Self Publishing an Ebook from Word 'Save As PDF'

Based on the number of ebook questions I've been getting, I think it's time to revisit the ebook publishing subject. Foner Books has now sold ebooks in over 50 countries worldwide, with eighteen of those destinations bringing three or more customers. While some copies have appeared on various "reputable" file sharing sites, they all removed the unauthorized copies when I followed their guidelines and notified them. No, I don't enjoy jumping through hoops for people with questionable business models, but at least they responded. For the first time in February, Foner Books passed $1500 for the trailing month of ebook sales. This income is based on the ebook versions of three POD titles, and the ebooks were all published directly out of Microsoft Word using the "Save As PDF" menu item shown below:

If you are using Word for Microsoft Office 2007 and you don't have the "Save as PDF" plug-in, you can download it for free from Microsoft. I've described the merchant solution I'm using in previous posts, but to review briefly, Foner Books uses PayPal to process both credit card and PayPal payment orders, and e-junkie as the download service. I should note that many people without credit cards or who don't want to use their credit cards online do buy through their PayPal accounts. The initial problems with people paying and not following through to the download link and not receiving the confirmation e-mail because it was eaten by their spam filter have dropped to around one order in a hundred. I've actually had more incidents lately of people accidentally ordering two copies and only downloading one, which I refund immediately without waiting to hear from them first.

Only one of the titles is available both on Kindle and direct from the Foner Books webiste as a PDF, my book on POD publishing. That title has sold 120 copies as a printable PDF file download for $9.95, and 28 copies as a Kindle ebook for $7.95. I don't link the Kindle ebook directly from my order page, and only two of the Kindle purchases were credited to the Foner Books Amazon Associates account, so those Kindle sales are mainly created by the Amazon platform. Due to the lower publisher share paid by the Kindle program (35%), the direct ebook sales accounted for over $1000 of net profit, while the Kindle sales brought in just under $100. .

One concern I have about pushing self publishers to bring out their own ebooks is that they may be misled by so-called ebook coaches or consultants. This morning I heard from an individual who had received a multi-thousand dollar proposal to coach him through the ebook publication process, and he was already receiving regular solicitations from another ebook coach looking to sell him help. All I can say is run, do not walk, for the exit. Compared to publishing trade papebacks, publishing ebooks looks dead easy. After all, the only software you need to generate a saleable ebook is a PDF generator, and you can find free ones online if you're desperate. I use the PDF generator in Microsoft Word because I paid over $300 for Office, but in either case, a great PDF file does not a great ebook make. The main challenge for new ebook publishers is that it seems so easy, they may be tempted to publish garbage. You still need to master the subject and come up with quality writing, editing, proofreading.

PW reported today that Thomas Nelson is rolling out a unified media program, meaning book buyers will get access to audio and ebook files in various formats for some titles. Other publishers have experimented along these lines with free ebooks, and Amazon has long offered an "Upgrade this book" option for titles from participating publishers, offering cheap, immediate e-access to buyers of a paper book. I don't see ebooks as gimmick or a way to wring a little incremental income out of backlist titles, thanks to the ability of the Foner Books website to attract visitors and potential customers. At this point, ebook sales are running around a quarter of my book sales (or around 50X the trade industry average), despite the fact I've kept my most recent and most popular paper title out of the ebook loop as a control group. And since a significant portion of our paper book sales are driven by the website as well, I'd estimate that if I dropped the POD business and did nothing but sell ebooks direct, it would bring in around $3,000 a month. While I hope to keep publishing and selling with POD going forward, it's nice to have a fallback position that will pay the bills.

It takes two basic ingredients to make money selling nonfiction ebooks: the knowledge to write the books, and a platform from which to sell them. For a handful of authors, that platform is Amazon or one of the commercial ebook sites, but that requires a bestseller, of which there can only be a few. Yet new ebook publishers I've corresponded with are often laboring under two misconceptions: that they can hire the talent to write quality ebooks, and that they can sell them through extensive use of advertising. Unless you pay well above trade publisher rates, you aren't going to find somebody to write a quality book as work-for-hire, so think five figures. But the ebook outsourcing schemes I've seen promoted talk about getting content for a few hundred, or at most, a few thousand dollars, which is barely enough to pay for a decent edititorial pass and proofreading. The other side of the equation, selling without a platform by paying for Internet advertising will bring you sales, but those sales won't be cheap and you'll have to be an excellent bean counter to make money even if you've written a great book yourself. If you're wondering why I've used "book" and "ebook" interchangeably, the work is the same for a real publisher, right up until you get to the publishing part and start selling downloads rather than having books printed.

If I could establish a creed for ebook publishers, it would be, "Don't publish an ebook you wouldn't want to buy yourself." In the meantime, I've reverted the blog title to Self Publishing, but with version number 2.0.


Anne Holland said...

