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The realities of ebook distribution

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Alan Pringle discusses the challenges of ebook distribution and how Scriptorium has addressed them when selling EPUB and Kindle editions. ...

Alan Pringle discusses the challenges of ebook distribution and how Scriptorium has addressed them when selling EPUB and Kindle editions.

Topics covered include:
- Formatting differences in ereader devices and apps
- Pricing
- Other lessons learned through painful experience

More in: Technology , Business
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  • Today is April 11, 2013. I want to make a note of the date because ebook publishing is a rapidly evolving field. What I talk about here today could easily be outdated tomorrow.
  • I run Scriptorium's imprint, Scriptorium Press, which publishes books about technical communication and content strategy. Coauthor of three books, Content Strategy 101, The State of Structured Authoring, and Technical Writing 101, all of which are available in ebook formats. My experiences distributing those ebooks editions account for much what I'm about to talk about—particularly the complaints you'll hear me make about Amazon and Apple. There is so much I'd like to share about my experience, but because I want to keep this to an hour, I will attempt to focus on the distribution aspects of epublishing.
  • Quick poll to find out how many of you are reading and distributing ebooks.
  • Formats: EPUB: open standard defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum. (IDPF). Collection of HTML files, style sheets for formatting, and baggage files (that control the order of content, for example) compressed into a zip file with an EPUB file extension. Lots of free EPUB reader applications out there for computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. In October 2011, the IDPF released the EPUB 3.0 recommended specification. The new standard enables more complex layouts, interactivity, and rich media. For you techies out there, HTML5 is under the hood and is what enables a lot of the new features. Support for EPUB 3.0 is far from universal at this point, but I expect we will see more devices and apps supporting the spec this year. Because of all the flux in regard to support of the 3.0 specs, Scriptorium is sticking with the 2.0 standard for now to ensure compatibility with older e-reader devices and apps. This is a lot like the issue of creating HTML content that supports older browsers. To be sure your file meets EPUB specifications,you validate it against the EPUB specs . The IDPF provides a hosted version of the epubcheck validtor at validator.idpf.com; it validates against the version 2 and 3 specs. You can validate files up to 10 MB online; otherwise you need to install a local instance of the epubcheck and run it from the command line on your machine. Before the EPUB format, there were several other formats, including the MOBI (short for Mobipocket) format, which was based on the now legacy Open eBook specification. Popular in the days of the PDA, the MOBI format offers more limited formatting created by HTML-like tagging. Today, MOBI is still used, primarily as the format for dedicated electronic ink (e-ink) ereaders. Kindle devices can read MOBI files, for example. Apple and Amazon weren't happy merely following standards, so they added their own spins to the formats. These proprietary formats include: GO TO NEXT SLIDE
  • Amazon's AZW: basically a highly compressed Mobi file with Amazon's digital right management (DRM) applied to it. In fact, Amazon bought the Mobipocket company, which produced the MobiPocket Reader for PDAs, in 2005. In 2012, Amazon quit selling MOBI books on the MobiPocket web site and consolidated ebooks sales on its Kindle platform. Amazon KF8: with the advent of the Kindle Fire tablets, Amazon created the KF8 format, which essentially combines EPUB and MOBI output into one file. That way, the tablets can show the more highly designed EPUB-type output while the e-ink devices can show the older MOBI version.I know this thanks to Liz Castro, a computer book writer. She has a great blog, Pigs, Gourds, and Wikis (pigsgourdsandwikis.com), which has lots of great information about epublishing. Using a free tool called mobi_unpack, she peeked inside the KF8 file of one of her books, only to discover the MOBI and EPUB files in there. So, Amazon is combining files based on two standards to create a proprietary format.Amazon isn't the only one guilty of basing a proprietary file format on an open standard, though. Apple iBooks format: In January 2012, Apple released the free iBooks Author application that enables the publication of ebooks, which Apple calls “Multi-Touch” books. These ebooks are EPUB files with some additions that make them incompatible with other EPUB readers. Have to use the iBooks app on an iPad to read them.
