Perils of DITA publishing, part 7: the displeasures of distributing ebooks

Alan Pringle / Opinion2 Comments

In which we uncover some unpleasant realities about distributing ebook editions.

Ebooks let authors and publishers reach a larger audience without incurring the steep costs associated with print production. Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that distributing ebooks is always a short, simple process.

Here are two important lessons I’ve learned from distributing EPUB and Kindle versions of Scriptorium’s titles, including our new book, Content Strategy 101.

What you see is (not always) what you get

So, you’ve created a valid EPUB file or an error-free Kindle file. You’re ready to distribute!

Think again.

You need to open your file in as many ereaders or emulators as you can to see how the content looks. The variance in formatting on different devices and apps can be staggering. Check out these two samples Sarah O’Keefe and I put in Content Strategy 101 to illustrate this issue:

EPUB on iPad

EPUB in iBooks app on iPad

EPUB on Nook

EPUB on NOOK Color

Amazon’s free Kindle Previewer lets you see what your content looks like on six different Kindle devices (as of the time I wrote this) and also converts EPUB files to the MOBI format (which is what you upload to the Kindle store). The formatting differences across the Kindle devices are significant, particularly in tables. I highly recommend giving the Previewer a good workout before distributing Kindle titles.

Just a few weeks ago, a big publisher released unreadable ebook versions of a highly anticipated new novel. While it is very difficult—if not impossible—to test content on every device/app and to anticipate every formatting variance, I think it’s fair to say this particular publisher did not test its ebook files like it should have. A production proofing pass is as essential for an ebook as it is for a printed book. Sometimes, you have to make some compromises in your coding and design to get decent (but not great) formatting for content across different devices. Even though we did a proofing pass, we still had problems with the font being too large on a particular device that I have grown to hate even more (cough, NOOK Color), so we adjusted the font size of body text and uploaded a new file to our store.

Pricing can be a PITA (and I’m not talking about bread)

Not that kind of PITA: photo of pita bread with strikethrough

Not that kind of PITA, unfortunately (flickr: ilovebutter)

At Scriptorium, we set our ebook pricing at roughly a third of the price of the print edition. In the case of Content Strategy 101, the print edition is $29.95, so we sell the EPUB in our online store, the Scriptorium Emporium, for $9.99 . (Update July 30, 2014: we now offer the EPUB edition for free.) Because we have our own store, we have a lot of latitude in setting the prices for EPUB editions, and we get all the money from sales after deducting credit card fees and the cost of our online store subscription. Pricing, however, gets less straightforward (and even a bit prickly) for the Kindle edition, which Amazon distributes.

Amazon gets a chunk of every Kindle sale. The size of that chunk depends on the royalty option a publisher chooses: 35 percent or 70 percent. When I first learned about these royalty options, my first thought was, “Why would you go for a measly 35 percent when you can get 70?” Well, there are a few catches on that 70 percent royalty rate, including some price matching scariness and a delivery fee Amazon charges publishers for each Kindle download. In the US, the charge is 15 cents per MB. (The Kindle edition of Content Strategy 101 is 1.29 MB, so Amazon deducts 19 cents from each Kindle version bought through the US site.) If a publisher chooses the 35 percent royalty rate, Amazon doesn’t charge the delivery fee.

We considered embedding video in the ebook versions of Content Strategy 101. The size of those videos would have forced us to accept the 35 percent royalty rate for Kindle; the embedded videos would have also significantly increased the bandwidth requirements for EPUB sales in our online store. Those pricing/cost issues, along with the logistics of embedding video formats that work across multiple ereader devices and operating systems, pushed us to shelve the idea of embedded video for this book.

Next year, I’m presenting a free webcast about the dirty little secrets of distributing ebook editions. Instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of creating ebook files, I’ll talk about pricing and other distribution challenges in the ever-changing ebook ecosystem. By then, a lot of what I’ve written here may no longer be true! Register now:

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About the Author

Alan Pringle

Twitter

Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

2 Comments on “Perils of DITA publishing, part 7: the displeasures of distributing ebooks”

  1. Can the same xml file be used for both PDF or EPUB copies of a User Manual? That is, content transformation is done on the fly.

    1. We used the same XML source files (bookmap, ditamaps, and topic files) to create the EPUB and PDF of Content Strategy 101. We didn’t do the transforms “on the fly,” however. We ran our DITA Open Toolkit plugins to render the output.

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