Chapter 6: Producing and Selling Ebook Editions

The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing

The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing

The first thing to understand about ebook retailers and distributors is that they do not act as publishers. They take no responsibility for the quality of your work (either writing quality or formatting quality), but they don’t take any rights to your work either. Of course, this is also true of the major print-on-demand providers discussed earlier, but POD services do have to put some standards in place to ensure your book prints correctly. Thus, there’s more of a hurdle to clear if you want to publish and distribute a print edition of your book. When it comes to ebooks, however, it’s extremely easy to get a file approved and a book on sale without any quality control measures in place. The burden will be entirely on you to get it right or suffer the consequences in the form of bad customer reviews.

Here are the other important characteristics of the major and preferred ebook retailing and distribution services:

  • Free to play. You rarely pay an up-front fee to an ebook distributor to get started. Instead, expect it to keep a percentage of your sales, usually around 10 percent if you do have to pay up front, it’s usually because you’re using a distributor that’s providing you with some level of service, then passing 100 percent of your net sales onto you. (That means the company is making its money up front, on your service fees, rather than on your book sales.) If you don’t pay an up-front fee to an ebook distributor, then expect it to keep a percentage of your sales, usually around 10 percent. One notable exception is the ebook distribution service Pronoun, which requires no up-front fee and still passes 100 percent of the profits on to you.
  • At will and nonexclusive. With all ebook retailers, you can upload your work at any time and make it available for sale; you can also take it down at any time. You can upload new versions; change the price, cover, and description; and, in most cases, you can sell your work through multiple services at once and through your own site. Exceptions to nonexclusivity, such as Amazon’s KDP Select, will be discussed later in this section.
  • You keep your rights. By using these services, as well as the POD services, you do not forfeit rights to your work. If a traditional publisher or agent were to approach you after your book went on sale, you would be free to sell rights without any obligation to the services you used.
  • Little technical expertise required. Major services offer automated tools for converting your files, uploading files, and listing your work for sale, as well as free guides and tutorials to help ensure your files are formatted appropriately. As mentioned before, it’s up to you to read the guidelines to ensure high-quality ebook files.

Most self-publishing services fall into one of these two categories:

  • Single-channel distribution (ebook retailers). These services—which are always retailers—distribute and sell your work through their own storefront or e-reading device. Examples are Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press. Single-channel distributors do not offer any assistance in preparing your ebook files, although they may accept a wide range of file types for upload.
  • Ebook distribution services. These services primarily act as middlemen and push your work out to multiple retailers and other ebook platforms. This helps reduce the amount of work an author must do; instead of dealing with many different single-channel retail services, you deal with only one service. The most well-known ebook distributors are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. Some ebook distributors, such as Smashwords, also sell your ebooks through their own storefront, but that is almost never their most important feature. Rather, it’s their ability to smoothly and quickly push your work out to multiple outlets, as well as any changes or updates to that work and its pricing.

Ebook distributors and retailers are continually coming and going, consolidating or partnering, and each works on a slightly different business model. Some even act as publishing service providers, requiring no effort from you, the author. However, the more services your distributor provides, the less profit you can expect to receive, and one of the key attractions of ebook distribution and retail is the excellent potential for author profits—to cut out the middleman entirely and have the same visibility and retail potential as any other book.

A popular approach for independent authors is to use Amazon KDP without assistance or distributors in the way, and then employ an ebook distributor for the rest of the ebook market to reduce administration time, since sales outside of Amazon are usually less than 10 to 15 percent of total ebook sales. Usually, authors prefer distributors that take the lowest percentage of net profit as possible, such as Draft2Digital or Smashwords.

