Helping authors publish

Tag: Ebooks

To DRM or not to DRM?

One of the questions we ask our authors is whether or not they want to enable DRM for their ebooks. Our recommendation is always not to enable it, but as with everything else, it’s the author’s book and so the final decision is theirs. This article explains what DRM is, why you might want it, and why we always recommend against using it.

What is DRM?

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, which is technology that tries to prevent unauthorised copying of electronic files. There are DRM technologies available for various types of electronic files, but this article is only concerned with ebooks.

In theory, an ebook with DRM can only be viewed on an authorised device. In other words, if you buy a Kindle ebook from Amazon, you can read that ebook on any Kindle app or device that is registered to your Amazon account. If you buy an ebook from Kobo, you can read it on any Kobo app or device registered to your Kobo account. There’s no point uploading your file to a piracy site, since no-one else will be able to read it.

Does it stop piracy?

If it worked as intended, DRM would stop piracy. In practice, for anyone who knows how, removing DRM from ebooks is quick and easy. Most readers don’t know how, of course, but anyone wanting to pirate ebooks can find it out from a quick internet search.

This means that pirates know how to get around the restrictions. Thus, the pirates aren’t affected, and piracy isn’t prevented.

What does it mean for readers?

Most of the time, nothing. But if a reader has been reading books on one platform and decides to move to another, they won’t be able to take any DRM’d books to their new ereader. While it’s possible to strip the DRM to do this, the average user is unlikely to know how.

If the vendor decides to stop selling ebooks, the reader will not be able to read their DRM’d books elsewhere. If you’re thinking that’s unlikely, note that Microsoft stopped selling ebooks as recently as 2019. Back in 2013, Kobo removed all self-published books from its catalogue in what turned out to be a temporary purge. In the early days of Kindles back in 2009, Amazon removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles.

So overall, there is no real benefit to enabling DRM, but you might potentially cause problems for readers.

Reading PDFs on ereaders

A while ago, a friend was thinking about buying an ereader for her husband, who reads a lot of PDFs. She thought it would be great for him to be able to read them on an eink device. She asked for advice, and this post is based on what I told her.

Screenshot of a PDF displayed on a Kindle Paperwhite
Reading a PDF on a Kindle Paperwhite. The page size is A4, but the Kindle has a 6″ screen, so the text is very small and difficult to read.

There are many articles online claiming that Kindles and other ereaders support PDF, or how easy it is to convert PDF to your ereader’s preferred format. They’re right, but with some significant caveats. Reading a PDF on an ereader is a far cry from reading an ePub or mobi format ebook on the same device. The PDF won’t resize and reflow to work nicely on the screen. This leads to a lot of zooming and scrolling. I found it such an unpleasant experience that I bought a 10″ tablet to read PDFs on. I still prefer my Kindle and my Kobo for reading ebooks, but won’t use them for PDFs.

Screenshot of a PDF on a Kindle, zoomed in so that the text is large enough to read.
The same PDF on the same Kindle, zoomed in to make the text large enough to read. The user has to scroll horizontally to read each line.

So, why not convert the PDF to ePub or mobi, and read that on the ereader? Converting PDFs is simple enough using Calibre, but the results are very uncertain. The Calibre manual states that “PDF documents are one of the worst formats to convert from.” If it’s a single-column PDF it might work reasonably well. It won’t be as pretty as the original, paragraph breaks might be in odd places, etc. If the PDF has headers and footers, they will be included in the converted file as if they were a standard part of the text, which can be jarring.

Screenshot of a PDF converted to mobi and displayed on a Kindle Paperwhite.
The same PDF converted to a mobi file to read on a Kindle.

Two-column PDFs won’t convert well at all. The converter doesn’t recognise the columns, and so you get the first line of the first column, then the first line of the second column, second line of the first column, second line of the second column, etc. The result is unreadable. Text boxes and the like can also really mess with it.

If you’re going to read a lot of PDFs, I would strongly recommend something with a 10″ or larger screen. 10″ tablets are common and some are reasonably inexpensive, but many people don’t like reading on a back-lit screen, hence the popularity of eink devices for reading ebooks. Kobo recently announced the Kobo Elipsa, which has a 10.3″ eink screen. This should be excellent for reading PDFs and ebooks, but it’s significantly more expensive than either a standard ereader with a 6″ screen or a 10″ tablet.