If you build a brand name and customer list for a series of non-fiction books (such as branded how-to guides) around a central topic, and you can template the living daylights out of the books, then you can sometimes make enough to pay fulltime in-house writers or work-for-hire contractors. Renewable annuals do well this way too. Otherwise I'd never pay a writer to create a one-shot.

On the other hand, sometimes you can pick up the rights cheaply to a title that's already self-published and market the daylights out of it. Easiest if you already own a list of customers who love stuff on that topic, or if the title is Google Fodder like 'how to teach your parrot to talk.' I've also set up marketing deals with self-publishers where I have the Internet marketing rights for their book, excluding their own sales to their own lists/visitors. They get all the sales they can make, and I get the rest. We split proceeds 50/50 not including costs of shipping and printing. Given how incredibly bad many authors are at marketing, this works well for me.

Anonymous said...

Morris, I learned a few new things from this blog post so thanks. Would you care to read and respond to an article I recently wrote for IBPA?

I'm particularly interested in your feedback on the marketing/promotional drawbacks I've listed in the article.

Personally, I'm still sitting on the fence about ebooks and will wait as long as possible to adopt them although I like your idea that they can be a fallback if POD somehow stops becoming viable.

Up to this point in my business, my instincts have usually led me in the right direction and I have a strong instinct to avoid ebooks for the time being. I'll need to spend some more time unpacking that instinct and translating it into meaningful thoughts and words that I can communicate. I think mainly it revolves around these two points I made in the above noted article:

1. Fewer promotion possibilities. One of the most interesting marketing concepts I’ve encountered lately is that your book itself is the best marketing tool you have. A book acts as its own ambassador. As physical objects, books end up on coffee tables, front seats of cars, backpacks, and kitchen counters, all of which are easy places for friends and family to see them, remember them, pick them up, read them, discuss them, borrow them, and essentially provide free, ongoing publicity and exposure. Downloaded files, on the other hand, are briefly read (or merely scanned because the reading experience created by keyboards, screens, and itsy-bitsy scroll bars is so cumbersome), and then eternally lost in an invisible sea of ones and zeros. Digital files can’t be held, touched, carried, or otherwise seen by guests or passersby. What were the last three books you purchased and read? I bet you can remember. What were the last three files you downloaded? You probably have no idea.

2. Theft. The whopper threat, which bears repeating, is piracy. Look at what happened to the music industry—millions of songs are illegally copied each day and transferred from iPod to iPod. And a slew of new “torrent” file-sharing Web sites illegally distribute copyrighted content. Will this happen in the book industry if e-books are the norm? You better believe it. And once a book has gone into the abyss as a PDF file, there is no way to put that cat back in the bag. In theory, piracy can be curbed by digital rights–management solutions, which are essentially nothing more than fancy software programs that make it really difficult for people to copy content illegally. Unfortunately, most effective DRM programs are highly restrictive, cumbersome, and expensive, with the result that they irritate customers and degrade the reading experience.


Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention - I think with regard to promotion and pirating it depends highly on the type of books you are selling. Certain books would be almost completely unaffected by these potential pitfalls while other books would be potentially obliterated depending on various factors.

For example, many of my books sell to special interest groups that have weekly or monthly meetings. I suspect that if they were available as ebooks, many people would just email the file around instead of paying for additional copies of the paper book. Especially in a recession.

Another situation is that about 10-20% of my sales occur in health food stores. I have a cardboard display case that holds 5 books. These help my business for many reasons as you can read about down the page a bit in this article:

(my article is "Cold Calls Were the Beginning")

If I went to an ebook platform and ditched the paper books I would lose the whole health food store venue.

Considering that many of my customers are not computer literate, that would be another pitfall to ebooks.

Just some of that instinct being translated to words...


Anonymous said...

About a year ago, most of what Morris says in this blog post was percolating in my brain but hadn't filtered down to how I run my website. After I found this blog and read what Morris had to say, the penny dropped and it all clicked and I spent about 3 weeks, 15 hours a day, adding content to my site and changing how it worked. Now, believe it or not, most of my bestselling books are available COMPLETELY FREE online in full - although they are chopped up and would be a difficult read and much easier to just pay for the book.

Looking back now it was the best thing I could have done. Although business and web instinct was alrady leading me down that road, Morris was the input factor that made it click and pushed me into action.

Since then I have gone from a pagerank 3 to 4, and my visitors are now about 500-700 unique's per day.

What astounds me the most though is how many people really are missing the boat on this, as Morris says. How can so many supposedly smart businesses and people completely misunderstand the internet and neglect to capitalize on such a huge resource? I think the answer is that they are too stubborn, scared, or old to learn the web and how it works. Yet, the web is what will make or break almost every company. I am very glad that I bit the bullet and really took the time to understand how it all works. I look forward to reading more of Morris' commentary on this topic in the future as the webscape is sure to change exponentially in the coming years.


