Having had several discussions with various publishers who wish to develop e-books, we have realised that there is much confusion over how one should proceed. The following is an attempt to answer some of the questions that are often raised.
Are there different kinds of e-books?
There are at least three widely used types of e-books. One is the ubiquitous PDF, which in a form called PDF/A has found widespread use especially for viewing on mobile devices (such as e-readers, smartphones and on computer screens). Given the fact that this type (or “format” in e-book-speak) can be viewed on most devices, it makes sense to invest in at least this format if you have invested in the development of e-books.
Devices that can read e-books are lumped together under a not-so-imaginative term called the e-reader.
The other two widely used formats (types) are the EPUB and MOBI formats. Of these, the EPUB format can be used on most devices except on the Kindle, which is the Amazon e-book reader. This includes almost every other e-reader including the Kobo, the iPad, the Nook and most mobile devices. However, because many people buy their e-books from Amazon and use it on the Kindle, it sometimes becomes necessary for the book to be developed in the MOBI format as well (which the Kindle will “support” along with another lesser-used format called AZW)
There is one other aspect of e-books publishers must bear in mind i.e. the development of e-books as software applications or “apps”. Put simply, in this context these apps are computer programs that add visuals and sounds to the text of your book in a way that makes the final amalgamation appealing. Often you will hear of apps being developed, especially for children’s books and books where there is a need for “show and tell” like, for instance, in STM books.
A good chart of the various e-book formats and the e-readers that allow each of these formats to be viewed is given here. Please note that audio-books too fall under the purview of e-books. However, this discussion will not cover audio-books.
What kind of e-book must I develop?
This really depends on the list you have and the preferences of those reading your books. EPUB and PDF (or PDF/A) seem to be the more widely used formats, although one cannot discount the popularity of Amazon and the fact that they sell e-books only in the Kindle-compatible MOBI format.
If the appeal of your book can be enhanced with audio and animations, that book is best suited for viewing as an app. In all other cases, you will have to choose between developing the book in one or all of the PDF/A, EPUB and MOBI formats.
What are the costs involved?
This usually depends on the vendor (the e-book developer) and cannot be explained easily. However, this question is often raised as is the next question: is it worth the investment? It all actually depends on the publisher. Does the publisher see a demand for its books as e-books? Will it help the publisher reach markets that hitherto could not be served because of the restrictions that printed books pose? Will there be enough sales to justify the charges quoted by e-book developers?
Our vote goes for the EPUB format simply because they can be used on a wide variety of e-readers and because the format itself is constantly being developed to make the reading experience richer. It is also based on the same (HTML) technology that is used to develop websites and the tools used to develop it are available for free. Even a small publishing house having an in-house web developer can develop books in this format.
E-book developers are currently a dime a dozen (disclaimer: CinnamonTeal too provides e-book development services). While there isn’t a “best” one, a good development company would distinguish itself by working with the concerned publisher (or author, in case of self-publishing) and ensuring that the book in the electronic form looks as good or even better than that in the printed form. The aesthetic charm that a printed book has cannot and should not be lost during the process of conversion to the electronic form. So while the publisher may choose a developer that it is comfortable working with, care should be taken to ensure that the quality of the book, its readability and its appeal, is not compromised.
How much must I price my ebooks at?
The jury is out on this one. Many customers think that because the next e-book doesn’t cost anything to produce (it is an electronic file just like any document on your computer and a ctrl-C, ctrl-v sequence should give you a copy), it shouldn’t cost too much to purchase. Many customers discount the cost of production that must be incurred before an e-book can be offered for sale. That said, there is no conclusive study to say that book sales drop after prices are increased (or that they grow after prices are decreased).
Often, like any other product, it becomes incumbent on the publisher to “find” that price at which customers will buy its e-books. One approach could be to start with a price equivalent to that of its hardcover and lower that price if sales do not follow. Adding to the confusion over pricing is the fact that some platforms like Amazon charge publishers variable discount rates depending on the listed price of the e-book. What remains true is that the price of the e-book should not only reflect its production cost but also its perceived value.
There are many publishers and authors who give away their e-books for free hoping that this practice might translate into sales of the printed versions of those books.
Where do I sell my e-books?
The obvious choice should be the publisher’s own website. If a publisher has already invested in the development of a website and if that website already supports purchase of books, the next step should be to enable the purchase of e-books too.
If that is not possible, or if the publisher is looking at alternative channels, other options do exist. Platforms such as Amazon and aggregators such as Smashwords do a decent job of e-book sales. However, for publishers based in India, receiving payments from these service providers is often an arduous task. Among the Indian stores, Infibeam sells e-books. Our concern Dogears Etc. soon will.
What is DRM? Do I need to use it?
DRM (or Digital Rights Management) is essentially software that prevents sharing of e-book files between users, even between two e-Readers belonging to the same user. While many publishers have embraced the use of DRM as a way to prevent the piracy of their books, many others haven’t. This is primarily because many readers feel that they should not be told what to do with their purchases and DRM-like restrictions only increase their suspicions towards publishers. Secondly, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that piracy has indeed impacted the book business. Further, most DRM implementations can and are tampered with thus leading to a waste of money spent on it.
As is often the argument, publishers need to find a way for buyers to buy their book on account of the quality they offer. It will not do publishers any good to merely prevent the buyer from copying or sharing a book through the use of restrictive measures such as DRM. Through judicious use of the material they have developed, publishers need to enrich the user experience and make buyers keep coming. In website development terms, this is called “stickiness” and it is something publishers will have to train themselves to develop too.
There is a subtle form of DRM called “social DRM” that does not prevent buyers from sharing the books they have purchased or place any restrictions on how it is used. However, it does track the e-book file and can identify the buyer should the file be copied and shared on a large scale.
Do e-books work for Indian language scripts?
Among the three main e-book types, the MOBI format does not support Indic scripts. EPUB does, with some constraints on the type of fonts that can be used, while PDFs, of course, do support most fonts as long as they can be embedded. This is very important for publishers to know because if the book uses decorative fonts, chances are that those fonts cannot be used for the e-book. Publishers must therefore clarify this aspect before engaging e-book developers so as to not be disappointed with the outcome.
We hope we have answered some basic questions you might have about e-books. It will be the constant endeavour of this blog to clear the cobwebs over e-book development, an attempt we have already initiated. If you have more queries, we will be happy to answer them individually. Do contact us at ebook-helpdesk @dogearsetc.com with your queries.