The 99-Cent Business Model For SHORT eBooks

Some writers on Twitter were discussing about other writers who priced their full-length ebooks at $0.99 USD, therefore ruining the market for ebooks priced at $2.99 USD or higher. I kept reading that pricing ebooks at $0.99 USD doesn’t work. Actually, it does work—for SHORT ebooks featuring short stories and essays. The $0.99 USD price point appeals to IMPULSIVE SHOPPERS who want a quick read for a buck.

I stumbled upon this pricing scheme by accident when I became frustrated that the short story reprint market was dead. My short stories saw print once and only once. Placing my reprints elsewhere became too much work. All the editors wanted new content. The few editors willing to consider reprints were so damn picky I’m not sure why they bothered. Unless you’re selling books like Stephen King, a traditional publisher won’t even look at a short story collection.

My reprints found new life as short story ebooks in late 2010. Due to the short length (my minimum word count is 1,000 words), these SHORT ebooks could only be priced at $0.99 USD. Since then I started adding more short story and essay ebooks to my catalog. My income from Amazon and Smashwords grew with every little sale to become a predictable income stream that was larger than my first serial right sales.

My current business model is to add a new SHORT ebook every other week. I should have 40 SHORT ebooks for sale by the end of this year. Most will be at $0.99 USD, some will be FREE, and the omnibus ebooks will be $1.99 USD or higher. The more SHORT ebooks I have for sale, the more sales I’ll have.

This business model isn’t risk free. I’m putting time and effort into a business model that is nothing more than throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. I really don’t know what will work and what doesn’t work. From what I learned so far—reprint sells better than original content, essays sells better than short stories—I can make reasonable readjustments over time to gain more sales.

The serious downside of having too many ebooks available for sale is when the newest generation of ebook readers require high-resolution covers to take advantage of the high-definition displays. Updating the ebook covers over the summer put me into the hole for $300 to $400 USD (still working on this project), wiping out what little profit I had for this year. The uniform covers and formatting should spur an increase in sales.

What annoys me the most with having too many ebooks for sale are the whining reviews that the SHORT ebooks are TOO SHORT. Never mind that word count listed in the description. Never mind that the SHORT ebooks area available for FREE. (I have yet to see a whining review about a paid SHORT ebook.) This is almost as bad as writers complaining about how other writers are pricing their ebooks too low.

Short Story eBook Templates

If you’re interested in publishing your short stories as ebooks, you might get confused by the different formatting requirements of the Word document for Amazon and Smashwords. After studying the Smashwords Style Guide, I came up with my own ebook template suitable that require minor modifications for both publishing platforms.

The cover image is 500 pixels by 800 pixels. Since I’m not a graphic artist, my covers are very simple. The top half has a picture I licensed from iStockPhotos that closely matches the short story content. The bottom half has the title, ebook type and author name in Book Antiqua font, with title text in 72 point and other text in 36 point. If the text is too long, you can tweak the text size to a smaller value. But not too small. Your text must still be legible when the cover image becomes a thumbnail.

I start with the Smashwords template. After I remove the template cover image, I load the new cover image and set the cover bookmark. (Your ebook template should have a minimum of two other bookmarks: start and title.) I open the source file for my short story and change the font to Times New Roman, the regular text to 12 point, header text to 14 point and the line spacing to double before I copy and paste into the ebook template. After double checking all the details, I upload this file to Smashwords.

After I finish the Smashwords version, I make a copy of that file to create the Amazon version. Replace all references to Smashwords with the corresponding Amazon reference (i.e., “Smashwords Edition” becomes “Amazon Edition”). I change the font size to 11 point and the line spacing to 1.5. I then change all the header text to 18 point. This usually takes about ten minutes or so. After double checking all the details, I upload this file to Amazon.

I recently started putting my ebooks up for sale on Scribd. Besides being another potential revenue source (the $100 minimum payout will be a long time coming), I can embed the first page or chapter of my ebook on my own author website. You will need to have a PDF version of your ebook. Again, making a copy of the Smashwords template, I change all the Smashwords reference to Scribd references (i.e., “Smashwords Edition” becomes “Scribd Edition”) and  make the text more readable (i.e., removing the two line spaces before and after each block of text). On the Mac, I can print to a PDF file. With Windows, you will need a special plugin for Word or Adobe Acrobat to create the PDF file. After double checking all the details, I upload this file to the Scribd store.