Why pay for formatting?

When done well, a reader doesn’t notice a book’s interior formatting. The purpose of the formatting, after all, is not to draw attention to itself, but rather to allow the reader to concentrate on the words in the book and the author’s message. When the interior is not done well, on the other hand, the reader is drawn out of the story. The reader notices the imperfections, and these will lead to a poor impression of the book as a whole.

There are many elements to a book’s interior. Authors are readers first, but as stated earlier, good formatting is invisible and doesn’t get noticed. Consequently, we don’t notice all the little things that make a professional interior. That makes it difficult to create an interior that will live up to a reader’s expectations.

Ebooks add an extra layer of complexity. The interior of a print book is fixed, but with an ebook, the reader can change almost anything. An ebook can be read on a tiny phone screen, a large monitor, or anything in-between. The interior formatting has to be able to adjust elegantly to all these possibilities. The elements of the book (cover, start position, epigraph, dedication, etc) must all be specially coded so that the reader device or software to identify them. It should also contain a metadata table of contents that can be displayed by a menu item or similar, in addition to the standard table of contents at the start of the book.

An ebook file should conform to the ePub standards. If it doesn’t, many vendors will refuse to accept it. A professional formatter understands all these requirements. They will be able to create a file that looks good on any screen, and passes the validation checks performed by vendors so that it will be accepted for sale.

Large print books have their own set of rules and expectations, to make them easier to read for people with limited vision. Some of these contradict the standard rules, so it’s not enough to simply increase the font size.

It’s possible to learn to do this yourself, using online resources to learn how to format a print book interior and an ebook. But these require an investment of time and possibly money, which is unlikely to be worthwhile for most authors. There are also converters online, some of which are free, but the results are unlikely to compare well to the work of a professional.

If you want a professionally designed interior that will allow your readers to enjoy your story, contact us.

DriveThruFiction: how to sell there, and why you should

DriveThruFiction is a small site, and most indie authors don’t bother with it. But it has some very useful features, and if you’re willing to put in a little time and effort, you have the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond. For Robin, DriveThruFiction and their sister sites are bigger than Kobo, Apple, Nook, or Google Play.

DriveThruFiction is just one of several sites under the OneBookShelf banner. Robin has been publishing and selling on OneBookShelf since 2011, primarily on Wargame Vault. When uploading, it’s just a few tick boxes to publish to any others that are relevant, so most of Robin’s books are also on DriveThruRPG and DriveThruFiction.

DriveThruFiction grew out of DriveThruRPG, which started before ebooks and ereaders were popular, and they originally focused on PDFs. Nowadays, they support mobi and ePub as well as PDF and a variety of other formats, including MP3, so you can even sell audio books there.

To get started, set up a publisher account. Once set up, you can add your books. Drive ThruFiction offer print on demand (hardback and paperback) as well as electronic formats. The print on demand option uses Lightning Source, Ingram Spark’s sister company, to handle the actual printing, but unlike Ingram Spark, there’s no setup fee.

Print & ebook bundling

If a book is available in print and ebook, you can set an add-on cost which is the amount charged for the ebook when bought with the print book. This can be zero, so that a customer that buys the print book gets the ebook for free. Or it can be a discounted price for the ebook.

Affiliates

DriveThruFiction offers an affiliate scheme, with links that are simple to set up. If someone buys within fifteen days of following your affiliate link you get up to 5% of the purchase price. Our Local Links WordPress plugin can automatically add your affiliate code to DriveThruFiction links on your website.

Royalty split

You can split the royalties of individual titles, so that a fixed percentage goes to someone else. This was originally intended to allow automatic compensation of illustrators, but Robin has used it to split the royalties on a co-authored book.

Pay what you want

DriveThruFiction offers a “pay what you want” pricing option. This allows customers to get the title for free (or at cost for print on demand titles), or to pay whatever they wish. This can be a useful alternative to permafree.

Tracking where sales come from

DriveThruFiction uses “source codes” to track where sales come from. By adding a parameter to the end of a link, eg “?src=website” you can monitor how many sales came from that link. Our Local Links WordPress plugin can automatically add a source code to DriveThruFiction links on your website.

