Ebook Formats: The Quick Guide for Getting Your Book On Digital Shelves

The following is a continuation of my I Want to Self-Publish – Now What? series.

I was, and am, a reader before I was a writer. I take pride in my overstuffed bookshelves. I love the look and feel of a printed story. Unfortunately, I have only so much space in my house for books. Tragic, I know. Thank goodness for the invention of ebooks and the ereader.

ebook formats

Ebook Formats

Ebooks are the digital version of your book that people can access on dedicated devices known as ereaders or on their phones, tablets, or on desktop reading programs. They require little to any cost to setup, don’t require you to carry any inventory, and can be updated on the fly if you find a pesky typo or two immediately following publication.

Their low production cost also makes it possible to offer them to readers at a low price point or for free, making ebooks a great option for authors who are just getting started growing their following. That said, there is more than one accepted format for ebooks.

The major types are:

  • Mobi: this is the file format that was supported Kindle, until June 28, 2021, and could be set up with or without digital rights management (DRM) during the Kindle book setup process. The DRM feature was designed to help protect books from piracy, as it prevents the book owner from lending their licensed copy of the ebook to another reader. However, the feature has proven to do little in that regard except to cause additional frustration. Therefore, many authors in my circles turn this setting off. The file format is still supported on older devices, so you can still send direct copies of your book to many reviewers using this format, but moving forward consider using one of the other listed here options.
  • epub: is more device-agnostic than mobi files, meaning it can be used on Nooks as well as other readers. This makes it a useful file type to have on hand if you want to sell your ebook, or send advance review copies of your book directly to readers outside of the Amazon ecosystem.
  • pdf: you absolutely can offer your ebook in pdf format, and in some cases, like instructional non-fiction, this format makes sense as it is best for desktop viewing. However, I do not recommend it for novel-length fiction.

If you are wondering how to convert your manuscript from a .doc file to an ebook, you should check out my article on ebook conversion.

Kindle Select vs Going Wide

Kindle Select is an Amazon program that provides authors with advertising incentives and an alternative revenue stream for their ebook via its Kindle Unlimited platform for the exclusive right to sell the ebook. This means that by signing up for the program you agree not to sell your ebook on any other website—including your own. In return, you will get paid a royalty for book sales while also getting paid for pages read by Kindle Unlimited subscribers. You also can offer countdown deals or temporary price reductions to your readers.

Please note, you can grant Amazon exclusive rights to sell your ebook while still offering print books for sale on other platforms.

Going wide is the practice of putting your ebook up for sale on multiple retail sites. While this strategy prevents you from earning money from page reads, it means that you’d still have a sales channel if, heavens forbid, Amazon decided your book violated their terms of sale or was forced out of the publishing industry altogether through some anti-trust ruling. Yes, that last one is unlikely to happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

I took part in the Kindle Select program for the first year or so of my publishing career and as a new, unknown author, I loved being part of Kindle Unlimited as it encouraged readers to take a chance with me by eliminating their financial risk, while still paying me for that effort. However, I’ve since gone wide as I feel more secure with diversification.

How to Distribute your Ebook for Resale

Once you have decided on whether you want to be exclusive or go wide, the next step is getting retailers to agree to sell your ebook on your behalf. I will say this process is significantly easier for ebooks than it is for print books, which I’ll discuss in more detail in another post. All you have to do is create an account, fill in a form (or five), supply a site with your tax forms and bank routing information (so that you can get paid), upload files, and hit a publish or approve button.

Most sites will send your files to a human reviewer just to make sure the quality of your book conforms to their requirements, but in my experience, it only takes between 1 and 3 days before you book is available for purchase.

Ebook Retail Sites

To publish directly on Amazon, you will need to create an account on kdp.amazon.com. You can convert your manuscript to an ebook format like epub or mobi in advance, but you don’t have to as Amazon will accept word doc files.

Outside of Amazon, the next big distributors in the ebook space are Apple iBooks, Barnes and Noble Press (Nook) and Kobo (Writing Life). Please note, up until very recently you could only publish directly with Apple if you use a Mac. This meant that non-Mac users who wanted to publish their ebooks directly had to use a service like Macincloud in order to ‘rent’ a virtual Mac if they didn’t have a Mac-owning friend willing to their device for a few hours.

