Ten things to know about making ebooks

These days I’ve got my head down at Paperight, putting ebooks back on paper. But I still get asked a lot about how ebooks are made in the first place. Where does a person even start to learn? So at the suggestion of friend and mentor Kate McCallum,* I wrote up, in a few brief slides, ten things you need to know more about if you’re going to make ebooks.


* Kate McCallum is probably the best publishing trainer in South Africa (perhaps the world) – certainly anything sensible I know about the financials of publishing I owe to her mentorship when she was MD at Oxford University Press Southern Africa ten years ago.

Open educational publishing is commercial publishing

Recently I spoke on a panel at the Education Week conference about developing open educational resources. It was great to share a stage with innovators like Mark Horner of Siyavula, Andrew Einhorn of Numeric, and Brett Simpson of Breadbin Interactive. I spoke about the relationship between OER publishing and proprietary publishing – sometimes called mainstream, traditional or commercial, though those labels are neither useful nor accurate. Here are my speaking notes.

I’m Arthur. I’m a fellow with the Shuttleworth Foundation, so you know I’m going to be a fan of open educational resources. I’ve also founded two companies in book publishing that work with OERs: Bettercare and Paperight.

I wasn’t always this way. About ten years ago I was working as an editor for a big textbook company, Oxford University Press. One day I heard about this guy at UCT who was getting students to write free high-school science textbooks. Hah hah hah! What a lunatic, I thought. He sounded quite brave but a little naive. I reckoned his band of enthusiasts would never be able to produce books as good as mine, or get people to actually use them.

Siyavula Grade 10 Physical ScienceToday, those textbooks are on more learners’ desks than any other textbook in maths or science. They’re beautiful. And you can read them on paper or on your computer or on your phone. Wow, I’ve had to eat my words. And now he’s sitting here beside me, as the founder of Siyavula. Hi Mark.

To make matters worse, he married my cousin, so now we’re related. Hayi. Life is funny.

So I’ve learned from his example now. At Bettercare we publish some of the best nursing textbooks in the country. We can get dozens of leading experts to contribute to our books because we open-licence them. Those experts know that their work will be able to spread freely. We can do this because we make money selling the printed versions to hospitals and universities.

At Paperight, we make money distributing OERs from many publishers, because we work with photocopy shops to sell print-outs in their stores. (We earn a service fee for bringing the copy shops the extra business.) So in photocopy shops from Khayelitsha to Peddie to Petrus Steyn, people pay for print-outs of all kinds of OERs (and other books), because we make it easy for them.

What I’m saying is that open-licensed publishing is not the zero-revenue opposite of ‘commercial’, proprietary publishing. Open-licensing can be a powerful add-on to commercial models.

A few weeks ago the International Publishers Association released a press release and position paper on OERs. Despite its title (‘Publishers and Open Educational Resources can work together‘), it was a disappointing, deeply flawed, reactionary piece, which argues that books published under closed licensing models are inevitably better than OERs. It says the same kinds of silly things that said I myself when I first encountered Mark Horner’s work ten years ago.

This misunderstanding is based on the notion that OERs are produced in a kind of financial vacuum; that they emerge clumsily – through ‘untested content creation mechanisms’ – without any costs being incurred. Whereas ‘commercial’ publishers, they say, invest lots of money in proprietary books, and this makes the books better.

That’s not true.

Open resources are just as expensive to produce. But they’re paid for in the time of volunteers, by grants from philanthropists, and from commercial CSR or advertising funding. It’s not that the costs are different. What’s different is the customer.

Who benefits from a textbook, and therefore will pay for its development?

For proprietary books, the publisher’s customer is an individual school child and their parents, who must pay for textbooks for their child’s sole benefit. (Sometimes not directly in cash, but in school fees or by choosing lesser schools with state subsidies.) Development costs are bundled into that price.

For OERs, the publisher’s customer is civil society, who will benefit over and over again from that child being educated. In the forms of volunteer time, philanthropy and corporate sponsorship, civil society picks up the book-development tab as an investment in its collective future.