Marketing tools

Let’s be honest, many authors dislike the idea of marketing, but without marketing, books don’t sell. Fortunately, DriveThruFiction have a range of tools that will help. Most of them require expenditure of “Publisher Promotion Points” (PPP). It is possible to buy PPP, but they’re deliberately expensive to discourage buying. Every publisher is given ten PPP every month, plus an extra one for every $10 of sales they made the previous month.

The cost of promotions are variable, depending on how many publishers are already using the option. The more publishers that are using a given feature, the higher the cost in PPP to use it. If you can’t afford a particular promotion, it’s worth checking again the next day as the cost might have gone down.

Bundling

There is built-in support for bundling several titles. Just create a bundle and add titles. Set a bundle price for each title, and the bundle price will be the total of them. Alternatively, you can set a price for the bundle, and each book’s bundle price will be set accordingly.

It’s equally simple to set up a multi-author bundle. Just set a password for the bundle, then give that password to the other authors. They will then be able to add their books to the bundle. When the bundle sells, each book’s author gets their royalty based on the book’s bundle price.

Email your readers

You can’t get the email addresses of your readers, but you can email them via the website. These emails may not contain links to outside sites, but they can contain links to your other books on DriveThruFiction. Readers can opt out of receiving these emails, and you can see a report showing how many emails will be sent before sending it.

Discount links

DriveThruFiction has a simple interface to create discount links. The discount can be any amount, including 100%. You can limit the discounts to a certain number of downloads, or give them an expiration date.

Site-wide promotions

DriveThruFiction runs site-wide promotions periodically. You may opt in to all of these sales, or only those that offer a discount of 40% or less. In addition, you can optionally specify that only titles over a certain age are included, so that new releases aren’t discounted this way.

Advertising

DriveThruFiction offers two types of advertising. Banner ads are the type of short, wide advert that were a common sight on websites some years ago. Featured messages are a small thumbnail of the book’s cover, with text to the left.

Both types can be displayed on the home page or the book’s category page. Not surprisingly, the PPP cost of home page placement is usually much higher.

Deal of the day

Every day, one title is the deal of the day, and you can submit your titles for inclusion. Titles are chosen at random, but those that aren’t chosen are kept in the list, so you’ll get chosen sooner or later.

Robin has found this to be the most effective use of their PPP, especially when combined with discount links and emailing readers. When they get a Deal of the Day, they use the “Email your readers” functionality to email everyone that has bought their other books but not this one. They include a link to the book’s page and tell them the discounted price.

A week or two after the deal, Robin emails everyone that has bought the deal book, with links to related books, sometimes including a discount link.

Minimum list price for Kindle books

I recently organised a multi-author sale. Several authors (including myself) agreed to reduce the price of one or more of their ebooks to $0.99/£0.99 for a week. I created a page on my website listing the books with links to where they could be bought. Everyone agreed to promote the sale to their newsletter or pay towards a Facebook advertising campaign. So far so good.

I got an unpleasant surprise on the eve of the sale, when I went to reduce the price of one of my books to the required $0.99/£0.99. Amazon wouldn’t let me reduce the price to less than $1.99/£1.25. These minimum prices have been in place since at least 2017, but they don’t get talked about very much, so they’re easy to miss.

The book that I was trying to reduce the price on contains a lot of images, and the file size is about 7MB, much larger than the typical ebook. Kindle books of between 3MB and 10MB have a minimum price of $1.99, even on the 35% royalty option. Kindle books larger than 10MB have a minimum price of $2.99 on the 35% royalty option.

Most ebooks won’t be affected by this, but books with large numbers of images and ebook box sets might be. If you’re planning to run a sale, check the minimum price for your book before you publicise the sale price. In my case, I was able to work around the issue. Since I have multiple books published, I was able to simply put a different book in the sale, one with a file size small enough to allow me to reduce the price as required. This neatly illustrates one of the advantages of having multiple books published — greater flexibility.

The full details of the price limits for different sizes are on the list price requirements page at KDP Help.

