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 supported by Kindle and can be set up with or without digital rights management (DRM) during the Kindle book setup process. This 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.
  • 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. 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.