Eventually, this could reduce costs, because the more open-licensed material there is, the more we share and reuse it, and the less authors and publishers have to spend reinventing the wheel. Or civil society could just keep investing in making those resources better and better.

Traditional publishers have a tremendous opportunity to use their expertise to contribute here, by changing who their customer is. And if they can’t do that, then more and more organisations just like Siyavula will step in and do it instead. Open educational publishing is commercial publishing.

Thank you.

PS For more on the usefulness and high quality of OERs, follow the work of Shuttleworth Fellow David Wiley at Lumen Learning.

Let’s bust this “reading is dying” myth

In a wonderful piece for Time, Annie Murphy Paul argues that reading literature makes us smarter and nicer people. That’s something most book lovers would agree is a no-brainer. Apparently a professor at the University of Nottingham wasn’t convinced, so Paul did a great job stacking up the evidence.

In doing so, however, she worries that deep reading is dying, and that young people increasingly read only superficially:

“Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.

She quotes a study by Britain’s National Literacy Trust full of ‘more-likely-less-likely’ stats about young readers that seem designed to leave us more confused than terrified. For me, surveys like this are far less useful or trustworthy than empirical evidence. It seems to me that deep reading is far from endangered among young readers. In recent years, young adult reading has boomed. The Mail Online wrote a year ago:

From Twilight to The Hunger Games teen fiction is booming, with sales jumping almost 150 per cent in just six years. In the first five months of this year more than 2.4 million books in the category were sold compared to 981,000 in 2006, according to figures compiled by Neilsen BookScan.

Here in South Africa, Yoza, FunDza and Bozza have enabled hundreds of thousands of teens to read long-form fiction and non-fiction on their phones – and engaging deeply with material that just wasn’t accessible to them before. Some have even become successful writers themselves.

Paperight Young Writers Anthology 2013At Paperight, we’re about to release the first Paperight Young Writers Anthology, a collection of the best poetry, essays, short stories and illustration from South African high school students. I was involved in the poetry selection, and I guarantee that these astonishing writers are voracious readers: it’s clear from their craft that they read deeply and often.

Young people love reading deeply. Let’s celebrate that, and build our literature around it, instead of worrying needlessly that the world we think we remember is going to pieces.

Building an open business

Over a decade ago, when I was working for a large multinational, I was deeply concerned that so many of my colleagues were unhappy. I decided I would one day build my own company. It would be founded on one key principle: a company exists as a way for its team to lead whole and happy lives: providing purposeful work and a comfortable livelihood. If it cannot do that, it should not exist, because its constituents would be better off doing something else. And a company of happy constituents simply had to be more effective than an unhappy one. The happiness of our constituents would be our competitive advantage.

One of the keys to running such a company would be transparency, particularly transparency about our supply chain, how our products affected the lives of customers, and how our finances worked. The more you know about the company you work for, the happier you are, because you can make informed choices: about what to focus on, who you’re working with, and whether or not to work for that company at all. And since a company’s constituents are not only its staff but its suppliers and customers, that transparency would have to extend to them too.

I began building that company in 2006 when I co-founded Electric Book Works, but am only beginning to really get it right at Paperight. We bake some of it into our employment contracts:

By joining Paperight, you’re taking on joint responsibility for the company’s financial, social, and environmental successes and failures, including how wisely it spends money on its team. You’ll have access to the company’s financial records and bank-account-balance details, so you’ll be fully informed at all times. It’s your responsibility – and that of every team member – to understand and engage with the financial affairs of the company. You should be a part of every financial decision, although final decisions are made by the company’s CEO.

We don’t hide salaries. (When you hide salary information, you’re planting a grenade in your company: because the day someone feels unhappy, they’ll dig up that hidden salary info specifically to have something to explode over.) Our job descriptions are three bullet points long, and describe areas of functional authority – not narrow, forgettable KPIs – so we can all easily remember each other’s priorities. We let anyone join Paperight, even tiny self-publishers and solo entrepreneurs running a printer in their shack. If a customer, supplier or journalist asks for financial information, we provide it (unless disclosing it requires disclosing a customer or a supplier’s private information). We own up to our mistakes as individuals and as a company. We celebrate audacious failures (a failed experiment teaches us much more than doing the safe thing over and over). We love watching and working with competitors (believing always that we can and must do better than them). We all wash dishes.