When using any of the ebook retailers or distributors, you’ll have to upload a file that they accept or that is formatted according to their specific guidelines. Companies vary widely in the types of files they accept. Because standards are still developing in the ebook world, you may find yourself converting and formatting your book multiple times to satisfy the requirements of different services. Here are the most commonly used formats for ebooks:

  • This is considered the global standard format for ebooks and is accepted more or less by all services. Unfortunately, you cannot directly create an EPUB file from a Microsoft Word document, although there are Word add-ons that make it possible; you can also try using Apple Pages, which exports EPUB files.
  • This is the format that was once ideal for Amazon Kindle, but it is no longer preferred. You should use EPUB.
  • PDFs can be difficult to convert to standard ebook formats without the help of a professional service. It’s not recommended to start with or upload a PDF, even if the service allows it, unless that service is promising a quality formatted EPUB on the other end.

Ebook Pricing and Earnings

Once an ebook is on sale and distributed throughout the market, the ongoing work required from the author (or retailer or distributor) is minimal to none. So, authors who expect to see sales for the long term are best advised to do most of the initial work themselves or hire freelancers and pay a one-time fee—as opposed to continuing to give a larger portion of royalties to a service provider for this up-front work. This way they can keep as much of their ongoing royalties as possible. And the royalties paid on ebooks are very nice indeed.

If you check the ebook bestseller lists, you’ll see that self-publishing novelists charge very little for their work in comparison to traditional publishers, usually between $0.99 and $4.99. Some argue this devalues the work, while others say that it’s appropriate for electronic formats. Whatever your perspective, just understand that, if you’re an unknown author, the self-published competition will probably be priced around $2.99—and sometimes less, especially during promotional periods—to encourage readers to take a chance. Typically, the more well-known or trusted you are, the more you can charge. Nonfiction authors should price according to the competition and what the market can bear; sometimes prices are just as high for digital editions as print editions in nonfiction categories.

Here’s an overview of ebook royalty payments you can expect if working directly with each ebook retailer. (Remember, your payments will often be less if working with a distributor, assuming that distributor takes a cut of your profits.) Amounts are approximate and may be slightly higher or lower depending on your specific situation and the fine print of the retailer.

Ebook priced at $0.99

Ebook priced at $2.99

Ebook priced at $12.99

To summarize the information above: Ebook retailers generally pay you 70 percent of the retail price (that you set) if your ebook retails between $2.99 and $9.99. At Amazon, the percentage declines by half outside this range, which is why you find authors periodically switching their price between $0.99 and $2.99. Authors maximize volume and visibility at the low price point (and attempt to get on Amazon bestseller lists), then switch to $2.99 to maximize profits. Apple and Nook do not base payouts on pricing; they pay a flat 70 percent rate on all ebooks at all times. Kobo doesn’t penalize authors for high pricing and continues to pay 70 percent for all prices beyond $2.99.


Amazon is by far the most important book and ebook retailer for the independent author. Commercial novelists especially will find that their earnings and fortunes are strongly driven by Amazon’s dominance in the market. Therefore, working with Amazon KDP—and deciding whether to work with KDP Select—will be one of the first and most important steps on your self-publishing path.

Uploading to Amazon KDP

Getting started with Amazon KDP can be done with your existing Amazon customer credentials, assuming you’ve shopped with Amazon before. Visit and log in, or create a free account. (If you’ve already published a print edition of your book, you already have an account.)

If this is your first visit to KDP, you’ll be asked for your company information, and you should input the same publisher and imprint information that you’ll be using with other accounts (e.g., IngramSpark, Bowker, and so on). The information you enter is what will be used for tax purposes, so be sure to use the appropriate tax name and address. You can change this information later if needed.

Note: If you want to publish and sell an illustrated children’s ebook or textbook, then start with Amazon’s special and separate services for such products: Kindle Kids’ Book Creator or Amazon Education Publishing, respectively.