Google Play is another distributor, but personally, I’m not a fan of that platform as its rules can be confusing and I’ve seen a number of books pirated from that channel. Pirating, by the way, is the term used to describe what happens when someone downloads a copy of your book and republishes it on another sales channel without your permission and without sharing any of the profits.

Each site has its own slightly different setup process. Therefore, you will want to familiarize yourself with the specific requirements of whichever site you choose at least a week before you start telling your audience where you will be publishing your book. That said, if you plan to publish directly on multiple sites, you can save yourself some administrative headache by using a program called WideWizard which helps auto-populate set up forms.

Ebook Retail Aggregator Sites

If you’d rather not deal with the joy of managing logins, finicky user interfaces, and multiple tax forms,  but still want your ebook to be available for sale on multiple resale sites, you will want to use an aggregator service. Some, but not all, will take care of converting your book from a word doc to an ebook format before sending your book to retail sites. Additionally, some will also take a portion of your profits in return for taking care of distribution for you.

A company called Draft2Digital (affiliate link) is my favorite of these services for ease of use, but does take a small percentage of your sales. Smashwords is both an aggregator and a retail distributor site, which I’ve also used in the past. In addition, Smashwords is completely free, but is significantly more difficult to use. Smashwords is expected to be acquired by Draft2Digital in March of 2022, with the idea that the blended company will provide authors with the best of both service’s offerings, but time will tell if this proves to be true. BookBaby and PublishDrive are two other aggregators, however I don’t have experience with either of them.

If you can’t decide whether you want to publish directly or use an aggregator, guess what? You can use both! I personally publish directly on Amazon and use Draft2Digital to publish the ebook everywhere else, however, I have heard from many authors that it is also a good idea to publish directly on Kobo too just because by doing so you are able to use Kobo’s ad services.

Once again, the best part about self-publishing is, the choice is up to you.


The next post in this series is: Print Book Formats & Printing Options

However, if you would prefer not to navigate through a number of posts, I have also consolidated the entire series into a single downloadable PDF, which you can access by clicking here.

5 Free Alternatives to Vellum – The Ebook Conversion Edition

Vellum Alternatives for Ebook Conversion - www.alliepottswrites.com

While downloading ebooks to your reader is simple, getting them up on the cloud in the first place requires some work. I write my books using Word, however, just because you can import your manuscript’s formatted-for-print-ready Word document into Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

For example, you may want to include a table of contents in your ebook for easy navigation, but don’t want one in the print version, or you may want to include links in your ebook pointing readers directly to your other books, making purchasing faster. There are also other distributors besides Amazon that require a specific format for ebooks called epub. This leads me to the next step in the book publishing process – ebook conversion.

Vellum

Vellum offers formatting for print as well as ebook conversion. However, lacking a Mac or a bottomless checkbook, I’ve only been able to appreciate its service as a reader. I can tell it must be awesome to use though based on the number of books I’ve read featuring one of its telltale templates. Don’t get me wrong – it creates highly readable ebooks. I’ve just seen enough of the same decorative flourishes to recognize a Vellum ebook as soon as a chapter opens.

  • Pro: Super easy to use
  • Con: Costly at $199.99, it’s not available for non-Mac users (unless you go through a third-party service like MacinCloud), and your book looks like dozens of others making it more difficult for your author brand to stand out from the crowd.

Smashwords

Smashwords is an ebook conversion service and distribution channel. It is also one of the most difficult ebook conversion tools I’ve ever used. This is because Smashwords distributes your book to channels like Apple books, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble for you, and those channels may have slightly different requirements for an ebook’s file’s layout. Therefore, Smashwords is VERY particular about how your manuscript is formatted prior to releasing it to partner sites and works best with Word files. Fail their checks during the process they call “the Meatgrinder” and your book goes nowhere.

