The Ebook Publishing Revolution

By Lee Foster

We are in the midst of a fast-developing publishing revolution in ebooks. The most revolutionary aspect of the current scene is that I, as a travel writer/photographer, can publish an ebook of my work and keep 100% of the net sale.

I have done just that, publishing my travel literary book, Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time, for $2.99 in the Apple iBook Store, the Amazon Kindle Store, and the other viable stores for the Barnes & Noble Nook and the Sony Reader. The book also sells as a printed book for $14.95. The book won a Best Travel Commentary award from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. 

The deal sounds too good to be true. When things sound too good to be true, they usually are not true.  But this is an exception. My partner in this venture is an entity known as BookBaby (

Simultaneously, one of my traditional print book publishing partners, Countryman Press, has released two of my books published through them as ebooks in the same stores. The titles are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington DC. The Countryman price for these ebooks, which sell as print books at $14.95, are $9.95 in the Amazon Kindle Store and $10.95 in the Apple iBook Store. They pay me 20% of the net sale as my royalty.

A careful reader will already detect some issues with all the conflicting figures presented. What is the basis of price?  What is the share of royalty? What arrangement will actually accrue more income for the author? Where is this publishing drama headed? How will author/traditional publisher relationships evolve, given the revolution in process.

To understand what is happening, I present three aspects, which may at first seem ironic and tangential, but are, in fact, central to the discussion:

-The Ebook Publishing Link Between Musicians and Writers/Photographers

-The Layout Simplicity of Ebooks

The Pricing of Ebooks

Let’s get started:

The Ebook Publishing Link Between Musicians and Writers/Photographers

Ironically, there is a special link between musicians and writers/photographers in the new publishing world of ebooks and apps.

Musicians have led the way in the publishing of digital files, meaning downloadable files or files on a CD product. Now writers/photographers are beginning to benefit from the publishing of digital files, meaning ebooks and apps, either downloadable or on a CD product. Most of the activity and benefit is in the downloadable sector.

Writers/photographers owe a great debt of gratitude to musicians, who have created the ground-breaking relationships for selling in this manner in the new digital age.

An interesting expression of this relationship can be seen in a Portland-based company that started with the company named CDBaby and has now expanded to include an ebook-publishing branch called BookBaby (

CDBaby claims to have published music from more than 250,000 independent musical artists, paying them about $200 million in royalties. BookBaby hopes to do the same for writers/photographers who want to publish ebooks.

BookBaby, like CDBaby, has an unusual business model. They charge a small up-front fee of $100-250 for formatting and placement of the ebook in the main store structures (Amazon Kindle, Apple iBook, B&N Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and Copia).  There may be further charges for graphics-intensive layouts, cover design, and ISBN assignment (if the author doesn’t have his or her own ISBNs).  Then they also charge a longtail fee of $19/year to keep the ebook in their system for every year after the first year.  Beyond those known costs, they return to the creator 100% of all sales.

It sounds almost too good to be true.  However, these people have vast experience with handling digital files and setting up automatic bullet-proof accounting systems in CDBaby, which has a similar revenue payout.  So they can now make this same offer to writers/photographers. CDBaby/BookBaby describes itself as a “non-predatory” publisher.

I used BookBaby for my book, and it worked.  My book looks great in both its Kindle and Apple versions. I will use BookBaby for the next  ebook I plan to do. That book will be Northern California Travel: The Best Options (April 2013).

Ebook publishing guru Joel Friedlander has conducted some fascinating interviews with the CDBaby/BookBaby founder, Brian Felsen.  One is at

and the other was earlier at

Felsen comments that they have had so much success with musicians that it is easy for the company now to branch out to writers/photographers who want to market their products as ebooks.  After all, digital files are digital files.

The Layout Simplicity of Ebooks

If you are a writer or photographer thinking of publishing ebooks, one of the most important concepts to internalize is their layout simplicity, compared to print books.

Print books, especially if heavy with graphics, require a fixed layout, which is a special skill. A type font must be chosen. The layout of text and photos for every page must be determined. Photos must be sized. The layout arts require perhaps a $2,000 investment for a book, such as my The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco (Countryman Press/Norton, $14.95) and its parallel The Photographer’s Guide to Washington DC.

By contrast, an ebook layout must be simple. An ebook must “flow,” with text and photos responding to the user’s needs rather than the publisher’s desires. A standard font, such as Times Roman, should be chosen because the user may select a different or preferred font style. The user may choose the size of font desired for viewing. Some viewing systems, such as Amazon Kindle, will have their own chosen font. Photos will appear sequentially, where directed, between blocks of text. Text will not “wrap around” the photo. The viewer may be looking at the ebook on a small iPhone screen or on a larger tablet, such as an iPad or a Kindle Fire, or perhaps on a regular computer screen.

Because so few design choices can be made for an ebook, a simple Word file with photos inserted is the way many ebooks are delivered to the e-publisher. If a print book is set up in InDesign, it may be submitted in InDesign, but very little of the functionality of InDesign is actually used in the resulting ebook. (The release of new authoring tools by both Amazon and Apple may alter the options on a simple layout. However, the text will still have to flow.)

I remember the day that ebooks of my two Countryman photo books finally appeared in the Amazon Kindle store and in the Apple iBook store. I had been urging the publisher for two years to publish my print books as ebooks, but the company was slow and reluctant to do so. They were heavily invested in the concept of print books and not too interested in ebooks.

I bought a Kindle version of my San Francisco book the day it came out and looked at it on my computer screen. I was struck with its layout simplicity. I could see that Countryman had used the InDesign final version for the conversion to ebook, but I didn’t see this as preferable to submitting a simple Word file.

