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Publishing Ebooks: Pointers and Problems

I feel like starting this by saying “Once upon a time” because it turned into a saga for me, a quest, and a struggle with dragons. Unfortunately, unlike the better class of fairy tales, the dragons are winning. So far.

The first step is the content. It took me two years to write this particular book (Re-imagining Democracy). That was the easy part. Then I tried to find out how to turn it into an ebook. I keep seeing offhand comments on the web from authors who posted their opus in a matter of hours. It sounded like a minor matter.


First, there’s formats and readers. Epub and ereader and Kindle and mobipocket and Nook and iPad and on and on and on. No single mortal could do them all. Which ones have the greatest market share? What’s involved in posting in that format?

It turned out later in my search that there are — I’m not sure what to call them — aggregators? — who’ll take your content and convert it into just about every format out there. They’ll also provide an ISBN, sometimes as part of the service, sometimes for a fee. (I’ll discuss ISBNs below.) Smashwords is one of them.

Smashwords accepts only Microsoft .doc input and output for all ebook formats. They use the lowest common denominator (the Kindle format as I’ll discuss in a moment), which means that you can’t stipulate something as basic as non-serif headers and serif text. They then put it out on all the major markets, I gather. The catch, for me, is the extreme rigidity of their process and the lack of user control. They do, however, seem to do what they say they’ll do and not be attempting to cheat authors.

Feedbooks is another one, which has a greater emphasis on free, as far as I can see and, possibly because of that, more download activity. They want your book copied and pasted in plain text, section by section, into their web form. They then make the conversions. I attempted the process three times, but in a book with over fifty sections in eleven chapters, the process was too tedious for words. For now, I can’t help feeling that life is too short for that.

Both services are, in effect, storing your work on their cloud. The author retains copyright.

If you don’t want to use the aggregators — and for myself I’m not sure I really understand their pros and cons yet — then you post your book in as many formats and locations as you have the patience for. I don’t have much, so I tried to figure out the least amount of work for the most exposure. Here’s the short form of my conclusions.

Kindle is the 800-lb gorilla. You have to be on Amazon or your exposure drops by orders of magnitude. That may not matter for a big name author, but a big name author doesn’t have to worry about any of this stuff. They have personnel for that.

The bad news is that although Kindle is not optional, Amazon has their own silly format which is incompatible with everyone else’s.

Technical details: Kindle format has .azw, .prc, or .mobi extensions on the file names, which are all pretty much interchangeable. You can rename a file with any of those extensions, and it reads just the same. The .mobi extension was originally for Mobipocket. Palm devices, I gather, used to be what read the .prc files.

Kindle has a ridiculously limited number of html tags and css formatting it will understand. See the publishing guidelines pdf for all the info. Workarounds require committing the sin of using html tags for formatting, such as “blockquote” to achieve indented text and styles in individual tags. That makes subsequent editing, e.g for a second edition, a nightmare. The Kindle also has it’s own proprietary tags for page breaks. All in all, it sets standardization and formatting for ebooks back to where html was around 1995. There oughta be a law.

To make the actual Kindle book from your file(s), Amazon provides a couple of programs. Forget the “easy” one, Mobipocket Creator. Use kindlegen. (You’ll need an amazon account to download.) Yes, it’s command line, but it does allow the use of (very!) dumbed-down stylesheets, and it’s actually capable of creating consistent and therefore professional-looking formatting. It will accept .doc, .rtf, .pdf, .txt, .html, .xhtml, and epub

The next biggie is Apple with their i-Things. They officially use the open standard epub format, but all books approved for the Apple store must have their particular flavor of DRM. They channelled Big Brother and called it “Fairplay.” To publish via Apple, you need a taxpayer number, like a business. Your Social Security number isn’t enough. That’s a hassle, but not a showstopper. And one of the technical requirements to submit material is to do it from a Mac.

I have conscientious objections to being told which rights to apply to my work. Apple, as far as I’m concerned, is a non-starter. Given that there’s a Kindle app for the i-Thingies, I figure that’ll have to be good enough.