  • Pro: Converts to all major ebook formats including mobi, epub, and pdf for free. It also offers a tool for self-certifying your content does not contain certain taboo subjects, which increases the chance those who publish more risqué material can distribute their books to a larger audience.
  • Con: I am serious when I say this service is NOT recommended for people who don’t know how to use Word styles or are unwilling to read through an entire book of “style guides” prior to attempting to convert their file. There is a reason you can find people to hire on Fiverr to get your file ready for you. Also, once your book passes inspection, it is put up for sale without going through a secondary preview approval step. This means there is a risk your book could be published with typos or with a missing chapter as long as stylistically it fit within the Smashwords Style Guides.

It is worth however noting that Smashwords announced in February of 2022, that it has been acquired by competitor, Draft2Digital in March and that moving forward the company would operate under that brand name. This leads me to the next option:

Draft2Digital

Draft2Digital (affiliate link) is like Smashwords in that it is a distributor that also offers ebook conversion. However, it is much, much simpler to use. Upload your word doc, select a template, and then add in things like your social media links, mailing list link, or author page, and Draft2Digital spits out a book file you can either take and distribute through other channels yourself or distribute through them for a portion of future book sales.

  • Pro: It is fast, simple, and lets you download mobi, epub, and sample length versions of your ebook for free – even if you don’t distribute with them.
  • Con: Draft2Digital does not allow you to edit your file once it has been uploaded. Therefore, if you see a typo or a weird chapter heading, you have to go back to your original document, correct the error on the word doc and upload again.

As mentioned above, Draft2Digital and Smashwords are combining forces. Per their press release, the combined company will allow users to either take advantage of Draft2Digital’s existing, more user-friendly, but less customizable formatting tool for ebook conversion, or allow braver and infinitely more-patient authors the option of creating more unique ebook’s using Smashwords’ tool.

This merger will eventually make all Smashwords users, Draft2Digital (D2D) users, so if you are debating which of the two is best for you, I would recommend going ahead and signing up with D2D.

Kindle Create

Kindle Create is still somewhat limited in what it can do compared to some of the other ebook conversion programs out there. For example, there are only a handful of templates to choose from and it only exports a special non-mobi kindle-ready format. It also requires you to download the software rather than work online. However, it’s another free option that produces nice, clean ebook files, and unlike Draft2Digital, gives you the ability to tweak chapter headings or resize images without leaving the user interface.

  • Pro: It’s even easier to use than Draft2Digital, includes a kindle previewer tool that lets you see how your book will look on multiple device sizes, and free!
  • Con: It doesn’t export to epub or mobi file, which limits your ability to use it to create advance copies of your ebook that can be sent via email or service like ProlificWorks, Bookfunnel, or via email to early reviewers.

Reedsy

When you format a book with Reedsy (affiliate link) you have the option to either have them email you a print-ready file or send you an epub or mobi file you can then take to the ebook distributor of your choice. Like Kindle Create, you can edit your ebook’s appearance in the user interface, which is great, but its editing capability is limited compared to Kindle Create. For example, while you can correct a typo in your text without re-uploading, you can’t resize an image. I also had a very difficult time getting the program to properly format my character point of view sub-headings without messing up drop caps.

  • Pro: The ability to edit your book without leaving the user interface is a big plus over Draft2Digital the fact you can download in both epub and mobi is a great benefit compared to Kindle Create
  • Con: Reedsy does not allow you to select chapter-specific settings. For example, if you say you want to feature drop caps at the beginning of each chapter, the program inserts drop caps in every chapter—even in the glossary at the end, which can be distracting to the reader. Downloads aren’t as instantaneous as the other options either. You have to wait for an email and can only request a download every ten minutes. There are also only three templates to choose from. The service also makes it extremely difficult to delete a book from their service once it has been uploaded. You can archive it, but not delete it. Therefore, it is not recommended for those who aren’t yet sure they want to trust the security of other people’s servers with their manuscript just yet.

Calibre and Sigil

While you can technically use either of these programs by themselves, they really work best together. Calibre has the ability to take a Word Doc (saved as HTML) and turn it into epub or mobi file using the headers, fonts, or other decorative touches you specify. This makes layouts more flexible, and gives your books a more custom look than what you can do with the other programs.

