My Notes on Writing an E-book
So, yeah. I wrote an e-book. It has been an interesting experience and I thought I'd share a few random thoughts on how things have gone so far.
When I first started down the path of writing the SMACSS e-book, I had intended it to be either an e-book or a printed book. After months of writing and not getting enough written, I released what I wrote as a web site. A free web site at that. However, I also released it with the intention of continually adding new content to it until I had reached a point where I had a "finished product".
Right away, though, many people asked for the site in an e-book and even a printed format. With my intention to add more content, a printed format just wasn't (and still isn't) a practical option. However, an e-book could be created and updated over time. And so I started down the path of converting the HTML content into other formats.
Knowing my preference, I decided to try and put together the e-book in different formats, since each format has its own pros and cons. I did PDF, ePub, and mobi.
Mobi is the format used on the Kindle and other e-ink readers. It lacks a lot of control over formatting and was the lowest common denominator. ePub is the format that Apple uses and was a format that I wanted to push the limits on—even if maybe just a little bit. Lastly, I also went with PDF, which has great support across most platforms.
Once I stop writing new content, I may very well do a print version, too. This feels rather backwards from how a publisher would normally do it: print to e-book to free. I went from free to e-book to (maybe one day) print.
Working in ePub
Trying to find accurate and up-to-date information on creating an ePub file targetted for iOS proved to be surprisingly difficult. Searches revealed information that was often a few years old and targetting older versions of the spec. Apple also supports non-standard features like embedded audio and video. The problem was trying to figure out what some things wouldn't work.
The ePub format, if you're not familiar, is just a zip file with a bunch of XML and HTML content. The XML defines the assets and table of contents and the content itself is in an HTML format. I ended up using Sigil to expediate the conversion but discovered that Sigil sticks heavily to the spec. Embedding HTML5 video, for example, will get stripped out automatically without any clear messaging telling you that the application has done so. That was frustrating.
I was able to use font-face embedding, which I liked. It allowed me to maintain elements of the brand from the web site and bring them into the e-book. I was able to buy an extended license to embed Quatro Slab in the e-book.
Hand coding the files turned out to be a better solution, although I still find updating the table of contents XML a hassle.
Testing the ePub on my iPhone or iPad was somewhat straightforward. Just drop the ePub file into iTunes and sync it to the device. The problem is that the device caches information about the book so dropping in an updated file doesn't automatically update the book on the device with the latest version. Deleting from the device and deleting from iTunes and dragging the file back over may work. Sometimes. But not all the time. I never did find a reliable way to easy push new book updates to the device.
Working in Mobi
Short and sweet: with such limited functionality, I used Calibre to convert from the ePub version to the mobi version. I had a friend try it on the device and went with it as is. I didn't make any other changes to get the e-book prepared for the Kindle. It was this version that I ended up uploading to Amazon (which I'll talk about in a bit).
Working in PDF
I used Pages and manually copied all the content into it, setting up styles and managed the layout of the book manually. I think I used A4, which is unusually large. The next version of the PDF will likely use half-letter size. This turns out to be the same size as the A Book Apart series of books. If and when I go to print, the half-letter size should hopefully be easier to print.
Manually laying out the content is a chore and means that minor edits to the book have to be done in multiple places. I'm looking at some HTML to PDF options to make this step easier but so far, I haven't found anything that's perfect.
Working in DocBook
Wait, what? What is DocBook? Working in multiple formats, I longed for a way to build in a single format and then export into all of the other formats I needed quickly and easily. I chatted with folks at a couple different publishers and they said they used DocBook. It seemed like the way to go.
Unfortunately, I didn't like the HTML that was getting created. This would ultimately be the HTML code that would appear on SMACSS.com and in the ePub version (although I suspect nobody would have seen it there). Just having it on the web site meant that I was more particular about the output.
DocBook is an XML format and getting my content into the format was easy enough. Getting it out, however, was mired in DIV tags 4 or 5 levels deep. Not an example I wanted on my web site. The XML to HTML conversion happens with a set of premade XSL files. You can tailor your own XSL files to get the output that you wanted. However, after finding myself working for hours over the output of each element of code, I gave up.
If you didn't care about the HTML or were okay with the HTML the DocBook XSL generates for you then DocBook might be a good fit for you. For me? It definitely wasn't.