In short: we go out of our way to share. Actively sharing makes our transparency meaningful. It’s easier to make decisions and move quickly, because we don’t have secrets to worry about protecting. When we share, others share back. And all of this makes us happier to do what we’re doing. And that is what it means to run an open business.

Still, we’re not fundamentalist about it. We don’t take open for granted. In recent months I’ve actively explored and discussed and toyed with aspects of closed business models: strategic exclusivity partnerships, creating artificial scarcity, and raising barriers to entry for our members. We must know what we’re missing out on – what our opportunity costs are. If we want to put every book within walking distance of every home, would elements of closed – opacity, secrecy, scarcity, exclusivity – get us there faster?


In small, strategic doses, perhaps. So we’ll experiment in small doses. For instance, we’ll deliberately make our Young Writers Anthology hard to find in places other than Paperight outlets. We’ll make short-term exclusivity deals to entice new partners to join our movement. In our communications, we’ll try holding back certain numbers in favour of others, just to see how people respond. In other words, we’ll carefully and deliberately sample what most other businesses do every day. And then we’ll be happy to share what we find out.

As I’ve talked to friends, funders and fellow entrepreneurs about this, it’s clear that transparency, tied as it is to sharing and openness, is still the key to our competitive advantage. And a transparent, happy company is the only kind we want to build.

A quick guide to self-publishing: start small and cheap

I was asked recently for advice on self-publishing a science fiction novel written by a teen author. He’s been quoted R9000 (about $1000) by an ebook-only self-publishing company, but was also keen to produce a paperback edition.

Now, paying R9000 for book production may or may not be worthwhile, as long as it doesn’t involve any kind of exclusive licence or copyright assignment, and the provider does more than just convert a Word file to EPUB format. But really that’s not the point. For a novel, he should be getting the book into the market himself, and saving that R9000 for later.

Every book is a unique project, so there is no simple template of what to do. In fact, publishing a book is like starting a business, with all the attendant risk and uncertainty. So the best thing for a new business is always to start off as small and as cheaply as possible, and to gather feedback from customers from the start. You must find out as quickly as possible what your customers want, and whether they’ll pay for your product.

The best guide to first-time publishing is really The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – it’s written for entrepreneurs, but the lessons are all the same for self-publishing authors. Its most important lesson is that you should spend as little time and money as possible before getting the product (your book) in front of customers and getting their feedback. The clearest feedback will be in actual sales, but verbal feedback can be just as valuable.

So, even though there’s no template for how to publish a first book, I would say these are some fundamentals:

  1. Create a single neat, edited file in something like Word, OpenOffice or Google Docs. (If you want to create an ebook file, you shouldn’t pay more than about R2500, or $250, for the conversion. You may want to pay for professional editing, too.)
  2. Distribute it as an ebook on Amazon Kindle using Kindle Direct Publishing. (There are loads of other places to sell ebooks, but don’t invest time on them till you have good sales on Amazon, which has about 80% market share in ebook retail.)
  3. Market it by telling your friends about it and hoping word of mouth spreads. Just use email, social networks, and meeting people at any events related to the book’s genre.
  4. If sales pick up, and you think there’s demand for it, use the proceeds to pay for more expensive versions like a paperback, where you have to pay for design and print distribution too.
  5. When you do produce a paperback, never print a large print run. Always use print-on-demand services like CreateSpace or LightningSource.

(If you think there’s a market in South Africa, consider putting it on Paperight, too, to reach a large, low-income market. Paperight is my distribution company, a network of independent copy shops that print out books on-demand for walk-in customers. It’s simple and free to sell books through the Paperight network.)

For some technical guidance on ebooks, check out the Electric Book Works Knowledge Base, which contains lots of guidance I’ve written on technical and admin matters. You could skip to the section on self-publishing ebooks.