Sigil is more of clean-up tool than a conversion program. You can import an epub file you created with Calibre or with any of the programs above (except Kindle Create as it doesn’t offer epub), then tweak it until it looks the way you want, giving you the ability to customize the files generated by other programs. It makes fixing those pesky typos that somehow managed to sneak past your edit process super fast once you get the hang of it, but until then…

To be clear, neither of these programs are for the technologically challenged, and both require some comfort with programming. Personally, I love Sigil now, but it was a hard-won love.

  • Pro: This combination gives you the greatest range of customization for your ebook’s appearance and both programs are free to us
  • Con: Both programs have a rather steep learning curve and may cause a person to shake their fist in the air, sob into the phone while wondering what they ever did to deserve such agony, or be driven to drink.

I am sure there are other programs out there, but these are the ones I’ve used the most. Now, one step done, one million other little things left to go.


Rocky Row Novels - www.alliepottswrites.com
An Uncertain Confidence: Now available

Project Gene Assist Origin Story

I am happy to announce that as of this post’s publication, Project Gene Assist: The Complete Series is available for purchase in both ebook and paperback editions. In it, you can find all three books in the trilogy: The Fair & Foul, The Watch & Wand, and Lies & Legacy in one convenient volume. But what is Project Gene Assist about exactly?

Well, like all stories, it’s a journey, and one that started out a long, long time ago—junior high, to be exact.

A friend handed me a novel in between classes about a group of three boys who all happened to be born around the same time as a Chosen One was prophesied to appear. This Chosen One was destined to fight against the Dark One in the Last Battle, but could also go mad and burn the rest of the world down in the process. Color me intrigued.

It also helped that the person leading the three boys on their epic journey was a female Gandalf-like character. It also contained other strong supporting female characters with their own destinies, along with monsters, betrayal, and political machinations. The novel my friend gave me was the first half of the first book in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

If it sounds familiar, it is because it has been picked up by Amazon Studios in the hopes that it will become the next Game of Thrones.

At the time of this writing, I have no idea how the story will play out on the small screen. Previous attempts have been laughable at best due to the epic and continent-spanning nature of the story itself, and the trailer alone makes it clear that they are taking a few creative liberties. I’ll still give it a chance though. Considering how much of my life has been spent reading and re-reading these books. It would be a crime not to.

Photograph of books 1-13 of Robert Jordna's Wheel of Time series plus its prequel, New Spring
Exhibit A

As much as I enjoyed the series and its three-dimensional main characters, I have to admit that what really hooked me in that initial book was how the author portrayed one of its villains. As to not spoil the series, I won’t go into the details, but she wasn’t what you would traditionally describe as a bad guy. She just happened make one really big mistake which led to more really bad things. Okay, so “really bad” might be a bit of an understatement here, but even so, I found her to be strangely sympathetic.

I found myself wondering what could have driven a person like her to that point. She wasn’t a sadist or sociopath like so many other cookie-cutter villains. If anything, the root of her sin was love, though I suppose some might also call it an obsession. Still, I had to think there had to be more to her origin. There had to be a catalyst no one talked about. Throughout the series, Robert Jordan had given some hints, but much of the character’s backstory is told from other characters’ points of view.

My brain attempted to fill in the gaps, but my brain didn’t stop there. The Wheel of Time also makes several references to a time of technological wonder that was lost long before the series’ main events unfold. I found myself wondering what it must have been like to live during the transition from age of wonder to pre-industrial. It must have felt apocalyptic. My brain filled in more gaps. The result was an early draft of Juliane’s story in The Fair and Foul.

The story changed during the revision process to become more and more my own. This also allowed Juliane to also grow into her own unique character—a heroine in her own right rather than a future villain. Although she did have a bad habit of stealing scenes intended for other characters.

So what is Project Gene Assist about? In short, it’s about good intentions gone astray, trust, found family, and the invention of magic set in the not too distant future. It is not, however, anything like the Wheel of Time. For one, there are only three books (one if you prefer the omnibus edition), not fourteen plus a prequel. It also only has two points of view. In fact, it is much more in line with the writing style of Anne McCaffrey, whose books about genetically engineered dragons also feature heavily on my shelves.

