eBooks for Fun and Profit

This was a brief introduction to eBooks for my writing group.

What are eBooks?

eBooks are, simply said, electronic books. There are a wide variety of formats that are all underneath the umbrella of “eBook” but the two most common formats today are EPUB (also known as OEBPS) and Mobi, but there are variety of other formats still in use. The most basic eBook is the simple text file or a single HTML page. PDFs could also be considered eBooks, but most PDFs are not suited for the smaller screen sizes of hardware readers.


eBooks can't do everything a printed book can. Today, most formats cannot handle tables of any form. They also can't do sidebars. Also, because of the varied sizes of hardware readers, the concept of a “page” is different than on a physical page.

eBook Readers

The popularity of eBooks has risen in the recent years because of the availabile of hardware and software readers. There are readers for both EPUB and Mobi formats for PC, Mac, Android, and even iPhones. Amazon provides a cloud (online) reader for purchased Mobi books from their store.

Hardware and many of the software readers are connected to a store and are part of an ecosystem of commerce. For example, it is very easy to purchase a book from Amazon and have it show up on the phone, cloud, or Kindle. The same with the Sony reader and the Sony store and the iTunes store with the iPad and iPhone.

Most readers allow for “side-loading” or putting books on that weren't purchased through the integrated eco-system. This can be relatively easy to do or complicated depending on the reader. To combat the complexity, there are programs such as Calibre that manage and load books onto readers. As a note, the Amazon cloud reader does not allow side-loading of files.

There are businesses that are based on side-loading, such as Smashwords. Smashwords and related businesses provide a variety of formats and can give additional value to the simple purchase. They also have different formatting rules, market penetration, and impact on the writing market.

Length of eBooks

In the printed world, the length of a piece impacts the ability to sell it. It is harder to sell 30 page chapbooks on a mass scale just as it is economically infesible to sell 300k word epics. Not to mention, the physical form of the trade paperback (6” x 9”) or mass-market paperback (4.3” x 7”) would be difficult to bind with 1,000+ pages.

However, in eBooks, the size isn't important. And the length of the piece is only displayed to the user if the reader decide to. For example, the Kindle shows a number of dots for length and the Sony readers change the shadow. Other than that, a short story has the same screen presence as an epic, a single picture in the library. This means that both shorter pieces and longer ones are viable in the market.

Pricing eBooks

Pricing is actually one of the major factors on eBooks. You'll notice that most of the prices end in “9,” just like the gas station. In some cases, such as the Apple store, they mandate it ends with “.99”. The reason for this is pretty much psychology and probably out of the scope of this.

The price of eBooks is not set in stone. For example, this is what is recommended by Dean Wesly Smith (who produces a lot of shorter pieces):

Short Fiction Under 3,000 words $1.49
Short Fiction 3,000-6000 words $1.99
Fiction 6,000-9,000 words $2.99
Fiction 9,000 to 15,000 words $3.49
Fiction 15,000 to 20,000 words $3.99
Fiction 20,000 to 30,000 words $4.99
Fiction 30,000 to 50,000 words $5.99
Fiction above 50,000 words if backlisted $6.99
Fiction above 50,000 words if brand new $7.99+


There are a large number of other methods for pricing eBooks, this is just an example of someone who produces a large number of eBooks. To use an example, Sam's Dot Publishing currently sells most of its books for $2.99 regardless of length.

Creating eBooks

Most eBooks are fairly easy to create, but like everything else, can be difficult to make it look good. The EPUB format is XML-based inside a Zip container object. This means that you can rename a “.epub” file to “.zip” and then look inside it. The files are a limited subset of HTML and CSS. There is also a variety of programs to verify the correctness of creating a file.

One of the most common programs for creating Mobi files also uses the same XML files as EPUB, but compiles them into a binary format. The program involved (kindlegen) is freely available, but documentation is basically Google searches and keyword guessing.

Once created, the file is uploaded. Amazon provides a very simple interface for uploading books. After uploading to Amazon, a book is typically available 24-48 hours later.

Smashwords, on the other hand, uses Microsoft Word as their format. They use a specialized program called Meatgrinder to generate EPUB, Mobi, and a large number of other formats. Smashwords will also push out the books to Apple's, Sony's, and other stores. We have experienced, using Shannon Ryan's book as an example, that it can take a while for the books to arrive at some stores like Barnes & Noble's to make it available for the Nook.