Gary Roberts said...

Let's just say there are two markets that may or may not overlap: digital and hard print. To exclude one based on the threat of bootlegs makes no sense to me. Would you refuse to allow people to buy a print book because they may sell it as used? Or digitize it and either print a new copy or sell it as a PDF?

I think it's simply time to work in the cost of bootlegs, and the cost of tracking them down, as part of doing business in a combined digital/print world.

I usually slap three watermarks on my digital stuff. One is visible, one is 40% grayed out and visible only when printing, and one is present somewhere in the PDF and shows up both onscreen and in print, stating that if you bought this file from anyone other than me, it may be a bootleg copy.


Morris Rosenthal said...


"Template the living daylights" makes my skin crawl:-) I'm fully aware that this is a business model for large trade publishers and fly-by-night scammers alike, it's just a business model I don't consider positive.

"Marketing the daylights" out of a book, on the other hand, is something that I can respect, even though I'm no good at it myself. I only get uncomfortable when I see books marketed as solutions to problems that they don't even address, or when those books are just come-ons for other goods and services.

Years ago I participated in the main list for computer book and technical writers on the web (back when those were businesses) and found that I was in the minority in stating that authors shouldn't write these books unless they had direct experience and a thesis that added value to the facts.

The main camp of writers seemed to believe that reading source material and rewriting it in "their own words" was the mark of a true professional, and these people would undertake to write a chapter or a book about anything.

Back when I was reading two books a day as a kid, I remember thinking that would be the ideal way to make a living. Read a couple books and then "interpret" the contents, on salary. It wasn't until I'd been out in the world and working quite a few years that I realized that kind of writing is of minimal value, and that it can be done as well by a sharp high school kid as by a professional author, as it's really nothing more than aggregating other peoples data and comments.

I gather that there is a middle ground, where publishers can employ writers and editors who, while not experts in their fields, know enough to add some value to the data they gather. But I think that's much easier to do as an editorial operation (journals, periodicals, fact books) than as a writing operation.

I know it's a weakness of mine as a businessman that I don't push to close sales and prefer the passive marketing my website does for me. But there are plenty of publishers at the other extreme who see sales as some sort of game and who would gladly sell their books to people who don't even read the language.


Morris Rosenthal said...


If you combine two of your points, piracy and books as ambassadors, maybe if you publish ebooks and they get pirated, the pirated copies will become your ambassadors to people who feel guilty and decide to pay:-)

I smile, but I have no doubt this happens on a small scale with honest people who are sent a pirated ebook, so an ebook that becomes a smash hit on the pirate circuit might generate some sales for a lucky dog publisher. It's just not likely to work as a business model for the whole industry.

I do what I can to fight piracy, I'm the only self publisher I know who took an infringement case to Federal court, and as I mentioned in the post, I do periodic searches for pirated books and send take-down notices.

But I don't see it as an "all-in" proposition for you or for any publisher. Just as you have experimented with posting more book excerpts on your site, why not experiment with publishing a single ebook and see what happens? If you include some links back to your site in the ebook for additional material and you watch your server stats, you'll get a pretty good idea of how that ebook is circulating.

I think you are 100% right about the ebook threat to the profitability of many publishers, especially the larger ones who count on exclusive shelf presence or branding to sell. People who are conditioned to hit the local store and buy a book for every problem they encounter are, in my opinion, much less likely to keep buying if ebook readers ever catch on.

And I'm deeply skeptical of Amazon's claims that Kindle sales lead to increased book sales. That may happen for a crowd of well-heeled early adapters and class signalers, but I don't know many people who can afford to pay for copies of a book in multiple media for the incremental benefit of being able to read it different ways. Most of us, given two methods that will work equally well to accomplish a goal, will go with the less expensive option, and certainly not pay for both.


Morris Rosenthal said...


I love your cold calls story, we should point out to people following the link that it's the last story on the page:


Morris Rosenthal said...


That's an interesting approach, the three watermarks. And I should point out that my most pirated book, in terms of ebook copies showing up on file sharing sites and being downloaded thousands of times by their own counts, was apparently scanned from the printed pages of the DRM'd version of the ebook.


Robert Cyr said...

Morris, I found your blog and have been reading continuously for hours!

I completed my first Ebook 10 months ago and have enjoyed moderate success selling about 60 copies per month. I look forward to learning from your experience as I read through your archives.

Thanks again-

Morris Rosenthal said...


Uh Oh, some day somebody is going to try to sue me for wasting their work week. My main defence well be that at something over 2 hours per blog post, it's eaten about 25 weeks of equivalent full time writing effort on my part:-)

I think 60 copies a month is excellent for a first eBook, you're in business. Consider doing a POD version for people who want to hold a bound book if it's long enough.