Photograph of books by Anne McCaffrey among other authors on my bookshelf
Exhibit B

That said, I hope those who enjoy science fiction dystopian / post-apocalyptic tales, or worry about what might happen when technology becomes even more integrated into our daily lives than it is now, will check Project Gene Assist out. Who knows, maybe it will inspire another story or two one day.

Ready or not, the next era of human evolution is here

What about you? What books have left you thinking about its characters long after the story is complete?

Box Sets Vs Omnibus Books: What’s the Difference?

Box sets are what we in the publishing world refer to as a collection of multiple books packaged together. However, while they are sold as a single sellable item, the end consumer is able to remove an individual book from the set at their reading pleasure. An omnibus edition, on the other hand, combines multiple books into a single bound volume that can’t be separated unless you were to slice through the book’s spine (the horror!).

Both options allow publishers a way to offer a complete series, or at least a larger portion of a series, to readers at a lower price than the cost of purchasing individual books. The terms can also be used to describe ebook collections. However, while the term box set is the trendier way to describe consolidated works, it is worth noting that Amazon, and other ebook distributors, frown on publishers describing ebook collections as box sets as there is no physical box around the set.

That said, while a publisher should not describe their ebook collection as a box set in its retail listing, a publisher can still use a 3D image of a box set on most sites. Apple’s ibook store is the notable exception here. The same cannot be said about listings for physical copies. Publishers must use an image that matches what a print consumer will physically receive once they place their order.

For example, this is how I am displaying my upcoming publication: Project Gene Assist: The Complete Series (which is available for pre-order now in ebook format and will be available in both paperback and ebook format after November 16, 2021).

3D rendering of multiple books titled Project Gene Assist: The Complete Series featuring a woman's face on the cover and a DNA strand on the back. There is also a tablet featuring a box containing three books.

Of course, with anything, box sets and omnibus editions have their pros and cons:

Box sets vs Omnibus Books: Pros & Cons

Box SetsOmnibus Editions
ProsMake great giftsMake great gifts
Save readers moneySave readers money
Allow you to take a break from reading a series without the guilt of leaving a bookmark in the middle of a volumeTake up less room on your bookshelf, allowing you to fill that space with more books
ConsForce you to take even extra care of individual book’s bindings in order to keep the book from warping or swelling and thus being unable to fit back into its boxy sleeveThe sheer size of these volumes can intimidate the casual reader
Take up more room on your bookshelf than individual books unless you throw away that beautiful box sleeveLess travel-friendly. The weight alone could force you to pay the oversized baggage fee at the airport.
Cost more than omnibus editions to produce and so are typically more expensive than their omnibus cousinsHave I mentioned how big these are? Seriously, I worry it is bullying the other novels on my shelf when I am asleep

Does a series have to be complete To Be Combined?

Does a series have to be complete to be offered as either a box set or omnibus edition? The answer is no, but it helps from a marketing perspective. This is because readers are more likely to buy a book (or a set) if they know they aren’t going to have to wait an age to learn how the series ends. Additionally, because a publisher does not have to include every book in the combined edition, sets can also serve as a convenient launching pad for later books in longer series.

Image of 4 books: the Bad Guys 1-3 and the fourth, fifth, and sixth book in the series

For instance, my youngest son, LT, is a huge fan of sharks and humor books, so I got him the omnibus edition of The Bad Guys Books 1-3 by Aaron Blabey, which features a shark (among other characters) who decides he’s tired of being stereotyped as a bad guy and goes on missions to save the world along with other often maligned characters.

I felt confident he would like the series based on the premise, so buying a single volume that offered 3 books in one just made sense to me. It then turned out the series is much, much longer. I immediately had to go out and buy additional books in the series one by one. In this case, I guess you could say that the omnibus acted as a gateway drug. (Absolutely worth it though to hear LT laugh with each page)

The same thing happened when LT and I read the Wayside School 3-Book Collection by Louis Sachar. The only difference was instead of being an all in one volume, the 3 books were offered together packaged in a cardboard sleeve. We then had to run out and get the fourth book in the series.