  • My experience selling ebooks has definitely caused me to form some strong opinions about the different distribution channels, so let me start by giving you a brief overview of how we sell our books. Our primary sales channel is our online store at store.scriptorium.com. We first established the store to sell printed books, but we now exclusively sell digital content (EPUB and some PDF) through our cart.
  • We sell Kindle version of most titles on Amazon. Using Amazon's KindleGen program, we convert EPUB files to the Kindle format and upload them to Amazon.
  • We recently quit selling EPUB files in the Apple iBookstore. I'll get more into reasons when I talk about primary ebook distribution channels next As the owner of an iPad, I love what Apple does for me as an information consumer. Not so much love coming from me as an ebook distributor, though.
  • So, let's talk about the distribution channels for ebooks. Right now, the two biggest players are Apple and Amazon. Let's start with Apple.
  • In the Apple bookstore, you can sell standard EPUB files (which is what Scriptorium did). To sell EPUB files in the Apple iBookstore, you need to set up an account for book selling. To upload books, you need the iTunes Producer applicaton, which is Mac only. (You can see reports through a web browser—no OS requirements.) You can also use the iBooks Author to app create a multi-touch e-book. Apple requires that multi-touch books be sold exclusiively through their bookstore. From my pont of view, that is the price you pay for using their sofltware. You specify availability and pricing in different regions. For example, for Scriptorium's Technical Writing 101 book, the iTunes Connect system asked us for the pricing for the printed book and then presented a choice of 36 tiers: Tier 0 is free, Tier 1 is 99 cents, and so on, up until tier 36, which is 35.99: the equivalent price of the printed book. For example, for the United States, we chose 9.99 as the pricing to match the price of the EPUB file in our online store. If you sell through the iBookstore, you can't sell the same ebook for less elsehwere. You get 70 percent of sales; Apple gets 30 percent. There are no additional fees you pay for the delivery of your file to the reader; Amazon does charge a fee, and I'll talk about that later. That 30 percent comission really doesn't offend m, nor does the requirement to sell multi-touch books in their iBookstore. What has offended me is Apple's poor support for publishers. Early on, Apple was not clear on the specifications for EPUB files. You could have have an EPUB file that passed validation on the many online EPUB validators, yet it still could be rejected by Apple (for example, because the cover image was not a specific size). We had a book rejected for publication but the reason wasn't specified. I sent an email asking why. I did not receive a response until 2.5 months later. That was entirely unacceptable to me, so I decided to distribute the EPUB version of that title directly through our own store only. It was an easy decision to make because our Technical Writing 101 title was not selling well on the iBookstore. Sales on iBookstore have been paltry compared to EPUB sales in our own store and Kindle sales on Amazon. The difference is so great, I decided to pull Technical Writing 101 from the iBookstore at the end of March. We make more money selling the EPUB ourselves, so I didn't see the point in continuting sell very few copies for less money in the iBookstore. I believe Apple has gotten better about communicating specificatioins since the problems I had, but the whole incident was really, really off-putting for me, and the (More on direct sales soon.) With Apple, you also have the option to distribute the multi-touch books you create through iBooks Author. The only place you can sell content created with iBooks Author is the iBookstore, and that's not a good market for our content, based on the low sales of Technical Writing 101. Also, you can't import an existing EPUB into iBooks Author as a starting point, either—which is sort of ironic considering iBooks Author output is EPUB with a few more bells and whistles tacked on.