There are people who format eBooks for pay. These people take your document, such as a Microsoft Word, and create a properly formatted EPUB and/or Mobi file for uploading. From examples on Smashwords, this usually costs $30-45 dollars an hour with most books only taking 1-2 hours.

Making Money on eBooks

When selling an eBook, the provider (Amazon, Smashwords, etc.) takes a percentage of the money and hands over the rest. This is usually done via electronic funds transfer (EFT).

Amazon gives either 35% or 70% royalties based on the price of the book (70% requires $2.99 to $9.99 price) and pays 60 days after the month there is at least a $10 balance. Amazon will, however, lower a price if they find the same book available for a lower price than $2.99; when they do this, they'll also lower the royalties to 35%.

Smashwords has a similar guidelines and methods for payment.

eBooks also provides a flexibility to make changes. On Amazon, adjusting the price can take up to 48 hours to take effect, but it is easy to increase or lower the price to take advantage of markets or experiment with sales.

Amazon also has the Kindle Select Program. This is a publishing pool where Amazon provides a large pool of money (somewhere around $600k/month) and every download is a “share” into that pool. There are some limitations to have a book in this program. In specific, to be in the Kindle Select Program requires exclusivity for 90 days. If you want a shot at the large amount of money, you can't upload it to Smashwords or anywhere else for a period of time. Also during this time in the Kindle Select, you can make a book free for five days to boost sales.


Because it is so easy to get a book into a market, there is a glut of eBooks out there. There are companies that simply produce garbabge in eBooks and throw it out there, hoping to make a sale. There are also authors who think they are wonderful writers but in reality, can barely write their way out of the bag. In reverse, there are under-read authors who are brilliant for a small market.

The natural method for selecting books is reviews. Reviews are critical in eBooks because an unreviewed book typically has less sales than one that has a thousand. Interestingly, negative reviews do not impact sales quite as badly as in the physical world, but it really helps to gave overwhelming good reviews (4 star or higher on Amazon).

Since selling books is dependent on reviews, there are people who will give good, "insightful" reviews of a book in exchange for some money ($5-10 according to brief searches).

Running a give-away is also a good way of getting books into people's hands. Most people like free and some of them (not everyone) would be willing to throw up a small review in exchange for a free book. If you go this way, you can't say “I'm giving away five books if you review it” since that seems to create ill will in the reader's market. I'm not saying it can't happen, just seems to be bad form to be that blatant.

How to Market

Marketing is different with eBooks. Because the market is flooded, the personal touch seems to be a really effective way to sell a book. The first one is just a teaser and you won't get a lot of sells. The second book might sell a bit, but also bump up the sales of the first one if it is good. Likewise, the third will boost the first two sales.

All the eBook formats allow you to put links in. This is a good thing to put at the back of a book in a section “if you liked this” along with links where they can just press a button and buy your old/new book. Because of the simplicity, it makes it easier to upsell to another book.

Also, the personal touch helps encourage sales. Just as you are more likely to buy a copy of a friend's book (even if you don't ever read it), that can help boost it up to the point someone else might buy it. From my experience, people are more likely to give a positive review if they “know” a person. It can be from social networking, meeting them in person, or even hawking or doing panels at a convention.


One of the components of eBooks is the cover. eBooks don't have back covers, just a front. This means that the cover has to be rememberable or distinctive. It also has to look good at full size (Amazon requires 1,200 pixels on the longest edge) and for thumbnails for the reader's library view.

This can be a difficult thing to do, but it is also what helps sells a book. The adage, “judge a book by its cover,” is doubly true with eBooks simply because you can't pick up the book.


Just because creating an eBook is easy, it doesn't mean you are guarenteed riches. Like all things, when it is easy to get something done, it means you have to work that much harder to stand above the masses. Editing, (limited typesetting), and covers are all critical to selling a book and it is easy to do it poorly and lose sales.

There is a lot of leeway with these, though, since you can just upload a new version at any time and change the cover, price, or even sections of book (though not recommended) as you correct it. But, you only get one first impression and if you lose it, you may never get it back.