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.
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:
- Kindle Direct Publishing
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.
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
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.
Smashwords converts a manuscript into an ebook using an automated system it affectionately calls the ‘Meatgrinder’. You prepare the manuscript using the guidelines in the comprehensive Smashwords Style Guide (if you’ve followed our guidelines in the Preparation section, you’re already most of the way there).
After setting up a free account on Smashwords.com, you upload the prepared file to Meatgrinder, which produces the ebook in up to 10 formats, again, all for free. Most of these are old ‘legacy’ formats serving very small niches. Major ebook retailers generally take ebooks only in EPUB, Kindle, and sometimes PDF formats.
Smashwords will only distribute ebooks that are DRM-free so you can’t opt to use a copy-protection system on your ebooks.
Smashwords uses word-processing documents as the source file (.DOC or .RTF files). If a book is in a PDF file or a page-layout program, such as Adobe InDesign, you’ll have to first convert it to a .DOC file. Meatgrinder is fully automated so it’s important that your source file carefully follows the Smashwords guidelines to get the best results. It only requires basic-to-moderate word-processing skills so your main investment is time.
There is no charge for conversion. Smashwords makes its money from a commission taken on the sale of ebooks through its distribution network, typically about 15% of net receipts (after retailer discounts). It also accepts EPUB files you’ve created elsewhere (for distribution) through its Smashwords Direct service.
Note that, although you own the rights to your ebooks, Smashwords owns the files its service creates. This means you can only sell the Smashwords-created ebook files through its distribution network and will have to create new ebook files to sell outside of this group of sites.
Smashwords, currently, has no paid services to help you produce ebooks, so if you want extra help, you’ll need to get it from elsewhere. But they provide a very handy email list, called Mark’s list, of people you can hire directly. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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.
For publishers, one of its best features is that you can elect to apply the widely-supported Adobe DRM system to copy-protect your ebooks. Setting up a DRM service is complex and expensive so this option is useful if you want to sell directly but still have DRM protection. Since other retailers, such as Amazon and Kobo, apply their own DRM to ebooks they sell, the issue only comes up when you want to sell directly or through non-ebook channels.
If your source file is in Microsoft Word format (.DOC, .DOCX or .RTF), Lulu offers free, automated conversion to EPUB. For a basic ebook, this can produce a perfectly acceptable result, as long as you’ve prepared your manuscript in accordance with Lulu’s formatting guidelines (again, very similar to our general guidelines in the Preparation chapter). The system is very simple to use, with a wizard taking you through it step-by-step, though it offers few ways to tweak the result.
There’s no obligation to use Lulu for anything beyond this free ebook conversion making it a great way to quickly test run your source file to see how your ebook will look. You can also download and use the ebook file without restrictions, allowing you to sell it through other channels or use it to create free give-away samples and advance review copies. Lulu’s conversion service only outputs to EPUB format.
Lulu offers a large range of additional paid services aimed at self-publishers, from custom design and editing to marketing support, and it makes it easy to buy these services online, though you don’t have to use Lulu to get these services.
Lulu’s paid services include conversion from PDF as well as Microsoft Word formats. They will convert an ebook to EPUB with some fine-tuning and quality control that’s absent from the free version, such as checking that images reproduce correctly and generating a linked table of contents.
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
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.
For an extra charge, it accepts source files in PDF, InDesign, Quark Xpress, and Apple Pages formats. BookBaby outputs ebooks to both EPUB and Kindle formats and can produce so-called fixed-width ebooks for heavily illustrated works, such as children’s ebooks. You own the files produced and can use them as you please.
Another point of difference is that BookBaby charges no commission to distribute ebooks to major ebooksellers. Instead, if you use their distribution service, you pay a fixed administrative charge of US$19 a year per ebook and receive 100% of the income from sales.
Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Platform
Key publisher benefits
- Easiest method for low volume Kindle production and testing
- Easy access to Kindle store
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.
If you need to tweak a Kindle ebook, you can either amend the source manuscript and re-upload it, or you can download the converted Kindle ebook to your computer, edit its HTML, and re-upload the amended file. This may not be as daunting as it sounds: you can open the HTML file using Microsoft Word, edit it like an ordinary Word file, then save it using the File > Save As command and select Web Page, Filtered as the Save as type.
KDP ties the ebooks produced to Amazon’s self-publishing royalty scheme which limits discounts and selling prices.
For publishers, Amazon also provides a more advanced tool called KindleGen, which you install on your computer. We’ll cover that later.
Note that to use all of the features of the advanced Kindle KF8 format, you will need to use KindleGen — KDP doesn’t support KF8 conversion at the moment.
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.
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 Smashwords.com (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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