  • To create Kindle versions for Amazon, we use Amazon's free KindleGen command line tool to convert EPUB files to Kindle. You also use the free Kindle Previewer tool, which puts an interface on KindleGen and lets you see what a converted EPUB looks like on the many different Kindle devices. During our Kindle conversions, we do have to do a bit of manual touchup on our EPUB files, including adding a TOC file specifically for Kindle. All in all, not a difficult process. After creating the Kindle file, we upload it through our account for the Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP). And I do appreciate that Amazon lets you start with an EPUB file that represents 85 to 90 percent of the effort. For the KDP program, Amazon requires that the price for a Kindle edition not exceed the price of a digital or print version in any other sales channel. You can pick a 70 percent or 35 percent royalty for Kindle sales. So, why on earth would someone pick a 35 percent royalty? Believe it or not, there are times it is a better choice. Here is how the two royalty tiers work: 70 percent model : for most regions in which you sell your content (including the US), you can take a 70 percent royalty . For newer markets such as Japan, India, and Brazil, you get just 35 percent. Pricing has to be between $2.99 and $9.99 sell the same book in another digital format elsewhere for less and Amazon finds out, Amazon will price-match and then calculate the 70 percent royalty. In addition, you also pay a data delivery charge for each sale that is deducted before the royalty is calculated. For sales in the US, that charge is 15 cents per MB. Our Technical Writing 101 Kindle file is 2.06 MB, so Amazon charges us 31 cents for each download. If you have lots of images that make your file huge, the 70 percent model may not be for you. Also, we include open-source fonts in our EPUB so our formatting will have a more customized look, but we now strip them from the EPUB before converting to Kindle. Two reasons I rip them out: custom fonts don't work in e-ink devices, and they make the final Kindle files bigger—and you need to consider file size when you select your royalty model for Kindle sales:Instead you may want the... 35 percent model. There are no delivery charges; you get a 35 percent royalty for all sales in all regions. You can also set pricing higher than $9.99 for titles earning the 35 percent royalty. So, if you're selling a big book that has lots of images, setting a price higher than 9.99 and taking the 35 percent makes a lot of sense. Amazon has a program, KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Select, that affects the 70 percent roaylty rate. If you join, you can get the 70 percent royalty in Japan, India, and Brazil; otherwise, you get just 35 percent for sales in those regions. You also can distribute your books through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, which Amazon Prime members in the US, UK, Germany, and France. There is one big catch: you have to agree to sell the electronic version of your book through Amazon only. For Scriptorium, that exclusivity is a deal breaker—we don't want to lock our sales down to Amazon, particularly considering we sell most books through our own store. I also have no interest in giving Amazon or Apple exclusive rights to Scriptorium's content. I don't want to reward the thinking behind Amazon's KDP Select or Apple's iPad-only multi-touch books.
  • Some other distribution options. For example, the Barnes and Noble PubIt program. The PubIt you upload EPUB files and pays a royalty of 65 percent for books priced between $2.99 and 9.99. Also, you can work with companies such as Lulu.com to handle the distribution of your book in print and EPUB. Lulu will also put your EPUB in the iBookstore. (But they don't work with Amazon—you'll need to work with Amazon yourself.) Selling direct If you're selling EPUB files, you need to ask yourself whether it makes more sense to sell directly? Can you justify the 30-35 percent Apple and Barnes and Noble takes? However, before deciding to strike out on your own, think carefully about the costs and risks associated with accepting credit cards and selling on your site. For credit card processing, you will have to obtain a merchant account, pay a small percentage of your sales to the credit card companies for each purchase, pay a monthly fee for credit card processing, and so on. If you don't want to deal with setting up a merchant account to process credit cards, considera service such as PayPal. When you accept credit cards, you are also on the hook for more than just trasaction fees. You also have to ensure your transactions on your site adhere to Payment Card Industry (PCI) regulations. Those rules specify the steps you must take to safeguard credit card information. Smart thing to do is to find an online store service provider that is PCI compliant so you don't have to deal with all the headaches yourself. And by the way, your subscription to a shopping cart service is going to cost you above and beyond the credit card processing fees. Scriptorium's store provider, Easy Store Creator, is PCI compliant. And we have been happy with them. If you don't want to set up a full-blown online store, there are other services that enable selling content on your own site. One of these services is Gumroad https://gumroad.com/ Gumroad charges you a flat fee of 25 cents on top of five percent of the transaction. Another issue with selling stuff through your own site: be very sure that your web site is optimized for Google and other search engines. If people don't see the pages selling your content come up in early search results, you won't make sales! Figuring out the best distribution channels is not the only challenge for pulbishers, however. We also have to deal with how e-readers display content in sometmes very different ways.