Assuming you have your book files and information ready to go, uploading your book for distribution and sale takes about five to ten minutes. You’ll be required to supply the following:

  • Title information: As with other retailers and distributors, you’ll be asked for the title, subtitle, language, series name and number, and edition. Complete all the fields for the best metadata and discoverability for your book. (See Creating Metadata for Your Book.)
  • Book description: You can use up to 4,000 characters; this is the equivalent of your back cover copy and will appear prominently on your book retail page on Amazon. As advised earlier, this copy should be well thought out and not written on the spot.
  • Verification of your publishing rights: You have to confirm that you own the copyright in what you’re publishing, or otherwise indicate you’re uploading a public domain work.
  • Categories and keywords: These help people find your book through search. (See Creating Metadata for Your Book.)
  • Age and grade range: This is optional and applies to children’s books.
  • Book release date: If the date is in the future, then your ebook will be available for preorder. You can list a date up to 90 days in the future. When a preorder is placed, it counts immediately toward your book’s sale ranking, so books with a lot of preorder activity may show up in bestseller lists and other promotional spots.
  • Digital rights management (DRM): You get to decide if your ebook file is protected by DRM, a safeguard that prevents unauthorized distribution. Most self-publishing authors consider DRM to be reader-unfriendly and do not apply it, but the decision is up to you.
  • ISBN: You’re not required to provide one, but if you do, it should be unique and separate from any other edition (e.g., do not use the ISBN from the print edition).

Once you upload your ebook file (which can be a Word document or one of many other formats), you’ll be automatically alerted to spelling errors in your book; you’ll also be informed if the file conversion went poorly. KDP offers an ebook preview that allows you to see how the ebook will appear on digital devices, before you approve it and make the ebook available for sale. Do not skip this step, especially if you’ve uploaded a file you’ve prepared yourself or a Word document. You may need to go back to your file and make changes in order for it to properly convert.

The final step is to add information about rights and pricing; most authors have rights to sell in all territories and needn’t select individual territories. On pricing, you will be asked to choose between the 35 percent and 70 percent royalty option. There is no reason to choose 35 percent unless you are pricing below $2.99 or above $9.99. (Why they give you a choice at all is a mystery.) You will be given the option of using KDP’s “pricing support” tool to identify the sweet spot for your ebook’s price. It will analyze data from other ebooks in the market, similar to yours, to determine how to maximize your profits; take its suggestions with a grain of salt. Ultimately, you should price based on your unique situation and marketing strategy.

Important: By working with Amazon to sell and distribute your ebook, you are guaranteeing it the lowest price on the market. If Amazon finds your ebook priced lower elsewhere (and assume that it will, eventually), you will be alerted and your ebook price will automatically be lowered to match. Sometimes authors use this to their advantage: if they want their ebook to be free on Amazon, they’ll make their ebook free on other platforms (such as Nook Press or Apple, where it is acceptable to do so), thereby forcing Amazon to price-match to free. Independent authors commonly refer to this as “perma-free,” short for “permanently free,” since this is not done unless the author is interested in making the book available for free indefinitely, as a lead generation tool for other titles.

You also have the ability to set prices for 12 other marketplaces, such as Amazon India, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, and so on. Amazon will automatically suggest pricing based on your U.S. price, but some authors, with in-depth knowledge of their market abroad, know how to adjust their pricing to maximize profits.

Finally, Amazon will suggest that you enroll in its exclusivity program, KDP Select.

Exclusivity with Amazon: KDP Select

This program is so important to Amazon that it used to be the first thing Amazon would ask authors when they began the process of self-publishing ebooks: Do you want to enroll in KDP Select? KDP Select requires that you sell your ebook (but not your print book) exclusively through Amazon for auto-renewing periods of 90 days.