When it came time, soon thereafter, to set up my independently published travel literary book Travels in an American Imagination (Foster Travel Publishing, $14.95 print, $2.99 ebook) as an ebook, I was able to address some of the issues. I decided to present my book to the e-publisher, BookBaby, as a Word file in Times Roman font.

For example, I noticed that Countryman had kept some of the photos that were quite small in the print book at the same quite small size in the ebook version. But why publish photos small in an ebook? In an ebook there is infinite space. Why not make each photo as large as a full page? I did that in my independent book. I inserted the photos in the Word file at the maximum size that BookBaby said would work, allowing for a caption. My vertical photos were about 600 pixels high.

There are some aesthetic choices to be made in an ebook layout. For example, do you want the paragraphs to begin with a few spaces indent in long blocks of type, as in most traditional print book layouts? Probably this concept evolved so as not to waste valuable space in conventional print book layouts. Today, when I read the New York Times online, I see blocks of type, with the paragraph beginning flush left, and a line break space allowed between paragraphs. That white space is restful to my eyes. Although purists will say this is non-standard for books, this is what I chose for my ebook, partly because reading an ebook on a small screen device, as some will read the book, can be wearing on the eye without a line space between paragraphs.

So, think simplicity when you are considering an ebook layout. And do think of an ebook for your writing or photographic content. With the iPhone showing color and tablets such as the iPad, Kindle Fire, Sony Reader, and Nook showing color, why not publish color photo books as well as text books as ebooks? Moreover, if ebook layout is so simple, and access to the market is so easy, and you can keep 100% (rather than perhaps 20%) of the net sale, what is the proper role, if any, for a traditional publisher?

I remember the joyous day when my Travels in an American Imagination ebook version came out in the Amazon Kindle and Apple iBook stores. I downloaded a copy from both. My ebook looked good, especially on my iPad.

The next step is pricing. Why am I selling my travel literary book at $2.99 and Countryman is selling both my two travel photo guides at $9.95 each in the Kindle Store and $10.95 in the iBook Store. Is someone making a pricing mistake?

The Pricing of Ebooks

The pricing of ebooks is a critical issue. Views on what is the appropriate price diverge.

Why have I priced the ebook version of my writing/photography travel literary book Travels in an American Imagination so low at $2.99? Why has Countryman Press priced the ebook version of each of my travel photo books The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington DC so high at $9.95/$10.95?

Can both these views be correct?  I doubt it.

The comparison is interesting because the three books are all comparable books in the printed versions. They all have photos and texts. They all are nicely printed, about the same total size. All sell as printed books for $14.95. All were printed in Asia in quantities of 3,000 or more to get the manufactured price down to $2-$3. My book, Travels in an American Imagination,  cost me $2.21 each when I printed 3,000 copies in China.

One irony in this discussion is that ebooks may be priced quite low, yet may return to the content provider more than occurs with a printed book from a traditional publisher. Countryman pays me a 15% of net sale royalty for my print books with them. The books list for $14.95, but are sold on average at roughly 54% off, so net about $6.87. Of that I get 15% of net or about $1.03 cents. That is a normal print book contract and financial return.

When I price my ebook at $2.99 and run it through BookBaby, I get 100% of a net sale, or about $2.09 after Amazon Kindle or Apple iBook take their 30%. For my ebook, I am the publisher and the content provider, with BookBaby as the facilitator into the ebook world. BookBaby can pay me 100% of the sale because ebooks are such simple structures and are easy to place in a selling system. BookBaby’s business model, as outlined above, is to earn from me a $100-250 fee up front and then a required $19/year fee in years 2, 3, 4 and on for my ebook. That’s where they see their long term profitability, in a longtail fee as a “non- predatory” publisher.

Countryman ups my ebook royalty rate to 20% of net sale for ebooks, compared to 15% of net sale for print books. So I will earn about $1.39 from their 70% net sale on Amazon/Apple of about $6.97 on a $9.95 ebook. When I can publish an ebook myself, with its simple layout structure, it is difficult to understand the rationale of working with a publisher such as Countryman in the future. Why not take 100% rather than 20% of the net sale?

With a $0 manufacturing, shipping, storage, and inventory cost, ebooks have some distinct advantages. Without the need for huge capital to create the book product, one wonders what the traditional publisher is bringing to the ebook transaction. I wish I could say that Countryman and my other boutique royalty book publisher, Globe Pequot, are bringing marketing energy to the transaction. However, I am not seeing much marketing energy from them.

What is the public’s perception of price on ebooks? The public wants these ebooks sold inexpensively, and will buy greater numbers of copies for the cheaper price.

When you look at what is selling in ebooks and apps, $2.99 is considered a respectable price. The public understands that there is no replication cost.

I think my $2.99 book will get some sales. I doubt that Countryman Press will get many sales at $9.95 or $10.95. Their $9.95 ebook price is far above the market, in my view.

Scarcity is a factor in price. Perhaps you have noticed that there is no scarcity of ebooks. Quality, value, and brand identity are all factors in price. I think the unit price may be low, but the unit volume of sales may be high.

Countryman would probably argue that I am destroying the market by pricing so low. I feel the market has fundamentally changed forever with ebooks.

I look forward to re-visiting this subject in the future to see how the issue of price has resolved. Who made the wiser price decision in marketing–Countryman Press or me?

So, in conclusion, you have my perspective on the ebook publishing revolution. Ten years ago, who could have guessed that writers/photographers and musicians would be so closely linked in the market, that ebooks would have such a simple layout, and that price would be such a controversial issue?

(Note: Lee Foster presents several instructional articles on his website at If you find this instruction useful, you are encouraged to make a contribution/donation to Lee Foster’s PayPal account at [email protected] Funds will be used to develop further such instructional articles.)