  • So, you've created ebook files that passes validation. But you're not ready to sell them quite yet! Take a look at how diffferent ereader and apps handle formatting in your file before you upload them for selling. You'll be amazed at how the different readers will slice and dice your file. And the results are often a lot less appealing than the fruit salad you see here. To show you how different content can look, here are some screenshots of the same chunk of content on three different EPUB readers. Th e page you'll see comes from the State of Strutured Authoring report I coauthored in 2011.
  • Nook Color does preserve the custom fonts we embed in the EPUB file. The Nook Color has a skinnier display, so line lengths are shorter, and larger tables aren't so attractive and require readers to scroll over to see the entire table. As a publisher, I do find myself a tad irritated at the narrow screen of the Nook Color. Newer Nook devices do have wider screens, but I'm sure there are a lot of people still using the Nook Color. Publishers have to keep backwards compatibility in mind because not everyone will be using the latest and greatest e-readers, tablets, or apps.
  • Adobe Digital Editions is a free appllication from Adobe; the screenshot shows Digital Editions running on my Windows 7 laptop. It also preserves the custom fonts and because it's an application on a computer, you can adjust the application size as big as you want on your window.
  • Ibooks on the iPad ignores our custom fonts; it uses its own serif and sans serif fonts instead. Overall, though, I think the iBooks app does a good job of displaying EPUB books, despite the fact it stripped the custom fonts.
  • I'm going to shift gears here from EPUB to Kindle. Here is that same page displayed in a Kindle e-ink device. Looks just OK—table formatting is not great (particularly with the wrapped text), but it looks great compared to some other tables
  • So, what should a publisher do before distributing ebooks? Based on my experience, will offer three bits of advice. First and foremost, test, test, test your content. (Next slide)
  • Get your hands on as many e-readers, emulators, and e-reader applications as you can and use them. Even if a file passes validation, it is still may not look great on some ereaders. Sometimes, making something less “designer-y” and more vanilla may be the better choice. For example, I am strongly considering getting rid of custom fonts in our EPUB files. The iPad ignores them, so is it worth it to include them? For editing EPUB files, I use the oXygen XML Editor. Through oXygen, I can open up and modify individual files within the EPUB—including the stylesheets controlling formatting. There are other choices, such as the open source Sigil (sijel) EPUB editor.
  • Exclusivity? Can you reach your audience if you sell through just Apple or Amazon? Do the perks of exclusivity outweigh the negatives for you? Exclusive distribution can also include just selling through your own web site or store, too, but doing that means you need to process payments and deal with the regulations and cost for credit card precessing. Do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Yes, a business case! The idea of netting more per book when selling it yourself sounds appealing, but you need to consider the time and energy it takes to set up a web site, get it to show up in search engine results, and deal with the regulations surrounding credit card processing.
  • For example, if you have wide or complicated tables in your content, Kindle may not be right for you.
  • On April 30, Sarah O'Keefe will be moderating a webcast panel on the state of the tech comm industry. The panel will include Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, Race Bannon of Oracle, and Paul Perrotta of Juniper Networks. On May 14, we are hosting guest presenter Nenad Furtula of Bluestream Database Software, who will speak about how implementing DITA can solve many of the challenges of localizing your content. Conferences On May 5, Sarah will speak at the Adobe Day event that precedes the STC Summit in Atlanta. On May 8, Sarah O'Keefe will present a session on Transforming Technical Content into a Business Asset at the STC Summit in Atlanta.