How to create and use Reading Lists

Draft2Digital’s Reading Lists allow you to create curated collections of books. You can showcase your own books, or create a list of recommended books in a genre or around a subject. Reading Lists use Universal Book Links (UBLs), so refer to my UBL article if you don’t know how to create them.

Create a Reading List

Log in to your Books2Read account. Hover over the “Link Tools” link at the top-right of the screen, then click “Reading Lists”. To create a new list, click on the “Make a New Reading List” button.

Reading List details page
Entering details

Enter details on the left of the screen. To the right is a preview. Under the “Details” header, you will need to add a name. You can optionally add a tagline. Then open the “Choose Header Image” section. You can choose an image from the drop-down list, or upload your own. Optionally, choose a colour overlay to add, click the bar to choose the colour’s opacity.

Add search terms and BISAC classifications in their sections. These will help the list’s discoverability.

The advanced options allow you to force clicks to a single store, bypassing the book’s UBL page. This is useful when compiling a list of books enrolled in KDP Select, since the books will only be available on Amazon.

You can set a custom link, one that is easier to remember or read out on a podcast.

Add Carousels and Books

When the list details are all filled in, click the “Add Books” button. Carousels are used to organise books in lists. If you have multiple series for instance, you could have a carousel for each series.

Entering the carousel name and description
Entering the carousel name and description

The new page has fields for the carousel name and description. Both can be left empty if preferred.

Adding books to a reading list carousel
Adding books to a carousel

After entering these, click the green box labelled “Click to add books.” This will bring up a search box, which will search your UBLs. You can add multiple books at a time. Select the books you want to add, then click “Add selected books”.

To remove books, click the dustbin icon, select the books to remove, and click “Remove selected books”. To add more books, click the plus icon. Re-order the book covers by dragging and dropping.

To add a new carousel, click “Add carousel” at the bottom of the page. Add books to the new carousel in the same way as the first one. Click “Manage carousels” at the bottom of the page to remove or re-order the carousels.

Using the Reading List

Reading list link
Reading list link

When you’re happy with the layout, click the “Save and continue” button at the top. The last page shows the reading list’s link, and a “Copy link” button, which will copy the link to your clipboard. It also has buttons to share the link to Facebook or Twitter.

If you have multiple series, a reading list is a useful way of showcasing all of them on a single page, with a carousel for each series.

Another option is to list related books or a list of recommended books. I have a Cold War reading list, which includes several of my own books and books by other authors. Because universal book links support affiliate links, you can earn affiliate commission even when a reader buys another author’s book.

Create and Edit Universal Book Links

A Universal Book Link (commonly referred to as a UBL) is a short link that will go to a web page showing links to all the stores where the ebook or audiobook can be bought. When the user clicks on any of the links, they will go to their local site if the store has one. Such a link is useful in all sorts of situations, but especially on social media, where a long list of links looks clunky at best.

This post will explain how to set up a Universal Book Link for any book (even if you are not the book’s author).

Screenshot of Books2Read login form
The Books2Read login form

You will need to login at books2read.com/authentication/login. Use your Draft2Digital account to log in if you have one. If you don’t, click on the I need to register a new account link to create an account. Any books published with Draft2Digital will automatically have an UBL already, which you can find on the book details page. See below for instructions on how to add affiliate codes or edit the link.

Create the Link

Screenshot of Universal Book Link page, showing where to paste a link
Paste a link here and Books2Read will find all the other links automatically

Once logged in, you will see a box labelled “Paste a link to your book”. Copy a link from Amazon or another store into this box and click “Make My Universal Link”.

Screenshot of a newly-created universal book link
Creating a Universal Book Link

Books2Read will contact all the supported ebook and audiobook sites to find your book. The book cover will appear along with the title and author name, and the list of sites to the right will update as it is found at each site. Your new Universal Book Link will replace the link you entered under the book details, and a “Copy Link” button will appear. Click this button to copy the link to your clipboard. Then you can paste the link into an email, social media post, etc.

Rename the Link

Screenshot of universal book link page, showing the link tools
Creating a better link name

By default, the link is made up of an odd set of letters and numbers, which is difficult to remember or read out on a podcast. You can set a custom link name by clicking on “Custom name your URL” and entering a new name into the box. This must be unique, so the system will check it is available as you type. Once you have a custom name that you are happy with, click on the green SAVE.

