Note that this section of the website is not particularly active; I hope to publish about one personal finance article per month.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How I Self-Published My First eBook - Methods And Costs

This article explains how I published my first ebook Understanding Government Finance without spending much on tools. The cost associated with self-publishing come from hiring outside talent for cover design and editing, which cannot be avoided.


I distributed my e-book via two methods:

  1. Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and
  2. Draft2Digital for all non-Amazon retail channels.
At the time of writing, Draft2Digital takes a 10% cut of net royalties. In my view, this is worth it, as my non-Amazon sales are currently quite low, and so the effort involved in working directly with the retailer would not be justified. Additionally, it is necessary to go through a distributor like Dreaft2Digital to reach some retail channels. For example, as a Canadian, I cannot work directly with Nook (associated with Barnes and Noble).

The largest distributor of self-published books is SmashWords. They have some retail channels not covered by Draft2Digital (including libraries), and they have their own web store. This would make it possible for me to send people coupons to get free or reduced price ebooks at the SmashWords store. However, Smashwords had some features that makes them harder to work with in my case.

COST In both cases, there is no upfront cost, but Draft2Digital takes a cut of royalties.

Writing Environment

I used Microsoft Word (2013) to write the manuscript. This could be replaced with the free Open Office package, but I already had Word since I needed Microsoft Office to support my consulting work. If you have an older version of Word, it is possible that you may face more problems when you reach the document conversion stage (described next). The older generations of Word may have better user interfaces, but the output may be less clean.

One trick in Word I discovered somewhat late is that you should go into the "Options" menu item, and turn on all of the grammar-checking options. By default, only the worst grammar problems are noted, but Word can do a very good job of catching a lot of problems. It is not perfect, but when I turned on all of the options late in the writing of the manuscript, it caught a lot of problems that I could no longer see.

As will be discussed in the next section, the formatting of the document should be done using "styles" and not manual formatting.

COST Whatever Microsoft Office costs you, but you could download Open Office for free.


You cannot go straight from a Word document to an ebook, which are either MOBI (Amazon) or EPUB format (everyone else). Ebooks with "reflowing" text (like Understanding Government Finance) are essentially web pages, with page breaks inserted periodically (usually chapter breaks). In other words, the Word document is converted into html. (An EPUB or MOBI file is essentially just a zip file containing the html text, pictures, and the book meta data - author, book title, etc.)

Pretty well every source I ran into said that automatic conversion from Word to ebook format would not work well. I ignored that advice, and I am still largely satisfied with the output. (And it is just not a question of me having low standards; I worked for a specialty publisher at the beginning of my career, and I have learned to be fussy about formatting.)

The only changes that I believe that would need to be made is to make the file adapt to the specific e-reader, as different e-readers display the same files with slight differences in format. Such a cleanup would be "nice to have", but in my view, not worth hiring someone to do the work. Doing the work myself would be near impossible, as I would have to buy a wide variety of e-readers and tweak the formatting for each e-reader.

More specifically, I used the conversion methods below.
  1. I used the Word document conversion at Kindle Direct Publishing.
  2. I converted the Word document to an EPUB using Calibre (an open source ebook platform), and uploaded the EPUB to Draft2Digital.
Draft2Digital has an automated conversion routine as well, and it produced the best-looking output. Unfortunately, it had problems with my endnotes, and the problem was not fixed by my publishing date.

If I wanted to tweak the html within the ebook, I could have Calibre generated the intermediate html, and modify it.

COST: Calibre is free open-source software.


I used Gimp and Inkscape to generate the interior images and cover. Both of these are free, open source programs. (Graphs were generated by the R language, which is also open source.)

  • Gimp is a pixel graphics manipulation program, which is similar to the definitely non-free Adobe Photoshop. I needed a book in order to get anything done, but I borrowed one from the library. (There are plenty of free tutorials for Gimp available on the web, but I needed a book to get the basic mechanics down.)
  • Inkscape is a "vector graphics" program, which allowed me to generate block diagrams. Vector graphics are generated by a language that explains how the figure is generated, and the figure can be zoomed in without sacrificing quality. However, most e-readers do not support vector graphics, and they have to be converted to pixel graphics.\
Graphic elements need to be uploaded at a high quality, 300 pixels per inch (often referred to as dots per inch, or dpi). By contrast, the standard on the Web is about 90 pixels per inch. Therefore, a graphic will be 1/3 of the size within an ebook that it is on a web page. (I had to adjust my graph output routines to take that into account.)

