After an initial wave of enthusiasm for electronic books (e-books) and all its capabilities, the clamour for e-books seems to have subsided. For many traditional publishers, the development of e-books is an important part of their go-to-market plan, if only to ensure that sales are not lost because prospective buyers did not find an e-book to buy. For authors, who are considering self-publishing, though, adopting an “e-book first” approach could be a smart move.

But first the caveats:

a. E-books haven’t got quite the reception that was expected of them just a few years back. In India e-book sales have hovered around the 10% mark according to some studies. Although there are no statistics to back this, it is safe to say that a majority of these sales have come from the ‘Education and Learning’ sector. In 2016, Juggernaut, a new publishing house set up in Delhi, bet almost exclusively on digital content (consumed in the form of e-books). Yet, the response to e-books has remained lukewarm.

Several factors have contributed to this. While it was predicted that the rise in sales of smartphones would contribute to the rise in sales of e-books, that hasn’t quite happened. This is because users are looking for free information, and for audio-visual entertainment. Moreover, the lack of e-book reader apps, whether for text in English or in other Indian languages, are either too rudimentary in the user experience they offer, or too inconsistent across operating systems of various phones and devices. In India, particularly, there aren’t many platforms that facilitate the sale of e-books. DailyHunt and Matrubhumi are among the leading platforms for sale of e-books (we offer this service too), especially for e-books in Indian languages. An aggregator (a service that “pushes” e-books for sale on different other platforms) is yet to emerge in India.

b. The pricing of e-books is also a tricky issue. On the one hand you have users who are spoiled with offers of free content (on data subscription services that cost next to nothing) and will not pay for e-books, no matter how much they are discounted. On the other hand, the relative low costs of their printed counterparts makes the tangible version a more attractive choice as compared to e-books.

c. E-books, being in the digital realm of things, in one option available to the digital content buyer among the many options available to him. A reader who is thus spoilt for choice, therefore, has the luxury of evaluating the pros and cons of buying an e-book versus buying videos, games, music, etc. In the end it is almost like luring the buyer into a bookstore.

d. Finally there are the die-hard book aficionados who simply value a physical copy, and the tactile experiences that come with it, to anything else. You cannot sell too many e-books to this market segment although the travelers among them are slowly changing their mind, thanks to the attraction of being able to carry along thousands of books to read, on a single device.

Nonetheless, it is our contention that e-books are a good way for self-publishing authors to test the market and get published. Here’s why:
a. E-book publishing eliminates the costs of printing, shipping and warehousing: This means authors can spend their money ensuring that the book is well edited, has a good cover and is design (typeset) elegantly. Immediately after cover design and typesetting, the book is available to read, without any additional investments in printing the book, having it shipped to a warehouse, and stored there. Upon purchase, the book is instantaneously available to the buyer. This “immediate availability” makes it attractive to many buyers.

b. E-books are a good way to test the market: This actually follows from the above point. After an author has a book edited, designed and typeset, she is faced with a choice of whether to print the book or not (i.e. have an e-book). Both have costs associated with them, but the latter option has lesser costs involved and an almost zero marginal cost (the cost associated to produce one additional unit). In the near absence of marginal costs, e-books become a better way to test the readership for the book.

c. There are no debilitating costs of shipping to the buyer: These are not the costs that are borne in the process of shipping the books from the printer to the warehouse, rather those that are borne while shipping the book to the buyer. The high shipping costs that a buyer, especially an overseas buyer, pays for a printed book are completely avoided in case of an e-book.

d. E-books can nowadays incorporate audio and video: These technologies are available and should be used if they can add to the value of the book. However, it must be noted, many readers still do not support their use and, consequently, the author may have spent on these technologies for nothing.

So while e-books seem an attractive option for self-publishing authors, it has its downsides too. Here are a few:
a. There is a threat of unbridled sharing: Let’s not call it piracy, let’s just call it unbridled sharing. It used to be done with physical copies too, but it is possible to do it with electronic files much more easily. Different publishers have viewed and have addressed this problem differently.

b. There are many readers and sometimes none at all: Because of the many formats and the many ways the formats can be implemented, it becomes difficult to ensure that a book that looks and reads a particular way on one reader will look exactly the same way on another. Nonetheless, there are a few companies like Kobo and Amazon that offer the same experience across all their readers.

All said and done, an e-book offers a self-publishing author a faster route to market, with the option to price the book independent of the volumes produced (thus avoiding the need to recoup costs of production). It also allows the author the ability to develop different versions for different markets, thus catering to the cultural sensitivities of each market. In a sense, it offers an even greater flexibility on top of what self-publishing already offers and a smart author could well use it to her own advantage.

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Okay, so you have purchased an e-book, paid for it and see it land in your inbox. What do you do next and how does one proceed to get the best out of this new beast?

Ebooks are read using one of two methods: a) using a dedicated e-reader and b)using reading software on your tab (like a Nexus or iPad).

An ebook reader is a convenient piece of technology designed to suit the needs of an avid reader- easy to use and carry. Ebook readers take up less space than paperback and one can easily download the new releases at the comfort of their house. But like all electronic devices, ebook readers have their set of drawbacks.

Each ebook reader is different from the other in at least two aspects:
a. There is no standard format in all the various readers available and hence an ebook will appear differently when viewed on different readers such as the Kindle, the iPad, the Kobo or any e-reading software on electronic tabs.
Web based readers also read differently when viewed on different systems. The difference in readability varies according to the Operating System on each of these devices.

image credit: dave.ceylon (flickr)

image credit: dave.ceylon (flickr)

This is because e-books are primarily developed in 3-4 formats i.e. the mobi format, which can be viewed only on the Amazon Kindle reader and on tabs using the Kindle app, the epub format, which can be viewed on many more readers including the Kobo, the Nook and the iPad, besides on many tabs, the HTML format which can be viewed in most browsers just like web pages and the PDF format which allows one to read on the computer screen comfortably. While purchasing an ebook, therefore, it is important to know which type (format) of ebook your reader will support. In most cases, readers will support only one format of e-books and not the others.
Publishers must keep this in mind while undertaking development of ebooks because the ebook developer may be qualified to develop in only one format.

b) Ebooks do not have the concept of a page because a page is as big as the screen of the device you use and how much you zoom in or zoom out while reading. This may seem harmless but it is important that you use the bookmarking feature available in most readers to enable you to go back and check something. When you zoom in or zoom out (increase or decrease font size) you will find that the number of lines or text on your screen change. Viewing the same ebook on a smaller screen (a small phone) will change the view yet again. This is because the text is free flowing in an ebook, which means the text will move on to the next page and so forth when the font size is changed. This irregularity can be tackled by having the text in a fixed layout. Fixed layout refers to setting up a page with a fixed set of text. In such a case the text will remain in place even after zooming it in or out. This option works best with epubs but not with the mobi format.

Ebook readers rarely accept all ebook formats. Similarly, navigation within a book is better aided in some readers and not so well in others. Not all readers offer wireless facility which makes downloading books a hassle. In many cases, the battery life is an added disadvantage. A crack on the screen or software malfunction can easily damage an ebook reader. Make sure that you consider the cost, compatibility and other software issues when purchasing a reader.

– Wileen Barretto