A Brief History of My Five Years of Selling Ebooks

When I started publishing my writing, I did not plan on becoming an ebook seller. I was focused on how to get my books printed, set up a website, and list them in Amazon. Then I noticed an option on a menu in Adobe InDesign. I used that software to design my books, but it also had a choice that said “make ebook”. This produced a PDF file with a resolution suitable for screen viewing and a clickable table of contents.

I remember looking at the “make ebook” option and thinking, “Who would want an ebook?” I then recalled a short exchange I had with one of my journalism professors in the late 1990s when the newspaper industry had officially begun wringing its hands over the internet but doing nothing about it. Ebooks were a part of the conversation about digital content even in the 1990s, and my professor Dr. Bleske said that ebooks would never happen. I piped up and said they could work if everyone had little reading pads like in Star Trek Next Generation. For non-Trekkies, the crew members in that show were always turning in their reports on little handheld devices for their superiors to read. Dr. Bleske of course quickly moved the conversation toward serious journalistic matters and did not waste time on my techno-dreaming.

With this little episode from my college days in my mind, I continued to look at that “make ebook” choice on the software menu. It was 2005. Ebooks after a brief and over-hyped flowering in the early 2000s were officially dead. The death had been humiliating and everyone working at paper mills had sighed with relief.

Naturally, I went ahead and made ebooks anyway. I’d like to credit this act to my bold rebellious nature, but truthfully I have to give credit to my inclination to do things despite all good evidence indicating that I should not do them.

Now that I had made ebooks, I had to figure out how to sell them from my website. Setting up PayPal for payment is simple but I needed some kind of automatic download service. I understood from the beginning that giving the reader immediate access to the content would be a powerful draw. I rejected out of hand the option of accepting payment and then emailing the ebook to the customer. That would be too slow and especially disappointing for customers when I was offline. So I started searching the internet for a download delivery service. I found PayLoadz. At the time it was mostly being used for selling mp3s and software, but ebooks were a category there, so I signed up. The service integrated easily with PayPal with copy and past generated code, which mercifully spared me the need to achieve proficiency as a software engineer.

Business was admittedly slow those first couple years, mostly because I had no idea how to promote myself. (I’m still working on that one.) But there were actual people out there reading and (gasp) paying money for ebooks. This was all before the Kindle, or Smashwords, or Nook, or iPad. A niche group of readers who presumably had paper allergies were reading ebooks on their PDAs and desktop or laptop computers. Ebook sales consistently drifted into my website, and I loved the business. I did not care if someone only bought the ebook and not the paper book. I had begun to wish that I had never bothered with the whole book thing to begin with. The lower price points I could use with ebooks allowed me to attract readers.

Back in those early ebook years of 2005, 2006, and 2007 I still struggled to find any kind of mainstream distribution. The few existing ebook retailers like ebooks.com threw up stern barriers to anyone who had the audacity not to accept rejection from people who had not read their books. (This means self-published.) A smattering of fly-by-night ebook retailers came and went that would let anyone list, sometimes for a fee and sometimes for free, but these companies never got any traction with the market. I would sell one or two ebooks and then never get paid. So, I continued to sell on my little hamster wheel website.

Then everything changed when the Kindle came out. All of the sudden ebooks were in the game plan for a major company. And why not? It’s an awesome business. There’s no warehousing, no shipping, no unused inventory. Of course Amazon wants to train its legions of people who actually read to switch to digital content.

The explosion of ebook retailing opportunities that suddenly opened up has significantly increased my sales. It is so wonderful to have my fiction available in mainstream ebook retailers like Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Kobo, and Diesel. Amazon revealed the market, but it has been the digital publishing and distribution company Smashwords that allowed me as an independent creator to finally achieve the access to the market that I deserve.

After all of this I still get sales through my website. I am deeply appreciative of these sales because I know that I must always tend my own store and not rely on the big boys. I am not blinded by my inclusion in big retailers. They are fighting for market share now and some are discounting heavily, trying to squeeze the prices on content producers just like Wal-Mart squeezed manufacturers. I’ve got my fingers crossed that English-language fiction won’t be outsourced to China. I think the market has room for several players so I hope there is no winner to the ebook retailing wars. I want to continue to be part of a dynamic marketplace that offers consumers choices and content producers reasonable terms.