Why would you grant Amazon exclusivity like that? Two reasons. First, if you enroll in KDP Select, it will give you five giveaway days out of the 90 you’re enrolled. Giveaways have been well-known to boost sales and the visibility of a book after the giveaway ends, and it’s impossible to offer a giveaway on Amazon unless you’re enrolled in Select. However, some indie authors say that giveaways don’t work as well as they used to—there’s a lot of competition, and it’s tougher to gain visibility through Amazon. The search algorithms favor books that are bought rather than given away. But if your free days land you at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list of free titles, that exposure might be worth it in terms of increased sales for the days following a free promotion, not to mention the number of readers who now have your book. This could lead to more reviews and increased sales of your other books. Still, if you have only one book, even though you might see increased sales of that one book after a giveaway, there’s nowhere for readers to go next—there is nothing else for them to buy—which can reduce a giveaway’s long-term effectiveness.

Second, if you enroll in KDP Select, your book will become available for free to readers who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited (the ebook subscription service that costs $9.99/month). Even though readers do not pay on the basis of each book read through these services, Amazon pays you each time someone borrows and reads your work. But there’s a big catch: payment is based on how many pages are read, and that per-page payment changes every single month. You won’t know what your earnings will be until after the month closes and Amazon decides retroactively what the per-page rate is. While the payment has been historically consistent—usually a bit less than half a cent per page read—it does feel like a zero-sum game. You are competing against other authors for a limited pool of money each month. The more pages that get read, the lower everyone’s payment unless Amazon increases the payout pool (which historically it does from time to time).

Established authors who have several titles sometimes rotate one title at a time through KDP Select because they can get a significant number of new readers from the program who then go on to buy their other titles at regular price. Newer authors with limited readership sometimes have nothing to lose by granting Amazon exclusivity while they use Select to build their audience and score reviews.

There are a few other perks to being enrolled in KDP Select, including:

  • Higher royalties on international sales (70 percent instead of 35 percent)
  • The ability to run a price promotion, known as a Countdown Deal

If your readers buy a significant number of your books from other retailers, then you probably don’t want to anger them by selling your book through Amazon alone. But if you have no readers yet, then building an audience on Amazon before branching out to other venues might be a good idea.

Your Amazon Product Page

Because Amazon represents such a high percentage of book sales in the United States, your Amazon product page may be the first and only thing a reader looks at when deciding whether to purchase your book. You should spend a considerable amount of time completing your book’s description page fully, and then do the same for your Amazon author profile. Leave nothing blank.

Book description

To learn about writing a great book description (up to 4,000 characters), see the section Crafting Your Back Cover Copy or Book Description, since the description should be based on your back cover copy. Whether you are publishing a fiction or nonfiction book, you will have the best success if you study and emulate the description style of top-selling books in your genre or category. This may sound obvious, but few writers do this.

Start off your description copy with a compelling one- to two-sentence log line, something you’ve tested with readers and know will grab their attention. This may be the only copy that readers see, since Amazon adds a “Read more” tag after just a couple of lines—meaning that almost your entire description is hidden. So you need to have a great opening to get readers to click on the “Read more” tag. Some authors and publishers will add in praise, blurbs, or endorsements in their book description—typically at the end—but keep in mind there is a separate section on your product page where these can be placed.

Editorial reviews

After your description, you’ll find the “Editorial Reviews” section of your product page. This includes several components, which can be accessed through Amazon Author Central. (Go to “Books,” then click on the title you want to add information for.)

  • Reviews: If you have any, add professional reviews or coverage of your book, including blurbs and advance praise. If you paid for professional reviews from outlets such as Kirkus Indie, or through a blog tour, this is where they should go or show up.
  • From the author: You can add a personal note to potential readers here.
  • From the inside flap: Useful for hardcovers, but otherwise no need to use.
  • From the back cover: If it’s the same as the product description, no need to include.
  • About the author: This is where you can customize the “about the author” section of your product page for each title. More about you will appear further down your product page, and it’s pulled from your Amazon Author Central bio.

Product details

These fields get populated based on what you entered at Amazon KDP or another distributor’s site, such as IngramSpark. After your book has been on sale for a little while, you’ll have an “Amazon Best Sellers Rank,” which changes multiple times per day based on your book’s pace of sales. You’ll also see specific rankings for the categories you chose for your book.

