Navigating the ebook Self-Publishing Maze

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The semester's finally starting to wind down, and before the finals crunch begins, I've been digging into the process of making an e-version of my self-published book, Show Networks and Control Systems. I started with the print version because that's what most of the respondents to my reader survey wanted. Many people I've talked to prefer print for technical books like mine because the various e-book formats don't handle complicated graphic layouts very well (unless the book is written for one specific, proprietary format, which I'm not interested in doing). And I agree: In my own e-reading of books with even just a few graphics, I often am frustrated when encountering apparently unrelated sentence fragments, which turn out to be the caption for a picture on the next screen or a table heading or something.  E-book files work this way, of course, so that the text can be re-sized and re-flowed for any size tablet or reader, which is an important feature.  PDF's don't do this, and are a possible solution, but I find it frustrating reading PDF's on a tablet since--without the text reflow--I have to constantly zoom in and out, dealing with "pages" which don't really exist on a tablet screen.

To print my book, of course, I already generated a PDF, with graphics, sidebar symbols, tables, text set asides and different text formats in just about every one of the 500 pages, each of which is anchored to the related text in Adobe Framemaker. Writing and editing and laying out the book, I had a total WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") experience--what I saw on my monitors when writing in Framemaker is what the print reader would eventually see.  When I finished writing, I uploaded PDFs to Amazon's excellent printing and distribution company Createspace (referral link here) and voila, a few days later I had a printed book proof via UPS, and the print quality was excellent. I made some corrections, uploaded a revision and then clicked a button on the screen, which released the printed book to the world.  

Createspace hosts an "Estore" for me, collects the money (and deals with credit card security and fraud, etc), prints each book on demand, and ships it out to the customer. I set the price and get a royalty from them, paid out monthly. They have sales channels through Amazon US, Europe and Japan, and bookstores, where I make less money, but customers can get things like free shipping. I can buy as many copies as I want at a low printing-only price and sell them however I like. If I want to revise something in the text, I just do so and upload a new PDF; the next printed copy would be corrected.  I own the copyright, ISBN, everything. If I want to make up a discount promotion and use it to fund raise for charity (which I'm doing right now!), I can. If I want to stick the PDF's from the chapters online and make supporting videos, I own everything and can do whatever I like.  It's been a great experience.

The self-ebook-publishing process for graphics-heavy books like mine, on the other hand, is a byzantine maze that produces an inconsistent product across a wide array of potential platforms, unless you lock into one proprietary e-format and distribution chain (which you do at your own risk--see "Apple won't carry an ebook because it mentions Amazon"). I plan to issue updates and future editions of my book, so I don't want to fork the files into separate print and e-versions, and even if I did that, getting a decent e-layout is much harder in an e-book format. As Graphic Arts Magazine said, "...producing high-quality, commercial EPUBs still requires a lot of skill and expertise—not unlike the typographers and colour scanner operators of the last century."  Progress!

So, while it seems pretty much impossible with our current options for me to create an e-version that will actually stand on its own as a fully readable, easy to use document, people have been asking for an e-version since day one.  And there are obvious benefits to an e-verion: an e-reader is a lot smaller and lighter to carry around than my nearly 500 page book; the e-version will likely sell for less than the print version (although, interestingly, it's not that much cheaper to distribute the e-version!); the e-format allows searching, an interactive table of contents and index; and the e-version will give the reader to all the cross references that I already have in the source files. So, I bought an add on for Framemaker that allows me to export to epub format (the open file standard used by Apple and many others, which can be converted into mobi (Kindle), etc), and in my early testing, I've been able to produce at least a marginally acceptable, searchable, cross-referenced document from the same source files as the print version. And, of course, I already have a PDF with the same features and a much higher quality layout.  So, how can I get these out to readers?  That's even more of a quagmire. Here's what I want:

  • Open standard, non-proprietary file format. PDF and EPUB seem to fit the bill.
  • No DRM (digital rights management). I want to allow people to share their copy with their friend, put it on any device they own, etc.  However, I also want:
  • Individually watermarked files to discourage people from casually uploading (although I'm not sure how this works with EPUB files--if you have an example, please let me know).
  • Direct sales through my website using a service to handle all the above, collect payments, handle file creation, watermarking, etc.

All this technology exists, of course--many publishers sell individually watermarked PDF files.  But I have not yet been able to find a solution that provides these services to self-publishers.   Pieces exist, though; a Dutch company BooXtream has a "Social DRM" system where they tag each copy sold with the purchaser's name both visibly and invisibly in the file itself. Companies like Bitmenu handle file distribution and payment collection, but I haven't found a company yet who could handle individual watermarking and distribution for self-publishers.  And even if I can sell files that way, that requires the users to get the file into their reader somehow, which sometimes isn't easy (Kindle, for example, doesn't directly support EPUB but you can use an app, etc).  

So at this point, I think I will be stuck using DRM, and I might just release it onto one or two ebook platforms to get something out there, or I could use a company like Bookbaby or Smashwords to take my epub file and put it up on many ebook publishers.  This would at least get it out there, and let people who want some version on some platform have it.  I hope to do this by mid-January of next year. 

What do you think?  Please post a comment here and let me know your thoughts on this crazy issue!

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