Publishing with Amazon
I decided to publish to Amazon as a way of possibly having people randomly come across the book who might not otherwise do so. The sales of the book on Amazon have done quite well, exceeding the number of $15 ebook sales through my own site. The reporting from Amazon's site isn't really the easiest for tallying up total sales on a daily basis. However, I'd estimate that I've sold almost 200 copies of the ebook through Amazon alone.
Amazon has different royalty points. If the book price is over $10 then you only get 35% from each sale. If the book price is under $10 then you have the option of 35% or 70%. What's confusing is that even though I chose the 70% option (and priced the book below the $10 threshold to ensure that I could), not every sale automatically results in 70% royalties. I must've missed some fine print somewhere because a third of e-books sold via Amazon US only got the 35% royalty.
One of the other downfalls with using Amazon is that you don't get access to any customer information. You don't know how they found your book or have any way of contacting them. This is okay if you're just doing the book and nothing else. But I have the workshop and potentially other things down the road that people may be interested in. I'll never know.
Why not Apple iBookstore or Nook?
Both Apple and Barnes and Noble require tax information to be supplied up front, which I didn't have. As a Canadian, this usually means filing for a special tax number that is filed with a W8BEN form. As an American-Canadian, I should actually be applying for a SSN and filing US taxes. Way more effort than I really wanted to put into it.
As I learned afterwards, Amazon has the same requirements. If you don't provide the information, it deducts a hefty portion off of the cheque it sends you. That I'm already selling it for less than money than I sell it on my web site and that I already lose 30-65% off the top for royalties makes this less than ideal.
Both Apple and Barnes and Noble also suffer the same problem that Amazon does: they take a considerable share of each sale and provide you no customer information in return.
Before I launched the site, I set up a form to subscribe to a mailing list. I had approximately 500 people sign up. When I launched the HTML-only site, I sent a campaign to the list and then shuttered the list.
That was stupid.
As I began work on the e-book, I set up a new list and hoped that everybody who had subscribed before would resubscribe again. Thankfully, the subscriber count has climbed its way back up. Don't let people fool you: e-mail isn't dead. E-mail sent to people who want to receive it are very attentive. They'll click through. They'll read what you have to say. You have their attention.
I relied heavily on my Twitter stream to get the word out but people often miss a tweet. I have friends who still don't realize that I've written the e-book. Go figure.
But I also realized that I didn't take advantage of Facebook or Google+. I'm getting better. I'm trying to use the avenues that I have available to me. As I work on the workshops in addition to the extra content, I need to remember that not everybody hangs on my every word on Twitter.
To put it bluntly: it has been a waste of time. If someone is successful with advertising, it's definitely not me. I spent nearly $1000 on advertising between Google AdWords and Fusion Ads (the very ads on this site) and while I got click throughs, few resulted in actual sales. Would a sustained ad have provided better results? Would someone who understands ad word targetting have done a better job? Maybe.
Are there other advertising avenues that I could try? Yes. I didn't try Facebook and I'd be really curious to see how it performs versus everything else. I wasted time (and money) on the other approaches and therefore I'm reluctant to invest the time in anything else.
With the intent of producing more content, I wanted to reward people who were willing to pay up front for content that might be weeks or months in the making. I created the site membership and tried to make it as enticing as possible. For those that weren't as patient, I offered up just the e-books and the Kindle version as options.
First of all, I set my sights low. I expected most people would buy just the e-book with a few people going for the site membership. I expected to sell maybe 50 e-books within the first couple months. As of this writing, which is 2 1/2 months from when I launched the e-book, I've sold 569 site memberships and 106 e-books (and then close to 200 Kindle copies on Amazon). (A small caveat that many of the site memberships sold during the one-day sale I held on Christmas Day. That response also blew me away. I figured y'all would be eating dinner or opening presents!)
Clearly I set my expectations too low.
Should you self-publish?
I have made more from self-publishing than I have from writing for traditional publishers. I took more risks, paying for an illustrator, font rights, designing all the collateral material, paying for advertising, building the payment gateway, and investing my time in writing the book itself. Having learned as much as I have in the process has been a huge reward in itself. Having the book do as well as it has has been a fantastic bonus.
I recognize that I've built up an audience over the years and that I've been able to take advantage of that audience to get the word out. I believe that self-publishing offers up the greatest of flexibility and the greatest of rewards. I've seen lesser known individuals launch their own self-published efforts and have done similarly well.
It's cliché but if I can do it, so can you!