Amazon Author Central

To control the information that appears under “More About the Author” on your Amazon page, you need to sign up for a free account with Amazon Author Central, which will allow you to create and customize an Amazon author landing page that displays all of the titles you’ve authored or contributed to, along with your official bio and author photo, social media streams, and more. Fill this out as completely as possible.

Some other perks of your Amazon Author Central account—available to all authors:

  • You can access product descriptions and more for all of your published titles, even those from traditional publishers.
  • You can add books if they’re not yet tied to your author account, so they appear on your Amazon author landing page.
  • You can review NPD BookScan sales data for all titles connected to you.
  • You can review Amazon sales ranking data for your titles and authorship over a period of months and years.


If you decide not to sell exclusively with Amazon by enrolling in KDP Select, then you’ll want to decide how you’ll manage distribution to other ebook retailers, primarily Apple Books, Barnes & Noble Nook Press, and Kobo. Each of these retailers allows you to create a free account and directly upload your ebooks for sale—very similar to Amazon KDP—although some authors won’t want to go to the trouble, given that sales may be very low (even in the single digits) during an entire calendar year. First we’ll discuss the key attributes of each ebook retailer, then which ebook distributors you might prefer to use to reach these retailers.

Apple Books

Apple is now considered by some to be the No. 2 ebook retailer in the United States. It has enjoyed consistent growth since its debut in 2010, despite launching after other major players in the market. (For those who follow industry news, it was the launch of Apple Books—and its agency pricing model—that ultimately led to the Department of Justice lawsuit that accused Apple and the Big Five publishers of ebook price fixing.)

Unlike Nook and Kobo ebooks, when readers purchase an ebook from Apple Books, they can only read that book on Apple devices. In other words: the Books app is not available for non-Apple devices. Always remember that if you choose for some reason to distribute via Apple only, you’re excluding at least half of your potential readers who use Android-based devices or PCs.

Working directly with Apple Books requires that you use its iTunes Connect system, which is somewhat burdensome for authors who are not already Mac users and don’t already have an Apple ID. Essentially, you will be “applying” to distribute via Apple Books, so the process isn’t quite as smooth or instant as that with other retailers and distributors. You’ll have to input all of your business and legal information first, and there will be a processing period before you can begin to add books to your iTunes Connect account. Once you’re ready to upload books, Apple requires you to have an EPUB file ready to go (it offers no file conversion), or you can recreate your book in its proprietary .ibooks format—which can be done only by using its free Mac software, iBooks Author.

Other workings to be aware of:

  • Apple pays 70 percent, regardless of how you price your work. This is a significant advantage if you regularly price low (below $2.99) or high (above $9.99).
  • You can set your books to free, and you don’t have to guarantee Apple the lowest available price.
  • Apple allows you to generate promo codes for your ebooks, unlike Amazon.
  • Apple Books is available in more than 50 countries (more than Amazon).
  • A large percentage of the romance category in the Apple Books Store comes from independent authors, and many are featured in front-page promotions. Apple has been actively seeking to promote more indie titles in all categories.
  • Apple allows for ebook preorders up to a year in advance of the publication date. You don’t need final files to set up a preorder. Preorder sales count toward getting your ebook on bestseller lists while the book is still a preorder, and then the sales are counted again on launch day. This is one reason why Apple is a preferred retailer for preorder pushes. (Amazon only counts preorders once when it comes to ranking—at the time that they occur.)

Barnes & Noble Nook Press

Barnes & Noble is considered the No. 2 or No. 3 ebook retailer, although it has suffered dramatic sales declines and pulled back on its international presence; now the only country where you can buy Nook ebooks is the United States.

