5 Things I’m Always Having to Tell Self-Publishers


Once upon a time I was part of a panel talking to a room of writers about e-books when, after a good fifteen minutes of us throwing around terms like Smashwords, Amazon KDP, formatting, XML, DRM and the like, someone in the audience put up their hand and said, ‘I’m sorry, but what’s a Kindle?’

Ah. We saw instantly what we’d done. We were all so used to talking and discussing and explaining and debating and hypothesizing about e-books that we’d skipped over explaining the most basic points, presuming that everyone knew what a Kindle was. Oops.

That sometimes happens in blogging and writing about self-publishing too. I bet the number of “How To Format Your E-book” articles and blog posts greatly outnumber those that just explain, on a basic level, what e-books actually are, what they look like and how they work. This leads to many self-publishers wondering about things that I personally think are hovering somewhere between common sense and a logical conclusion, but then of course I’d think that because I know a lot—way, way more than I ever thought I would—about e-books.

So let’s address these issues today. Here are 5 things I’m always having to tell new self-publishers

1. You don’t need an e-reader to read e-books

‘My mother/sister/neighbor’s third cousin twice removed says she can’t read my book,’ self-publishers say, ‘because she doesn’t have a Kindle/Nook/other e-reader.’ Um, yes she can, actually. You can read e-books on an ever-increasing number of devices, and chances are you already own one or more of them. Downloading the free Kindle reading application from Amazon means you can read Kindle books on Macs, PCs, iPhones, Blackberries, Androids and iPads. If you download Adobe’s Digital Editions program (also free) you can read ePub format e-books on your PC or Mac.

And all that’s just for starters.

Tangent: This is also why I fly into a rage when a well-known bestselling author—say, Michael Connelly or Karin Slaughter—releases a short story or short story collection in e-book form only, and people go nuts. Like, really nuts. The author’s Facebook page fills up with comments drenched in rabid contempt (“Well I don’t *have* an e-reader so just *how* am I supposed to read this?!??!? Thanks a LOT, Michael!, etc. etc.) as fans feel personally insulted that a book isn’t coming out on paper. Now I don’t like reading e-books, but I don’t thrown my toys out of the playpen in a tantrum if an e-book is my only option. Especially since most of the time, these e-book only editions are too short to be paper books; if they had to be produced in paperback they wouldn’t be, because the cost of manufacturing, moving and selling them would just be too high. So next time just keep your toys and download a free e-book reading program, okay?

Of course, it’s possible that your mother/sister/neighbor’s third cousin twice removed just doesn’t want to read your book, which is a different problem entirely. But at least now you can bust her first excuse.

2. You can make your book 99c on Amazon—just change your royalty rate

‘Amazon won’t let me charge less than $2.99 for my e-book,’ is another common newbie self-publisher refrain. This took me a while to figure out, because I knew you could charge 99c or $1.99 if you wanted to, and I was always setting my price at $2.99. But then one day I went to Amazon KDP to lower the price of Mousetrapped from $2.99 to $1.99, and I realized where this was coming from.

You can absolutely make your book 99c or $1.99—but not if you’ve selected a 70% royalty rate. To qualify for a 70% royalty rate, your book has to be priced between $2.99 and $9.99. That’s why if the 70% box is ticked, Amazon won’t let you make your book 99c or $1.99—or $14.99 or $19.99, for that matter. Check the 35% royalty rate box instead, and then make your price 99c or $1.99. Simples!

3. You don’t need to add DRM to your book (or, Piracy? You should be so lucky!)

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and if you add it to your book—which you can only do on Amazon KDP; Smashwords is DRM-free—it means that if I buy your book for my Kindle, I can’t send it to my friend who also has a Kindle or worse yet, upload the file to one of those illegal torrent sites that let would-be digital pirates download books for free. (Theoretically anyway; DRM can be skirted around too.) It’s supposed to prevent piracy. But guess what? DRM annoys e-book buyers, and you don’t need it. You really, really, REALLY don’t.

First of all, chances are that no one is going to be interested in stealing your book. It’s hard enough to get people to buy it, let alone convince them that it’s worth breaking the law to get a free read of. And in all likelihood, your book is cheap. An unknown author plus a cheap e-book does not a big demand for pirated copies make. The only authors who really have to worry about this are best-selling ones, the household names, whose publishers charge $9.99 or more for their e-books. You’re not one of these authors, so don’t worry about. And don’t add DRM, which also takes a little nibble out of your profit, by the way.

