James Latimer asks via Twitter:
“You’re a pro at this indie publishing lark, how do you distribute your books? Smashwords + Amazon? Create your own files?”
For context, “distribute” basically means 1.) how I create the finished ebook files, and 2.) how those ebook files get from my desktop computer to Amazon and B&N and iBooks and all the other ebookstores.
For 1.), Amazon requires a file format called MOBI, and all the other ebookstores use the EPUB format. (Smashwords does something a little different, which we’ll cover below) Creating MOBI files is difficult. However, it is much easier to create an EPUB file and then convert it to MOBI, so that’s what I do.
To create EPUBs, you can use something expensive like Adobe InDesign, or something more affordable like Scrivener. I personally prefer to use a free program called Sigil (available here). Sigil is pretty bare-bones, but it gets the job done, and it also lets you see the underlying HTML of the ebook files, which makes it easy to fix errors. To make the EPUB, I copy and paste the finished chapters from Microsoft Word into Notepad, which scrubs out all the nasty Word formatting, and then copy and paste again from Notepad into Sigil.
Once the EPUB is created, I use another program called Calibre (available here) to convert the EPUB file into a MOBI file.
Smashwords is a little different in that it requires a specially formatted Word document. I used to prepare them by hand, but that was an enormous pain in the neck. I now use an excellent program called Jutoh to automatically generate a Smashwords-compatible Word doc, and it works quite well. Jutoh can do other stuff, but I mostly use it for Smashwords.
This is by no means the only method of producing ebook files. A lot of writers swear by Scrivener, and Scrivener can automatically generate the MOBI and EPUB files for you. That said, it’s possible to over-format your document with fancy fonts and layouts in Scrivener, and I prefer to keep my formatting as bare-bones as possible. One of the nice things about ereaders/tablets is that sight-impaired readers can dial up the font size as large as they wish, and excessively customized fonts can sometimes mess that up. In fact, when Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire HD in 2013, some writers got into trouble because custom fonts that looked good on the original Kindle Fire and on the e-Ink Kindles did not look good on the Fire HD.
For 2.), there are two options. All the ebookstores have some method of directly uploading a book. The advantage is that you can control everything yourself, but the disadvantage is that every time you change a book, you have to make the changes to every single ebookstore. One you have 90+ individual titles the way I do, this can be cumbersome.
A distributor, by contrast, uploads the books for you. Most distributors cover Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iTunes, along with smaller ebookstores like Oyster and Flipkart and so forth. Distributors generally do not work with Amazon – Amazon will typically block a distributor from uploading, since they prefer that writers use Kindle Direct Publishing. Also, as far as I know, no distributor is currently uploading to Google Play. The main advantage of a distributor is that it saves time, since you need to only upload a book once and it shows up on multiple stores. The disadvantage is that the distributor takes a cut – usually 5% to 10% of each book sold. The two biggest distributors right now are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. Smashwords will get you into B&N, Kobo, iTunes, Oyster, and a bunch of smaller stores. Draft2Digital does B&N, Kobo, iTunes, and Oyster, and will also put your book in CreateSpace if you want. (Print book preparation is a whole different topic.)
Myself, I use a mix of direct uploading and distributors. For Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play, I upload directly. The websites are all easy to use, and that extra 5% on each book can really add up in the long run. Uploading the first time is a bit of a learning curve, but after the first time it’s much easier.
For iBooks, I use a distributor. Apple lets you upload directly into the iBookstore, but to do so you need a program called iTunes Producer, which is available only for the Mac. Getting a Mac just to use iTunes Producer seemed like an expensive hassle, so instead I used Smashwords. I used Smashwords exclusively through 2015, but lately I’ve been experimenting with Draft2Digital as well. Honestly, I’m happy with both, and both have their strengths. Draft2Digital is faster and a lot easier to use, but Smashwords has a lot of features that Draft2Digital doesn’t like coupon codes, and Smashwords also offers direct sales through the Smashwords website. (I’ve noticed a lot of “elite” ebook users, the kind of ebook users who have their own folder system for organizing their libraries, tend to buy their ebooks off Smashwords.)
So, that is how I create my ebooks and distribute them.