Uploading to Nook is similar to Amazon KDP; Nook is flexible in what file formats it accepts, and the system is automated. Nook also offers a print-on-demand program, which seems meant to compete with Amazon; what potentially differentiates it is the carrot of having your print edition picked up and stocked in a brick-and-mortar location. For that to happen, you must not only meet certain sales thresholds, but also pass muster with a Barnes & Noble internal review team. Thus, most authors may never make it into Barnes & Noble stores.

Kobo Writing Life

Kobo is the most important and prominent ebook retailer in Canada, as well as internationally, with reach to 190 countries. If you have a strong base of readers outside the U.S., then you may choose to work directly through Kobo Writing Life (its portal for self-publishing authors) rather than using a distributor. Also, Kobo owns OverDrive—the ebook distributor that’s critical to the U.S. library market—and has an ebook retail partnership with Flipkart, the most significant book retailer in India; those affiliations can be very helpful if your books do well and catch the attention of Kobo’s marketers and promotions managers.

Kobo considers itself to have a more sophisticated reader base, an audience that isn’t searching the bargain bin of $0.99 ebooks, and is more likely and willing to pay $9.99 and more for ebooks. Given that Kobo pays 70 percent on ebooks priced beyond $9.99, there is considerable opportunity here for authors who regularly bundle their ebooks together or can charge premium prices. Another bonus to working directly with Kobo is that you’re allowed to schedule price promotions, whereas with other ebook retailers, you have to manually change the ebook price at the moment you want it to take effect.

To benefit the most from Kobo usually means working with it directly and creating unique pricing for your ebook in each territory. (Some ebook distributors that reach Kobo will pass this functionality on to you; others will not.) Also, for the best distribution through Kobo, you’ll need your own ISBN.

Additional Ebook Retailers and Platforms

Here are other players to be aware of:

  • Google Play. Most authors use a distributor since the sales potential here is often minimal. (See the section on ebook distributors below.)
  • This is an ebook subscription service similar in scope to Kindle Unlimited. You can make your ebook available through Scribd only if you use a distributor.
  • This is the key distributor serving libraries. It is possible, if not desirable, to work with OverDrive directly. You can reach OverDrive by using a distributor such as Smashwords.
  • This is the key ebook retailing operation in Germany, which is considered the third most important country for U.S. authors when it comes to ebook sales. (Ebook sales are increasing there rather than declining, as in the U.S.)

Ebook Distributors

If you’d prefer to lessen your administration burden and are willing to give up some control and access to various promotional tools of each ebook retailer (not to mention some of your profits), then you’ll want to consider using one of the following ebook distributors. This is not an exhaustive list, but highlights the most popular and well-known services. It is completely acceptable to use any of these distributors while still going to one or more retailers directly. Both Smashwords and Draft2Digital allow you to select where you’d like your ebook distributed, so you can deselect any channel that you’re already serving directly.

Using these services entails going through a self-service interface and uploading system that is very much like the process described for Amazon KDP.


Smashwords is the largest ebook distributor that serves self-publishing authors, and it’s also been around the longest, since 2008. More than 100,000 authors have used the service, and it has distribution agreements with Nook, Apple, Kobo, and many other companies, but not Amazon. It’s a free self-service platform that doesn’t offer any additional services or assistance; authors need to have their ebook files ready for upload (Microsoft Word or EPUB). It does not demand exclusivity and takes about a 10 percent cut of your sales.


Started in 2012, Draft2Digital is an ebook distributor that has started to become popular among self-published authors for being easier to use and offering better customer service than Smashwords. It distributes to Nook, Apple, Kobo, and others—much the same territory as Smashwords. It also takes the same cut of sales as Smashwords. It also offers POD distribution via Ingram.


Based in Hungary, PublishDrive is popular with well-established self-published authors who don’t want to give up any of their sales profits. The company takes zero percent net sales but charges a monthly flat fee for its service, based on the number of titles distributed. In addition to offering POD distribution through Ingram, PublishDrive also offers a tool called Abacus that’s helpful for royalty splitting or sharing when authors collaborate on titles.

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