Also: thousands of people downloading your book for free? You should be so lucky! I can’t remember his name and Googling didn’t help, but you might have heard recently about a self-published Amazon KDP author suing Amazon for making his book free when it shouldn’t have been. A preview of his book was free on Barnes and Noble, and Amazon will match the lowest price offered anywhere, so they mistakenly thought the two titles were the same and made his Kindle book free. As I said I can’t find the details so I’m pulling this out of my memory here, but he sold something like 5,000 free books before the mistake was rectified, he’s mad about it and now he’s suing Amazon for loss of income.

You know what I’d be doing right now if that had happened to me? Sending Amazon a box of cupcakes and a Thank You card. I’d thank them for the 5,000 new readers I have that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for their mistake, and for the ongoing publicity, all over the internet, that I continue to enjoy because of it. And loss of income? Of course we can never know for sure, but I’d hazard a guess that the income the author is going to generate out of this publicity plus his new readers paying for future books will be more than what he would’ve made if this had never happened and he’d sold x amount as normal. And we know x isn’t 5,000, right? That’s why my eyes were rolling dangerously far back in my head every time I read an angry blog post about this situation, because it’s not like he would’ve sold that amount if he were charging for those books. It’s not like Amazon did him out of his royalty rate multiplied by 5,000 copies, because that would be a big problem and worth a lawsuit. So, we’ve wondered off the point slightly (when has that ever happened on here?! Um…) but don’t DRM. You don’t need to.

4. You can order your paperbacks at cost price and download your e-books for free

A while back I discovered that a self-publisher I know had ordered stock for her book launch from Amazon.com. Let’s all take a moment here to appreciate the loss of potential revenue that occurred in that one, swift blow. I wondered if perhaps she was an evil genius taking a hit in order to bump up her sales ranks, but no—she had done it because she didn’t know she could order her own books at cost (manufacturing) price direct from CreateSpace. I know some of you are probably giggling at this, but when you think about it (and all the other similar mistakes newbie self-publishers make) you can totally see how this happens. Most self-publishers are entering a world they know nothing about and there’s some much information to take in some of it just whizzes on by.

Just so we’re all clear: you can order your own books at cost price from CreateSpace. You can order as many as you like, but there’s no volume discount. That’s the price you pay for POD. You do this by visiting your dashboard and clicking “Order Copies” next to your title of choice.

Amazon KDP, unfortunately and a bit strangely, does not let you download a copy of your own Kindle book for free. You get to check an approximation of it during the upload process but if you want to see exactly what the full book looks like on a Kindle or Kindle reading app, you’ll have to fork out for a copy. (You can download the sample for free, of course, but that’s only the first few pages.) Smashwords, however, will let you download your own e-book for free, in any of the formats you’ve chosen to convert it to. They’re great for sending to reviewers or friends with e-readers; just attach a file in their preferred format to an e-mail and hit Send.

NB: Nothing you purchase directly from CreateSpace or download for free from Smashwords while logged in will count towards your sales figures.

5. Amazon Kindle samples are determined automatically—and kindly put up and shut up, thank you

All e-book retailers allow potential buyers to download a free sample of the book they’re considering buying. This is exactly the same as being able to walk into a bookstore, pick up a book and flick through the first few pages. (Or even, if you have the cheek and your bookstore has an in-store cafe and a comfy chair, the whole thing.) Smashwords lets you specify what percentage of the book you’d like included in the sample (20-25% at least; the more a person reads, the more they “get into” the book, thus the more likely they are to pay to read the rest), but Amazon does it automatically. And for the love of fudge self-publishers, let them to it.