Transcript

  • 1. The realities of ebook distribution Alan Pringle Scriptorium Publishing April 11, 2013 Flickr: Library of Congress contentstrategy101.com
  • 2. Alan PringleDirector of Operations, Scriptorium Publishing contentstrategy101.com
  • 3. Questions? Comments?Type questions andcomments in theQuestions module of Attendees are muted during webcast.GoToWebinar. Webcast is being recorded, but your name wont be shown. Flickr: Veronique Debordcontentstrategy101.com
  • 4. Poll:Do you read ebooks? Do you distribute ebooks? Flickr: Veronique Debordcontentstrategy101.com
  • 5. Formats EPUB MOBI Flickr: Library of Congresscontentstrategy101.com
  • 6. Formats EPUB MOBI Proprietary variations: Amazon Kindle: AZW and KF8 Apple iBooks Author (“Multi-Touch”) Flickr: Library of Congresscontentstrategy101.com
  • 7. How we sell our ebooks Sell EPUB in online store, Scriptorium Emporium Flickr: State Library and Archives of Florida (store.scriptorium.com)contentstrategy101.com
  • 8. How we sell our ebooks Sell EPUB in online store, Scriptorium Emporium Flickr: State Library and Archives of Florida (store.scriptorium.com) Sell Kindle versions on Amazoncontentstrategy101.com
  • 9. How we sell our ebooks Sell EPUB in online store, Scriptorium Emporium Flickr: State Library and Archives of Florida (store.scriptorium.com) Sell Kindle versions on Amazon Past: sold EPUB in Apple iBookstorecontentstrategy101.com
  • 10. Distribution channels Flickr: Library of Congress contentstrategy101.com
  • 11. Apple Flickr: Library of Congresscontentstrategy101.com
  • 12. Amazon Flickr: Library of Congresscontentstrategy101.com
  • 13. Other options Flickr: Library of Congresscontentstrategy101.com
  • 14. Display variances and other annoyances Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 15. EPUB: NOOK Color Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 16. EPUB: Adobe Digital Editions Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 17. EPUB: iBooks app on iPad Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 18. Kindle (on Kindle Previewer) Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 19. Table display: EPUB in Adobe Digital Editions Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 20. Kindle: the table killer (e-ink) Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 21. Kindle: the table killer (Kindle Fire) Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 22. Amazons “If the table is significantly wider than the screen and guidelines for forces panning, it is a poor tables user experience.” (January 2013) “For the best user experience, please respect the following rule: tables should not contain whole paragraphs of text or large pictures in a cell.” “There are times when it may be necessary to format a table as an image...” Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 23. Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 24. The only table image in Scriptorium Kindle editions Flickr: lisaclarkecontentstrategy101.com
  • 25. So, whats a publisher to do?contentstrategy101.com
  • 26. So, whats a publisher to do? Test on as many devices, apps, and emulators as you can.contentstrategy101.com
  • 27. So, whats a publisher to do? Test on as many devices, apps, and emulators as you can. Evaluate distribution options/exclusivity.contentstrategy101.com
  • 28. So, whats a publisher to do? Test on as many devices, apps, and emulators as you can. Evaluate distribution options/exclusivity. Realize your content may not be right for some devices.contentstrategy101.com
  • 29. Contact me asp@scriptorium.com Twitter: @alanpringle Resources scriptorium.com/blogLiz Castro: pigsgourdsandwikis.com EPUB validator: validator.idpf.org mobileread.com Flickr: Library of Congress Twitter: #eprdctn contentstrategy101.com
  • 30. Questions? Comments? Flickr: Veronique Debordcontentstrategy101.com
  • 31. Upcoming events Webcasts April 30: The state of the tech comm industry May 14: Solving the localization puzzle with DITA Conferences May 5: Adobe Day before STC Summit Flickr: Library of Congress May 8: Sarah OKeefe at 2013 STC Summit scriptorium.com/eventscontentstrategy101.com