Elizabeth Castro, who writes about producing digital books, sells e-book versions on her website. Photo by Andreu Cabré.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in January 2010, its iBooks app caught my eye. The e-book revolution was underway but until that moment I had not been willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a device that only displayed books. Yet as an avid reader and longtime writer, I was sold on the iPad. It vividly pushed e-books front and center in big beautiful flashy packages that enveloped the screen. I knew right away it was a game changer and decided I must have one.

Learning the Inner Workings of an E-Book File
– Elizabeth Castro
My first thought as an author of computer books was to write a book about how to create e-books for the iPad. Then I discovered—to my great delight—that iBooks, the iPad e-reader app, supports the standard EPUB format that is based on HTML and developed by a consortium of technology and publishing companies. I’m intimately familiar with HTML—the code that Web pages are written in—because of the six (soon to be seven) editions of my book “HTML, XHTML, & CSS: Visual QuickStart Guide.” More than a million copies of this book have been sold in 15 languages.

I also practice what I write. For more than 20 years, I have brainstormed, organized, designed, written, taken thousands of screenshots, and laid out, edited and delivered final files to my publisher, Peachpit Press, for all of the various editions of my books. The only part of my books that I didn’t do myself (apart from a final edit by Peachpit) was the cover.

Because I was used to creating the entire book myself, it seemed only fair that I should be able to sell an electronic edition directly from my website. Thankfully, Peachpit generously agreed. When “EPUB Straight to the Point: Creating Ebooks for the Apple iPad and Other Ereaders” was published in July 2010, I opened a bookstore on my website.

I quickly realized how much I enjoyed the digital connections I was making with my readers. When someone orders my book, I get an e-mail sharing this news. I look to see where the orders are from and it turns out that about half are from outside the United States—with almost 30 percent from Europe, about 10 percent from Australia and New Zealand, and roughly 5 percent from Canada.

On the Internet, physical distance doesn’t matter. People can get the book they need instantly regardless of where they are. Not only that, every time I write a blog post that relates to my book, it experiences a jump in sales. Not always a big one, but it’s a reminder of the invaluable connections between my online work and my book sales. In addition, Twitter has drawn me closer to my readers and makes it easier to find out what interests them and how I can respond.

Divide and Conquer

Last December Apple released an important new feature for the iBooks app. However, I wasn’t ready to update my entire book. So I wrote—and now sell on my website—a miniguide about this more specific topic of fixed layout EPUBs. I offer it free to anyone who has bought my book, “EPUB Straight to the Point.” I also sell the miniguide for $4 and include a $4 coupon toward the purchase of my book. This marketing strategy keeps readers happy while it attracts new ones. I have given away more than 1,000 copies of this miniguide but in the process I’ve added 1,000 e-mail addresses to my database. Many readers who begin with the free fixed layout miniguide go on to purchase my EPUB book and the rest of the miniguides.

The big lesson for me is this: People will spend $4 on a 30-page guide on a specific topic. One big challenge any book author faces—and perhaps journalists and authors of computer books more often than others—is keeping a book up to date, especially when only a few bits of it have changed. That’s why updating only what’s changed is appealing. By building a book in modules—rather than constructing it as a complete “bible”—I can gain flexibility, respond easily to the rapid pace of changes, and be happier than if I have to rewrite the entire book.

After realizing the advantages of this approach, I published two more miniguides (“Audio and Video in EPUB,” and “Read Aloud EPUB for iBooks“), and I sell them on my EPUB website for $5 each. I am very encouraged with the results, selling several of each every day. I have many more ideas for miniguides, both related to EPUB and to other topics.

Now I’ve turned back to print. I print my miniguides for my use so I wondered if others also would be interested in print editions. And print-on-demand technology makes it possible for an individual (with a background in publishing, truth be told) to create print books and market them efficiently. In the 1990’s I lived in Barcelona, Spain and had a company that published computer books in Spanish. Figuring out how many books to print was never easy. What I paid for printing was lower for each book when I printed more copies, but only if I sold them all.

Print-on-demand now enables me to upload my book and set its retail price and the discount price for wholesalers and retailers. I do this with Lightning Source, a print-on-demand company associated with Ingram Book Company, a major international distributor. Once uploaded, one of my miniguides sells for $7.99 on Amazon and is available at bookstores in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. When an order is placed on Amazon, Lightning Source prints my book, charges Amazon its discounted price, subtracts the cost of producing the book, and sends the rest to me. My initial investment (at least in terms of dollars) is limited to the setup fee of about $100.

For a non-tech journalist, there are several tools that can facilitate the creation of an e-book or print-on-demand book. Apple’s Pages word processor has pretty good EPUB export, and Adobe InDesign, though costly, can be used to simultaneously coordinate the production of print and e-book versions. At present, some knowledge of the EPUB format and the underlying HTML and CSS is still necessary, and for that my books have helped thousands of people quickly get up to speed.

Elizabeth Castro is the author of the “HTML, XHTML, & CSS: Visual QuickStart Guide,” “EPUB Straight to the Point,” and three miniguides about EPUB as well as books about Blogger, iPhoto, Perl and CGI, and XML.

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