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E-book Conversion and Distribution: Should You Do This Yourself?

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E-book Conversion and Distribution: Should You Do This Yourself?

August 2012

by Adam Salomone


Now that e-books and digital distribution have become part of the mainstream, publishers have several viable options for conversion and dissemination. What follows explores both these processes, with attention to the pros and cons of handling some tasks in-house vs. hiring vendors.


DIY Conversion and Concurrent Production

Print-book files are most commonly converted to digital files in EPUB format. Many companies have their own flavors of EPUB, with differing DRM and hardware requirements, but they are primarily based on this one file format.

Since the process of e-book conversion is relatively new, it continues to evolve, and trying to master it can be a burden for some publishers. Any burden will be compounded if a publisher needs to convert backlists hundreds of titles long.

Still, in-house e-book conversion may have significant advantages. Although it requires investment in technical expertise, it gives you a lot of flexibility in controlling your digital assets. Also, it allows you to produce print-on-paper books and e-books concurrently; plus, it means you can bring your e-books to market more quickly while having greater control over their quality.

In-house conversion is a multistep process with complex specifics. Here’s a brief overview of how the process works (to find out more, you might talk with professionals who handle conversion).

In general, EPUB digital files are meant to give structure and meaning to book data. For example, the EPUB file for a cookbook will contain embedded information that identifies certain pieces of text as “ingredients,” others as “directions,” still others as “yield,” and so on. Although the categories differ from book to book, it’s wise to remember that there are such categories when you’re thinking about the conversion process.

In-house conversion starts in the manuscript phase, when either the editor or the author should apply a basic set of tags to the manuscript. Again, using a cookbook as an example, the set of tags would differentiate among ingredient lists, headnotes, directions, yields, and so on.

Those tags create a markup of the manuscript that should be imported into relevant Styles in your production program, which I’ll assume, for present purposes, is InDesign. Then the book can be laid out for production in hardcopy. Newer versions of InDesign have an option for outputting an EPUB file as part of the production process, so you can output both editions concurrently.

I tend to recommend leveraging technical expertise gained through in-house conversion for future titles and outsourcing conversion of backlist titles, which requires a great deal of work.


Outsourcing Conversion

Working with a conversion partner lets you expand or contract your list of titles to convert in line with frontlist and backlist demand, and of course it also gives you access to expertise and offloads some resource-intensive work.

You can find many potential partners. The few I mention below constitute just a small subset. I recommend looking for a partner that can handle both conversion and distribution in one relationship, although that may not always be possible.

Also, I recommend trying to get copies of the XML files your partner creates, along with its corresponding EPUB files. There are several good reasons for this, including the fact that having an XML file is like having your native production files. As EPUB continues to evolve, it will be helpful to have the XML files that new iterations will be based on.

Vendors you might consider include Code Mantra, Ingram Digital Services, Jouve, and Aptara. Their prices for EPUB conversion will differ, but most of them will quote you a price per page, which can range from 20 cents to a dollar or more.

Prices are based primarily on complexity—how many charts, graphs, illustrations, and the like appear in the book. Accordingly, most long-form fiction is likely to be priced toward the lower end of the scale, and most textbooks and cookbooks are likely to be priced toward the higher end.

Make sure you understand what a quoted price covers. Just conversion? Or conversion plus a round of quality assurance (QA) and follow-up for any corrections? A lower price may mean you get a lower level of service than you want and expect.

Choosing a conversion partner requires due diligence. Ask questions such as:

● What are some of the conversion projects you’ve handled?

● Can I get samples from some of them?

● Can I get samples that use my own books?

● What other companies—including small companies—have you worked with?

● When will my EPUB files be delivered?

● How long will the entire conversion process take?

Any conversion partner you select will have its own way of handling files, and its own specifications for the kinds of files you send. It’s best to deliver your files to a vendor in batches, and to record what was sent in each batch and when it was sent. We do this using Excel.

The conversion process gets significantly easier for us when we supply a comment document that includes recommendations for ways to handle technically tricky elements of each book (charts, tables, and graphs, for example).

After the files come back from the conversion service, you need to go through the quality-assurance process, comparing each EPUB file to the corresponding print file to be sure that the conversion worked properly.

This is akin to proofreading print files, and the work is crucial to delivering a high-quality product. I strongly recommend bringing in some additional help with QA, since it is time-consuming and arduous work. Freelancers who proof your print books are good candidates.

Create a comment file for each book that notes any issues with the conversion before resubmitting your book to the conversion company so it can make the necessary changes.

