[Just two short weeks ago, our baby, The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology, launched. (Download it here for free—25 outstanding stories from great online lit mags.) After spending the summer working on it, here are a few tidbits we learned along the way.]

  • Publishers lie about the difficulty and cost of producing ebooks. The anthology cost us $25 to publish, for an ISBN (for big publishers who buy them in blocks, an ISBN would cost less than $1). That’s the only unit cost of publishing an ebook. Publishers who claim that things like things like “meta-data, the file format” and so on cost them extra money, they’re either lying or entirely ignorant of their own process. Layout still takes work, copyediting still takes work, but packaging an ebook—in formats like ePub, html, PDF, Mobi, etc., etc.—takes an hour or so altogether, and it’s entirely free. We have really cheap hosting, too, and it held up just fine, so concerns about the cost of bandwidth are entirely unfounded.
  • Bowker is a scam artist. Bowker is the company that sells ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) in the U.S. In other countries, like Canada, ISBNs are free. Bowker will also sell you a bar code for your ISBN for an extra $25. Those are also free; here’s the site we used. Basically Bowker charges money for things that should be free.
  • ePub is not the formatting answer, PDF is still the prettiest. ePub can’t do footnotes, or headers, or any of the other niceties that have been possible with PDF for almost 20 years. There are shockingly few programs that will let you edit an ePub directly. In fact, there are shockingly few programs that can even export to ePub. We used Smashwords in the end, but if we hadn’t, I had my eye on this free online ePub converter. That kind of thing should not be necessary. On the other side, PDF should learn to play better with ereaders. But…
  • PDF is still the most popular format. I’ll grant you that we don’t have full numbers from Diesel or Barnes & Noble, where the antho is available only as an ePub. But on our site, it was downloaded in PDF more than fifteen times as often as ePub. In raw numbers, that’s over 3000 downloads of the PDF, to fewer than 200 downloads of the ePub. Crikey.
  • html is an obnoxious format for a book. html has no page numbers, it’s just one huge block of text, which is completely obnoxious. Mobi is no better. Come on, Kindle.
  • The people at Smashwords are surprisingly awesome. Our book is free. The kind folks at Smashwords made no money off us. Yet, when I emailed to complain that Diesel was charging money (I wasn’t exactly impolite but I was certainly brusque), I got a response from Smashwords’s founder, Mark Coker, within an hour. He fixed the problem ASAP and went back to making no money off us. That’s like the polar opposite of Bowker.
  • Barnes & Noble is surprisingly awesome. Based on my impression of the Nook (awkward, kludgy), I expected Barnes & Noble to be a little awkward and kludgy about ebooks in general. But they were spot on: they listed us before any other major Smashwords distributor, didn’t screw up our ebook’s formatting—they were the only distributor we didn’t have a single problem with. The only downside is that you have to put in a credit card to get a book through the Nook app, even to get a free ebook. Download the antho through B&N here.
  • Kobo is surprisingly not awesome. Based on their roots as an ebookstore, I thought Kobo would have this down, but they did the worst of any Smashwords distributor we used. Kobo took four weeks longer than they said they would to list our book (they had to be reminded by Smashwords). Then they screwed up the formatting in several different ways, and despite repeated emails, still have not fixed it. Uncool.
  • Amazon and Apple are not surprisingly not awesome. Neither will list free ebooks. I kinda get it with Amazon, since they have to pay for free whispernet—at least they have a (thin) excuse. But Apple? People pay for all their own data charges. Why no free books? Yet another reason the iBookstore is a big failure.
  • The Library of Congress doesn’t list ebooks. Seems behind the times, right? Added bonus: the guy I emailed at the LOC was named Servon T. Gatewood. Sounds like a really elegant robot.
  • Facebook ads are really expensive. The only reason we even used them was because they sent me $50 in free credit for some reason. The average cost per click has been $0.83. Per click. If we were selling this book and our profit margin was, say, $4, that means we’d have to make a sale from one of every five Facebook visitors just to break even.
  • Print-on-demand is pretty easy to do, too. We’re fortunate enough to live within walking distance of Harvard Book Store. They’ll put your book in their print-on-demand catalog for $70, then you can charge whatever you want. We charged cost. You can buy the paperback version of the anthology here.
  • I still don’t understand why publishers would want DRM. DRM makes it very difficult to distribute through your own website, as we did, adds another middleman to feed, guarantees that it will stop at least a few people from getting your book, and increases the cost and headache associated with creating an ebook edition in the first place. And, for all that, you get the hope that DRM might stop a few people (who are too lazy to go to a library) from pirating your book and probably not reading it. Sound business plan.