COST: Once again, all open source.

Cover Image

The cover image is critical, and every source I have seen agrees that you should get a graphic artist to make the cover for you. I agree, but needless to say, I did not listen to my own advice.

My excuse is that my ebook is part of a series, and the covers should reflect a "corporate brand". My plan is to bring in a graphic designer who will look at my website and book covers, and suggest a global redesign. That will be relatively expensive, but it would largely be a one-shot cost. Future reports would follow the new template.

  • I used Word to generate the text, which involved manual "kerning" of the words.
  • The cover token  image was licensed from the Bank of Canada for $30.
  • I used Gimp to put the elements together.
I would recommend that you use a freelance graphic professional, particularly for fiction (which lives or dies based on the cover design). You will need to be careful about the legal aspects of the cover design, which is beyond the scope of this article. Additionally, you should get the raw image files for the cover, with the original "layers", so it is possible to modify it if necessary.

COST: Me $30. For someone more sensible, probably at least $100. There are places on the web you can get covers for as low as $5, but you probably get what you pay for. An ugly cover will doom a book.


There are two layers of editing that are needed.
  1. Story editing (fiction), technical editing (non-fiction). This type of editing is aimed at seeing whether your text makes any sense, and whether it is well-written. You could potentially cover this by having outsiders read your text, but you need honest criticism. Family members or friends are unlikely to tell you that your writing is terrible.
  2. Copy Editing. This is what most people call "proofreading", but proofreading actually has a very specific meaning in publishing. (Reading a final proof, and see whether it matches up with the desired text. Since texts are now transferred as files and not manually set, this step is largely absorbed into copy editing.)
You cannot copy edit your own text. I did some copy editing for other people as part of my first job, and I am fairly good at it. But I cannot see problems in my own text, as I know what each section of text is supposed to say.Therefore, there was no question of attempting to do this myself.

I have relatives in the publishing business, and so I was able to get a recommendation for a copy editor. There are a lot of freelance talent on the internet, but the risk is that the person will just put the text through an automated grammar and spell checker (which is built into Word).

COST: In my case, several hundred dollars. For a novel-length book, probably closer to $1000.


Getting equations into standard ebooks is tricky. ("Fixed format" ebooks are essentially PDF's, and handle equations with few problems. Not all e-readers can display fixed format ebooks, unfortunately.)

I used LaTex (open source) to generate a PDF with the box with equations, and then I took a screen shoot (at a 300% zoom) to create a pixel graphic image (PNG format). 

COST: Free.


Marketing may be the biggest cost you face. And this is true even if you do not self-publish: trade publishers currently do very little marketing for non-famous authors. I have spent very little time on marketing my book, and I am correspondingly a long way from best seller status.

There are few standard ways of marketing books. 
  • Organic social media. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. Free, but it takes time. This is currently what I am working on, but I will look at other methods later.
  • Pay-Per-Click Advertising. Advertise on the internet. You can spend as much as you want.
  • Bookstore. You might be able to get a local independent bookstore to sell your book. Given the widespread demise of local bookstores, this is difficult. Since I do not have a version of my book on paper, I do not even think about this.
  • Give aways. You can pay to give away your book. (Crazy, but true.)
  • Have another book. If you have multiple books, they can piggyback sales off of eachother (assuming the quality is good). This is my highest priority.
COST: Marketing takes either time or money, or both.


The costs that you cannot avoid in self-publishing are:
  • cover image;
  • editing; and
  • marketing.
If you want to have any chance of success, I would estimate that this requires an investment of at least $1000- $2000.

(c) Brian Romanchuk 2014

1 comment:

  1. Interesting overview. Never saw something like that on a blog before.


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