After the changes have been made, the EPUB files should be ready for distribution to retailers.


DIY Distribution

Distribution of digital products can cover a broad landscape of retailers, depending on your market. Obvious players in this space include Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Google, and Kobo, along with OverDrive for libraries and retailers active in your publishing niche.

Simply sending files for a retailer to upload isn’t enough, of course. Any distribution arrangement with a retailer involves sending many pieces of data, including but by no means limited to a book’s EPUB files.

Retailers need metadata for each title, and the term metadata covers multiple pieces of information, including the title of the book, the author, the retailer price, the BISAC code(s), the format, and the subject area, to name just a few (see “The Link Between Metadata and Sales” in the April 2012 issue, and the “Desperately Seeking Good Data” series in the archives at ibpa-online.org).

Either you or your distribution partner must deliver carefully prepared metadata for each book, depending on the time, money, and expertise you can invest.


There are three primary things to consider when you’re handling distribution in-house:

1. Establishing relationships with retailers and negotiating contracts with them. Just about any publisher can establish relationships with the major retailers, but negotiated terms may vary with the size of the list and the publisher, and they may differ from the terms that a distribution company could get.

2. Storing and sending EPUB files and metadata. If you decide to distribute digital files yourself, it’s best to have at least one staff person dedicated to sending the files and associated metadata to retailers and to making sure everything is kept up to date. With a large list of books, you would probably need a team to handle the work.

Be extremely careful about information flow. Ideally, your EPUB files will be held in a dedicated content management system. A CMS provides a secure location for storing files and information, plus a way to keep track of what’s been sent to retailers, which files need to be updated, what metadata has been sent, and more. Some of these systems also store associated metadata, and they can come in very handy in connection with versioning.

3. Keeping track of retailer relationships in connection with marketing opportunities, reprint corrections, and book updates. Publishers have a long history of managing relationships with retailers, whether through print distributors or through in-house sales teams. Keeping up with what each retailer is doing with your e-books and how that relates to marketing and promotional opportunities is a task for an in-house team. Be aware, though, that there may be crossover between the digital management role and the marketing role, which means that relationship management issues may involve others besides the digital asset point person or team.


Outsourcing Digital Distribution

The logistics of digital distribution are basically the same whether it’s handled in-house or outsourced, but outsourcing has some benefits you may want to consider. For instance:

A company that specializes in digital distribution already has contracts with retailers, so you don’t need to negotiate with them. Sometimes, although not always, a distribution partner can command better contract terms so that publishers get more revenue per book sold by a retailer.

Digital distribution services also have marketing relationships with retailers, so they may be better able to craft programs that highlight your books effectively.

You may be able to use your distribution partner’s content management and metadata management systems, avoiding the need for costly investment in your own.

Distribution partners typically charge a percentage of sales as their fee, and you will also have to invest the time and talents of a dedicated liaison who can work with your digital distributor to ensure seamless business operations.

In the years to come, I believe in-house distribution for digital files will become much more cost-effective and efficient. Right now, smaller publishers and publishers just starting out may do best with a distribution partner that can help navigate some of the stickier distribution issues and also help with the digital distribution learning curve.

When I’m trying to decide between in-house and outsourced distribution, I find it’s useful to map cost and revenue projections for both.

Using real figures provided by a potential distribution partner (rather than the round numbers used here), I do basic calculations—e.g., with a partner that charges 10 percent of sales, $100,000 in sales would mean a fee of $10,000, for a net revenue stream of $90,000. Then I ask myself questions such as: Could I build in-house infrastructure to handle digital asset management and distribution for $10,000 or less? What would happen to my net revenue if this distribution partner pushed sales beyond that $100,000 mark?

Of course, once you get up into higher numbers—say, $1 million in sales and $100,000 in fees—you may reach a tipping point where in-house distribution looks more palatable, but that’s not the case for most smaller publishers at this point.


Bottom Line

It’s my opinion that a small to medium-sized publisher with no prior experience in the digital marketplace would do well to find a partner to handle both the conversion and the distribution of digital files, although the publisher could handle both those processes if need be.

However you decide to proceed, think about how important your print distribution and sales relationships are. Next after them, your relationships with the people who create and/or disseminate your digital products will be among the most important you will build in the years to come.


Adam Salomone is the associate publisher of The Harvard Common Press, a Boston-based independent focused on cookbooks. He oversees the digital strategy for this vertical across book/author brands and has been involved in several outreach efforts related to cookbook publishing, including the First Annual Cookbook Conference and numerous sessions at Digital Book World, Tools of Change, and The International Association of Culinary Professionals.

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