Me after reading entries in KDP’s community forums

I try to stay away from KDP’s community forums—it’s really not good for my blood pressure—but I had to pop in their recently for some ITIN/tax refund research, and I happened upon something that read like this:

“Does anyone know how I can get my sample changed? Amazon are giving away the first two and a half chapters and there is WAY TOO MUCH valuable information in there for it to be available for free. I’ve e-mailed them but they haven’t responded. What can I do? I’m going to have to pull this book…’

Dear Crazy Kindle Author Person,

You can’t get the sample changed, for much the same reasons you can’t insist that your paperback only appear on physical bookstore shelves plastic-wrapped and security sealed, and that all readers sign a non-disclosure agreement that forbids them from sharing the information in the book with anyone else. The sample system is in fact a superb way to sell more copies of your book, and you should be thankful it exists. You should be praying Amazon ups it to the first five or even ten chapters, making it harder for a reader to discard the book after reading so far, and sending them straight to the “Add to Cart” button on your Amazon listing instead. On a personal note, if you fear that there is no reason to buy your book after reading the first two and a half chapters, I fear there’s no point in reading it at all. 

Love and bubbles,


The Bonus Round: Get Your Paws on an E-Reader

How many self-published e-book authors, do you think, have actually read a book on a e-reading device? And I don’t mean a computer screen or their phone, but an actual e-reader, the place where how they format and lay out their e-book matters the most, because it’s the most different? Or here’s the converse, which is a much, much scarier thought: how many self-published e-book authors, do you think, have self-published e-books without ever seeing what an e-book actually looks like on a Kindle or a Nook screen? And isn’t that like trying to make a movie without ever having watched one?

There is a huge difference between the bright, book-like virtual pages of iBooks on a shiny, glossy iPad, and the dull, clinical words squeezed in shades of grey onto the screen of a Generation 2 Kindle. Finding a specific chapter on Digital Editions involves moving your cursor to the active list of chapter headings to the left of your screen, but finding a specific chapter on a Kindle feels like wading through fudge by comparison. Yet e-book authors can make it easier by laying out their book properly and inserting active navigational links. Anyone who has searched for books in the Kindle store through an actual Kindle will never again look at their own listing and product description the same way; you’ll instantly understand how much work you have to do to stand out, and how being found and downloaded makes you the luckiest hay-colored needle in the giant haystack.

You can read every blog post, subscribe to every newsletter and attend every seminar, but they won’t give you as good a grasp of this whole e-book thing as five minutes playing time with an e-reader. Buy one, borrow one from a friend who has one or drop into a store and pretend you’re thinking of buying one and try it out.

I think this might be my longest post ever (can’t you tell someone doesn’t feel like doing her 2,000 novel words today…? This post is 2,349!) so I’m going to stop now. But is there any other basic self-publishing questions you’ve been looking for the answers to? If there are, post them below. For today only*, there are no stupid questions.

*FOR TODAY ONLY. Like, times a million.

18 thoughts on “5 Things I’m Always Having to Tell Self-Publishers

  1. Leonard Kinsey says:

    I agree with not putting DRM on your book, because it turns off the people who are actually paying for it and does relatively nothing to stop piracy.

    However, I also have to say that my book has spread across the torrent sites over the past month, and my sales seem to have taken a hit as a result. From Demonoid alone it looks like over 3000 people have downloaded the torrents of my book, which is disturbing. Not sure if any of those people would have paid for it, but I thought I set the price low enough that it would almost be pointless to pirate ($3). Apparently not, though!

    Even worse, I’ve noticed no significant uptick in website hits, Facebook friends/likes, or Twitter followers. So there really hasn’t been anything positive about having my book pirated. It pretty much just sucks!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Well yes, that pretty much does suck, yes! I wonder though, have you seen this torrent yourself? Like, have you downloaded it or got it from someone who has? Because from what I hear half of these files are utterly unreadable. Let’s hope, anyway!

      I think the question is, would any of those 3,000 people have paid for your book? Is it really a lost sale? For instance, let’s say I watch a bootleg copy of a movie. If I’m only watching it because I don’t have to pay to do it, if I was never going to pay to watch it, is that a lost sale or lost revenue? Obviously in a perfect world I should *have* to pay for it, but likewise in a perfect world you couldn’t pay for a DVD and them screen it to 30 people, or lend books to friends. I just don’t think e-book piracy is as awful a reality as it seems to be—unless people who would have bought it decide to steal it instead and in my (limited) experience, there’s little cross over between heavy readers who buy books and opportunistic e-book thieves—and anyway, DRM is as good as powerless to stop it. We can only rely on people’s morals, really, I suppose.

      • Leonard Kinsey says:

        Yeah, it’s a package of pretty much every file format out there, obviously downloaded from Smashwords. I only checked the PDF, but it’s definitely readable.