Terminology: epub is the native format for Apple devices, Barnes & Noble Nook readers, and Sony’s ereader. It’s readable on many other devices. Epub is actually a zipped version of a set of xml files (an advanced kind of html) that constitute the book. You can use an unzip program to look inside the package, if you want. To generate the epubs, there’s Sigil. It’s free and open source, and one does have to learn how to use it.

The Barnes & Noble Nook, like Amazon’s Kindle, has a very limited ability to display formatting, so use only the simplest elements as for the Kindle. “Pubit” guide pdf

Between the Kindle and the epub formats, the lion’s share of ebook readers is covered. In order to give readers as many options as possible, however, it’s also a good idea to provide versions in the truly generic formats: text, html, and pdf. You could post these on your own web site.

If you write in MSWord or LibreOffice (=OpenOffice), they have “save as html” options. They produce rather nasty code, but they do produce it. (In MSWord, be sure to save as “filtered html” or there’s so much cruft it will break ebook conversion routines.) They’ll also both save to text or export as pdf. Personally, I found it much better to use a separate print style sheet and print to a “pdf” file from Firefox. However, that’s a different workflow, which starts from html in a plain old text editor, and it may not suit most people.

Some people swear by Calibre for interconverting formats. For me, it’s made a mess of anything the least bit complicated, such as subheaders, so I’m not a fan.

Moving on to other problems: consider ISBNs. Those are the interminable numbers that identify individual books. You can’t publish a book without one. They cost money. For instance, a block of ten numbers from the US registrar is $250. One can also buy a single number with bundled marketing services for (I think?) around $90. So it’s not cheap. The fact that the aggegators will bundle in an ISBN or so can be a big deal for writers with no cash. Besides the expense, the other thing to keep in mind is that a given ISBN is for a given edition of a given book in a given format. So a physical book has its own number, as does the epub version of that book, and the kindle version would have yet another number. That makes it even more expensive. I’m not sure what the procedure is supposed to be for pdf, txt, and html formats. They don’t seem to get their own numbers. I guess just refer to the epub number? (I have looked for the answer to that, but I can’t find it.)

Then, after all that, comes the bit I found the hardest on the head. So far, I’ve only posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but I’d be surprised if any of the other big booksellers were any more fair-minded. The asymmetry of the legalese crap infuriates me. They stipulate that they can change the contract by posting it on their web site, and it’s up to you to figure it out. (How is that even legal? If it is.) But I can’t change the terms to suit me by posting it on my web site and telling them they agree to it if they continue to host my book. The law is supposed to apply equally, y’know? It’s the whole essence of fairness.

So I’m in the bizarre position of writing a book about rights, and in order to post it anywhere anyone might see it, the first thing I have to do is give up my rights.

The final insult was still to come though. I got the dumbed-down formatting worked out. I’d checked and re-checked to make sure it was legible. All the backtracking and recoding took weeks. I’d swallowed hard and agreed to all the legal logorrhea I had no choice about. The last box to fill out was price.

I’d checked beforehand, and Amazon was said to allow free books. I wanted mine to be free, in the spirit of open source software. It’s my contribution to the human conversation and all that good stuff. As I said, I also have conscientious objections to being told what to do with my own work.

But when I got to the last box, after weeks of unnecessary tedium, I found that a mere individual could not publish a free book.

In some ways, I can see their point. They have to keep servers and sysops going to host the content, and that costs money. For my specific book, it might cost one tenth of a cent. In return, they have content on their site which might interest people. Good trade? No-o-o. Of course not. They won’t let an individual charge less than 99¢.

So I’m not only in a bizarre position. I’m also in what feels like a sleazy position. The book is licensed under Creative Commons, freely downloadable at my web site, and no way to explain to the poor schmoes on Amazon or B&N that they don’t have to pay anything unless they’d like to.

Because that’s how it went down, of course. I gave up and put in “.99.” The corporations have us all by the short and curlies … so what I do can’t match what I say, which is that they shouldn’t.


Paging Project Gutenberg,, Wikipedia, and Sourceforge. Please pick up the white courtesy phone and create a space for open source thought. I’d love to help!