Picture of the box set of the Wayside School Complete Collection in front of the hardback edition of Wayside School and the Cloud of Doom

So which is better? A box set or an omnibus edition? The answer, of course, comes down to the preference of the individual reader, but I am happy to say I’m making the move to give readers like you this option.

Image of books in the Project Gene Assist series, which includes The Fair and Foul, The Watch and Wand, Lies and Legacy, and the Complete Series omnibus edition stacked upright together.

What’s in a Word? Announcing a Collection of Flash Fiction

We’re big on “no spoliers!” in the Potts household. At least as far as our entertainment goes. Holidays and birthdays are a different story. We can keep an ending or a surprise twist to ourselves, but it is all my kids (and sometimes, their dad) to do not to share hints about the presents they are giving well before the day of the event.

I’ve gotten into a habit of not taking them shopping until a week before a big day, if only to limit the time for temptation. They will no doubt continue this habit well into adulthood, reinforcing the stereotype of a guy waiting until the night (or hour before) to buy gifts. For that, I would like to apologize to their future spouses, but believe me when I say, as annoying as this behavior is, it is with the best of intention. It’s difficult to wait to share something you are proud of or is exciting news. This is even more true when the thing to share it is both of those things.

This is my long-winded way of saying, I’ve been keeping something from you.

The Big Reveal!

I was invited to add a number of stories to a collection of short fiction, and when I say short, I mean short. The maximum length of an allowed story in one section was 600 words. In another section, the collection’s editor, Sarah Brentyn, dubbed micro-bursts, the goal was to write a story in as little as 10. I’d thought, writing a full-length novel was tough… I am happy to say that I believe I rose to the challenge.

The Shadows We Breathe, Vol 1 is on sale as of August 9th, 2021, and I’m honored to be one of the eight authors featured in it.

The Shadows We Breathe - Sarah Brentyn

“In this anthology, we explore relationships—how they sculpt us, hurt us, help us, and reveal our deepest desires. Eight artists, whose words paint worlds, bring you stories of heartache, loss, hope, and forgiveness. They unveil the intimacy and complexity of relationships.”

Examples of Micro-Bursts

Right now, you may be asking: how does one write a story in only ten words? In some ways, it is like writing poetry. You have to be very specific about your word choice. What you say matters, but what you don’t say is just as, if not more, important. In order for a string of ten words to tell a story, they have to give a reader enough context for to form a starting point, while also giving the reader’s mind enough room to fill in the blanks all by itself.

The most famous example of this sort of short fiction is Hemingway’s six word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” Two sentences tell you much. They prompt the mind to come up with all the reasons someone might be selling a pair of unused baby shoes.

Sure, the baby in this story could easily have been like mine—due mid-October, but not born until November, which made dressing him in Halloween-themed attire like a candy-corn shaped onesie somewhat silly. (I still did it, mind you, it was perfectly good clothing—I just didn’t dress him that way when we were out in public).

This means the story might boil down to nothing more than a tale detailing the reason behind a yard sale offering, but as it was created by Hemingway, the safer bet is that the background story is much more tragic. That said, like other forms of art, it comes down to a matter of personal interpretation.

This form of writing also happens to be, in my case, a fun way to procrastinate fuel my writing skills when I am stuck at a particularly tangled plot point in a draft novel—it’s like the literary equivalent of Trail Mix. Whenever I feel the need to escape from my manuscript (why oh why do these things refuse to write themselves) recharge, I go on Twitter and look up the hashtags #FP and #FridayPhrases. Then I simply tweet a story around the weekly prompt.

I like these prompts because they give me the full length of a tweet to tell my story. However, there are plenty of other hashtags and users that start with ‘6Word’ or ‘sixword’ for you to choose from if you want to do the same and are looking for even more challenge.

I guess my little stories on Twitter were enough to get me noticed by other flash fiction fans, like Sarah. When I found out that this collection was in the works, I jumped at the offer. I was then thrilled to make the cut. This was especially true when I learned who else’s stories would be included within the pages.

If you are like me—pressed for time—but still enjoy indulging in the occasional bite-sized reading snack, I encourage you to check this, and Sarah’s other collections out.