        Hopefully you’re right that most of the people pirating the book probably wouldn’t have bought it anyway. I can’t be sure if it’s the pirating or just a seasonal slump that’s hit my e-book sales. Paperback sales have been amazing this month! But I do know that I certainly wouldn’t be complaining if I received international press like the person you mentioned in your post!

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          Paperback sales will always pick up ahead of e-book sales because if you’re giving them as presents they have to be shipped, etc. Here’s hoping for a great e-book Christmas! 🙂

    • Vickie Taylor says:

      Hey, you know you can get a free copy of your own book on your Kindle, right? By emailing it to the free address…which escapes me at the moment. But I’m sure you can find it. I think it’s something like @free.kindle.com.

      You can only send certain file types, but I use this as a valuable step in my publishing process. I send it to myself and scan through every single page to make sure the formatting is right. I know I can also check it on Kindle Previewer on the PC, but I prefer seeing what it actually looks like on my Kindle.


      • catherineryanhoward says:

        Hi Vicky. Thanks for that but I’m not quite sure I follow. What is it exactly that you’re e-mailing—the file? Where do you get it from?

        I use the preview during the upload process and since Smashwords is a far more difficult nut to crack, if its Kindle edition is ok, then I feel confident that my KDP version is good to go too.

  2. antares says:

    (Okay, no links. I shall respect your request, but it’s gonna make this harder. Not for me. For those who may want to see the information.)

    Eric Flint, editor at Baen’s Books, says that piracy is a nuisance. The problem is visibility. He has written on this subject several times. You can find one version at the Baen Free Library (google it).

    Mr Flint wrote that after he posted one of his books for free, sales of his other works went up. He has one essay in which he posted his numbers.
    Coffee? How do I take mine?

    Depends on the brew, the grind, and the origin of the beans. If it is good (supremo), black. If it is okay (arabica), with enough sugar to cover the bite. All else, pour it down the drain.

    Favorites: Costa Rican, Mexican Altura, and any coffee in Brazil. Not from Brazil; in Brazil.

  3. Christina Fifield-Winn says:

    I learned many things from this post. Thank you. Loved hearing about the 5,000 copy guy again. Each time I learn a few more details…maybe he’ll send you a Starbucks gift card to thank you for talking him up some more and also for alerting him to the fact that what happened to him is one of those “blessings in disguise”. CHEERS! *clink*

    • shah wharton says:

      So glad I found this post – but as I started reading it an age ago (fitting in a trip to the loo, a call and the pouring of my evening Merlot) I can’t recall where I found you. Perhaps Twitter? Anyway – I recalled having the same opinion of the guy you referred to. He totally missed the point. I said that at the very least he shouldn’t be pissed. But now suing? Ho hum. Who do we think will win that?

      Great tips – I’m a newbie – or will be when I publish my first novel next year. I’m collecting great post in my reading list and this’l be in there too.

      Shah .X

  4. Maureen Crisp says:

    Great post as usual!…It’s going in my weekly roundup of publishing tips and trends. I especially want to say Thank you Catherine for your wit and wise words…as well as your brilliant breakdown of formatting….I felt very blessed when I found your blog!
    New Zealand

  5. Pink Ninjabi says:

    Thank you for clarifying the Kindle App issue as I had clicked on download for your book, and stopped when it asked to download to a Kindle App. I have a PlayBook, so this is great information from you.Thank you sooo much! Your writing of details to clarify this process is one of the most helpful blogs on this topic that I have come across. And I definitely have been searching (passively), and feel much more prepared thanks to your tips. Alhumdulillah. 😀


  6. djbressler says:


    Thanks for this post. Valuable.

    I want to point out something that I’m really struggling with disbelief about and am hoping you can shed some light.

    The only way to price HIGHER than 9.99 on Amazon is with a 35% royalty rate (instead of 70%). That means, any book priced less than $20, earns LESS for the author than books priced at $9.99.

    Why would anybody (any publisher) sell books in the dead zone of $10-$19.99 – it creates a situation where the author earns less AND customer buy fewer (presumably) because of the higher price.

    Do traditional publishers get different royalty rates? Is there something I’m missing like – is the payout 70% up until $9.99, then 35% on the rest?

    Thanks kindly,


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