) I’ve not used Smashwords so I can’t comment fully. Some authors love it because it saves them the hassle of uploading their eBooks to Amazon and the iBookstore individually. (The latter can be a headache.) Some authors feel their books get the Blender treatment—like having the gourmet meal you’ve spent hours cooking be put into a blender for a dinner guest with no teeth. Smashwords also acts as a distributor and take 15% commission.

3) One of the other problems of this new cultural phenomenon is there hasn’t been a very good sorting out of the eBook conversion houses yet. Pricing is all over the map (as are the physical locations of these services) and so is quality. Some are excellent. Some are simply using the free/cheap software that I mentioned in Item #1.

If you’re a publisher, do you have someone on staff whom you can pay to take the time to scale that long learning curve? Have you been out-sourcing your print book layouts to a design agency? Have they learned the ins and outs of eBook production yet? Can you wait until they do? Can you learn to format an eBook yourself? What sort of tools (I mean software tools) will you need?

As I write this, I realize this sounds pretty bleak. But I have some good news. There are many things that small and self-publishers can do—with the tools they already have—that will make the whole painful conversion process easier, faster, and better for whomever creates the eBook later on. These relatively simple things will greatly help no matter which of the four alternatives are chosen.

I’m going to review those things in my next article.

Jonathan Scott is Customer Service Manager for Middleton Book Conversion,  an eBook conversion service based out of North Carolina.