Online conversion from manuscripts

One of the ground-breaking developments in the ebook industry has been the emergence — and increasing sophistication — of automated online services for ebook conversion. These ‘self-service’ sites allow a publisher to upload a manuscript, metadata and cover image, and to receive back — in some cases almost instantly — a distribution-ready ebook. This section reviews several leading services, highlighting aspects of their services that can be useful for professional publishers.
Lulu Publish Page


Online ebook conversion services are one of the main reasons that ebook self-publishing is booming. But they’re also a boon to many small presses. It frees them from much of the complexity of the production process so they can focus on other aspects of publishing. And they can even be useful for larger publishers who want a quick, simple way to produce samples, advance reading copies or quick-turnaround specials.

Some of the leading providers in this expanding field are:

  • Smashwords
  • Lulu
  • BookBaby
  • Kindle Direct Publishing
  • Draft2Digital

Each company offers a good-quality service but they differ in which services they offer and how they charge for them. We’ll briefly review each of them, and the pros and cons of their services for publishers.

Smashwords, Lulu, Draft2Digital and BookBaby also provide distribution services to reach key ebooksellers which we’ll cover in the next section. Kindle Direct Publishing manages both the production of Kindle-formatted ebooks and their uploading to the Amazon website for sale.


Smashwords logo

Key publisher benefits

  • Publishers and agents can manage all of their authors and ebooks from a single admin panel
  • Produces the widest range of ebook formats
  • Free — but you must use Smashwords’ distribution service which incurs a charge

Service overview

Smashwords is a free, digital-only service. As well as its self-publishing services, it  has special accounts for Publishers and Agents. These allow publishers and agents to group their author accounts to simplify administration and provide extra promotional opportunities.

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Lulu logo

Key publisher benefits

  • Publishers can apply Adobe DRM to ebooks they want to sell directly
  • Free EPUB production: You own the file and there’s no obligation to use Lulu’s services

Service overview

Lulu was one of the first websites to offer online self-publishing. Unlike Smashwords, which was ‘born digital’ and remains ebook-only, Lulu’s roots are in print self-publishing, so it can produce a book in both ebook and print formats. It also offers an extensive range of paid services.

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BookBaby logo

Key publisher benefits

  • Will accept source files in several formats including Adobe InDesign and PDF
  • Output formats include fixed-layout ebooks
  • Publisher owns the ebook files

Service overview

BookBaby charges US$149 for its basic conversion service (there’s no free option) but claims that its ebooks are handcrafted to a better quality than books produced by the free automated systems. This approach means it doesn’t insist on the carefully marked-up Microsoft Word manuscripts that automated systems need, though they must be edited, proofed, and free of typos. 

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Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Platform

Kindle Direct Publishing logo

Key publisher benefits

  • Easiest method for low volume Kindle production and testing
  • Easy access to Kindle store

Service overview

Amazon provides extensive resources to help publishers and self-publishers produce ebooks in its own Kindle format. Among these is a straightforward online ebook creator, which converts source files from Word, PDF, EPUB, MOBI, plain text or HTML into Kindle ebooks.

And if you don’t own a Kindle, Amazon has the handy Kindle Previewer that will emulate what an ebook will look like on the various Kindle e-readers and e-reading apps. 

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Draft2Digital is a later entrant which has carved out a solid niche. It prides itself on a no-fuss approach to online ebook conversion – requiring no special mark up to the manuscript – and an equally no-fuss approach to distribution. Its roster of ebooksellers is smaller than the other distributors but it covers all the main sites and is refreshingly quick and simple to get published on these sites. This keep-it-simple approach extends to set up, reporting and payment processes.

It is free to upload and convert your manuscript, and you own the resulting EPUB files which you can use elsewhere. Draft2Digital earns its income from a small commission (about 10%) on sales through its distribution service. Well worth checking out.

Other options

The services listed here are used extensively by self-publishers and small presses and current leaders in their field. Their service offerings are geared to publishers looking for a simple, ‘turnkey’ system with little customization.

Later, when we look at in-house production options, we’ll review a new breed of online ebook production services which provide more control, can handle complex formatting, and provide for page-by-page customization. They are a fully-fledged production environment online.


Publishing guides to listed online conversion services

  • Smashwords. Smashwords’ How to Publish page.
  • Lulu. Lulu’s ebook publishing page.
  • BookBaby. BookBaby’s Get Published page.
  • Kindle Direct Publishing. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing page.
  • Kindle Simplified Formatting Guide. This is Amazon’s “just the essentials” guide. If you’ve followed our program and understand the principles, this will give you a quick summary of the Amazon-specific differences.

VIDEOS showing the online conversion process

  • VIDEO: How to Publish Your Ebook to (14:53). This video walks you through the process of publishing an ebook using Smashwords. The process is similar for the other automated online conversion services.
  • VIDEO: Building Your Book for Kindle (Text). This is the official Amazon video. (Note there’s no voice-over.) Helpful for covering just the minimum formatting requirements you need to publish, and showing how to use Word to achieve them.


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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