Affiliate Codes

If you have an affiliate account at Amazon or other retailers, you can add your affiliate codes at Books2Read, and the code will be added every time a reader clicks on any of your UBL links. To do this, click on “Affiliate Codes”, then “Manage My Affiliate Codes”.

This will take you to a page where you can enter your affiliate code for each store. Amazon has separate codes for each country’s store, so if you have affiliate codes for the other stores, click the “Show Amazon’s regional affiliate options” link to enter those.

Editing the Link

If you later need to edit an existing UBL, log into Books2Read and click “Link Tools” in the top bar, then “UBL Dashboard”. Your existing links will be listed. Click on the book title that you wish to edit, and you will go back to the same screen that you used to create it. Clicking the “Rescan for Links” button will cause Books2Read to search the stores for the book again. If necessary, you can also paste the link directly into the store’s entry on the right.

Using the Link

Screenshot of a Universal Book Link page
The Universal Book Link in action

Above is the Universal Book Link page, as a reader sees it. UBL pages are responsive, and look good on phone and tablet screens, as well as full-size monitors.

Use the link in emails, social media, and anywhere else that you normally share links. If the book has an audiobook edition, audiobook links will be listed below the ebook links. UBLs are also used to create reading lists.

Blockchain: Questions and Concerns

Note: a version of this post was first published on the Alliance of Independent AuthorsSelf-Publishing Advice Centre. Their watchdog, John Doppler, added answers and commentary.

It is said that blockchain technologies will revolutionize publishing. The Alliance of Independent Authors has published a white paper about blockchain. The white paper’s authors seem hopeful that blockchain will help authors to reduce their dependency on large vendors. Blockchain may indeed be a wonderful development, but the more I read, the more I find that I have questions and concerns.

Piracy

One of blockchain’s promises is that it will eliminate piracy. No-one has been able to explain to me just how blockchain prevents piracy, however. We all know that current DRM schemes can be cracked, but it should be noted that this isn’t done by breaking the encryption.

To read the book, the end user has to have a copy of the key. The cracking software finds the key and uses that to create an unencrypted copy of the book. Even with blockchain, the user will need a copy of the key, so what is there to stop software finding that key and using it?

Copyright

Another promise is that blockchain will allow authors to register their copyright and store that registration on the blockchain, where anyone can access it.

These look a lot like a technical version of the old practice of an author posting a copy of the manuscript to themselves. The US copyright office specifically says that the practice is not a substitute for registering the copyright, so it seems unlikely that a blockchain-based version would have any legal weight.

There is certainly a benefit in open access to the register, but that could be done with a standard database and website. It’s unclear what advantage is gained by using blockchain.

Ebook Ownership

One of the more intriguing promises of blockchain is the idea that a buyer can own their copy of an ebook, in much the same way as they own a paper book. Part of this is the ability to sell it second-hand. The change of ownership would be registered on the blockchain, and the original owner would lose access to the book.

The blockchain book sellers that I’ve been able to investigate in sufficient detail don’t store the actual book files on the blockchain. All that is stored on the blockchain is a token indicating who has access to the book. The book file itself has to be downloaded from a server. This leaves open the possibility of the server being taken offline, and no-one being able to access the book, just as happened in 2019 when the Microsoft ebook store went offline.

Ownership of an ebook implies that it can be read on whatever device the user prefers. Indeed, in the ALLi white paper, the Publica CEO says that “books can be discovered by readers without having to sign in, sign up, or subscribe to any walled garden, or pay anyone except the author.” But a book bought from Publica can only be read on the Publica app.

Bookchain is another company that sells books on the blockchain. In their case, users read the book in a web browser. That is more open than Publica, but it also implies that users will lose access to the book if Bookchain’s web server is taken offline.

Conclusion

I’m not fundamentally opposed to blockchain. It may become as integral to our everyday lives as the web is now. But most articles that discuss blockchain’s potential in the publishing sphere offer lots of promises with little to no detail about how these promises will be delivered, and that makes me wary. I’d love to get answers to the questions I’ve outlined, so if you have answers, please leave them in the comments.

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