Despite my presence across the ebook marketplace, my websites remain the core of my marketing efforts. I appreciate the sales that come directly from readers. I like being able to connect with my audience without having to pay a middleman. Except for the credit card processor, the transaction just involves the reader and the writer. It’s like buying food at the farmers’ market. Some of my readers also take the time to write me a nice email. Hearing how I was able to entertain them with my fiction encourages and uplifts me more than they will ever realize.

My little corner of the ebook marketplace is Brave Luck Books where readers can sample and buy my fantasy novels.

  • Tracy, are you still selling pdf files (only?) on your website? Do you DRM them in any way beyond the DRM options Acrobat software offers? Via InDesign? Can you describe the readers who buy direct in the current environment of roughly too many and disparate dedicated ereading devices?

    • Hi Eric, I have expanded beyond PDFs and offer up to 7 formats although I’m thinking of thinning that down. Some formats that used to sell often, like Microsoft Reader, don’t sell anymore. By far most sales are epub or pdf at this point.

      No I don’t use DRM. I think my download service offers a way to add some protection but I don’t bother. I also do not use any of the protection options in InDesign either. It would just cause me more customer service headaches and anyone who wanted to break it probably could. This does not mean I like seeing my work on file sharing sites though. It’s most irritating but there is not much I can do about it. Although I have succeeded in having my illegally shared files removed from a site or two when I complained.

      It’s hard for me to describe my customers. I don’t do elaborate polling or anything because I figure that would be annoying to them. My customers are men and women. The tend to be about 75 percent from the US and then the rest from other countries like UK, Northern European countires, Australia, and New Zealand with a smattering of readers from other countries too. They use all kinds of devices: Sony, Blackberry, iPhone, ipad, laptop and desktop computers. Just about any kind of device. I’m often not aware of what they’re using unless they write me with questions or comments.

  • I enjoyed this very much. Your stuffy old professor could have learned from a wise student. I’ve been selling self-published print books for 5 years and ebooks for almost a year. Who cares about print anymore?! I love that the ebook business can be done absolutely for free and have even begun mentoring other authors. Most of my sales are from my sites, then from Amazon, then a few via Smashwords, etc. It’s all automated and literally costs nothing but a bit of time.

    • I’ve been doing ebooks since May 2009, but I’ve been publishing my own hardcopy books under my own imprint since 1985.

      I tried to sell DRMed ebooks via a Yahoo store site, but delivery was too cumbersome owing to a dedicated reader, so I pulled back. But I have several pictorials that are now just sitting there, earning nothing, so I’m looking for a pdf solution that doesn’t require confusion and extra work for my customers.

      Jason, could you tell us which service you use for order fulfillment? Are your books DRMed? If so, how?

      Where is your site?

  • Hi, Eric. Nope my ebooks are not DRM’ed, and when I sell directly from my sites after purchases PayPal automatically sends a customer to the download page URL for pdf, epub or mobi formats. Like Tracy, most of my downloads are pdf, then epub. Mobi customers seem to prefer Amazon. Of course my non DRM’ed download page is a link that could be shared and pirated. I use StatCounter to monitor visitors to the download page, and if the numbers don’t add up to the purchases I just change address of the download page URL along with the directive from PayPal and the StatCounter settings. It only takes a minute, and I don’t mind if a few pirates think my books are worth stealing. Might be good referrals down the road.
    I also use Google Alerts to notify me if anyone online is mentioning me, my books or the download URL. Works great and looks impressive when you chime in on a forum discussing your book. I came to this point as a broke author doing everything possible to work with free methods and ended up writing my first How To book. See an example at http://ebooksuccess4free.webs.com
    The next one comes out next week, as How To’s are clearly easier sells than fiction and hopefully get readers into my novels.
    Thanks for asking! Hope this helps some others.

  • We need a better way than hit-or-miss blogs to pool knowledge, skill, resources, etc. I have picked up more new ideas and links in the past two days from this blog than I have in the past few months.

    Data I’ve shared over the past months is spread over several dozen blogs that new SPR members couldn’t find in a week of trying, and I’m beginning to feel self-conscious about repeating it further because it looks to older members like incessant bragging.

    Anyone else interested in pressing for an open and permanent resources page on which comments can be made and experiences can be added?