The nice thing about creating short story ebooks is that formatting is relatively simple for all the publishing platforms. These templates can be adapted for essays and poetry. If you try to do a more complicated formatting (i.e., hanging indents), you’re on your own in finding a common solution for that.

NOTE (28 November 2012): The cover image size is out of date. Please read New eBook Cover Images Requirements for the new high-definition cover image size. I also no longer include the cover image in the ebook file as both Amazon and Smashwords will automatically include a copy of the cover image in the Kindle version of the ebook. Leaving the cover image out of the ebook file makes it easier to update the cover image without uploading the ebook file again.

Tallying Up Read An eBook Week

The Read An eBook Week (March 6-12, 2011) is now over. All my ebooks over at Smashwords were available for free with a special coupon code. I gave away 109 copies among seven titles, with an average 13 copies for six titles and 31 copies for one title. If these were actual sales, I would have earned $60. By giving the ebooks away for free, I’m hoping that readers will enjoy my work enough to seek out my future ebook titles.

The one title with 31 copies was “The Unfaithful Camera” (a short story that originally appeared in Transcendent Visions, January 2010). Was it because of the little boy who comes home angry from school when his father doesn’t pick him up? Was it because he found his father and older sister doing the bouncy-bounce in bed? Or was it because of the cover art with the scantily clad girl?

Hard to say why that title did so well. I’m going to assume that it was the well-written story, although I wouldn’t be surprised by the bouncy-bounce theory or the cover. Ebooks with obvious sexual content is a specialty niche on Smashwords.

Out of 109 copies, no one left a review for any of the seven titles. This is becoming something of a pet peeve for me. As all of these titles were reprints of previously published short stories, poems and essay, I know editors liked them well enough to publish in their publications. I really don’t know what readers think of my work.

I was also happy to find out this week that I sold another 10 copies through the Sony retail channel for February. I’m still waiting for the sales numbers from Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. For some reason the sales numbers for my Kindle ebooks through Amazon has been tapering off. From what I read elsewhere about publishing your own ebooks, you need to come out with a new title about every other month. I got two original ebook titles coming out in the next six weeks and four more titles in second half of this year. Sales should perk up with those new releases.

Meanwhile, I will need to do some black magic to modify my ebook sales tracking spreadsheet to account for this sudden surge of free copies. Looks like my Christmas shopping essay will no longer be my most popular title. I’ll find out in a few months if this week-long promotion will result in future ebook sales.

The Fiction Reprint Market Is Dead!

The most frustrating thing about being a short story writer is that the fiction reprint market is dead. A non-fiction writer can write an article for one magazine, slant the focus of the article for other magazines, and have a back catalog of articles to sell as reprints with minor changes. (Since I rarely write non-fiction outside of my blogs, I’m assuming that the Internet hasn’t killed off the non-fiction reprint market as well.) Once a short story is published, its life cycle comes to a dead end.

Very few print magazine and anthologies will take reprints, and some e-zines will take reprints if they haven’t appeared on the Internet. Most will pay little or nothing for reprints, and aren’t worth the trouble in chasing down. A short story collection is good for entering the annual contests, but don’t expect to find a publisher unless you’re already a prize-winning literary writer and/or best-selling novelist. The fiction reprint market is dead—or is it?

Several months ago I was finishing up some maintenance work on my websites when I caught the tail end of the #blogchat conversation on Twitter, where Georganna Hancock mentioned something about publishing ebooks for the Amazon Kindle. I asked a few questions and she pointed me to Kindle Direct Publishing.

Doing some more research, I came across Smashwords and their fantastic style guide for formatting ebooks. I soon uploaded my first ebook, “The Uninvited Spook,” my first published short story that I long had the reprint rights for, to both Amazon (Kindle) and Smashwords (all other ebook readers). Since then I have published a half-dozen ebooks featuring 10 reprints and seven original flash stories to earn $12 USD on 17 copies.

The traditional fiction reprint market is dead, but publishing reprints as ebooks is alive and well. Short stories published in hard-to-find magazines can now be read by new readers in widely available electronic formats. The one question I hated to hear from my readers—okay, only one person ever asked—is where they can read my work. I used to point readers to my credit list and anthologies page. Now I can point to my ebooks page, where my work is available for reading.

Half of my ebook sales came from the reprint of a Christmas shopping essay about how far my mother went to get her granddaughter a Cabbage Patch doll. While releasing a holiday-themed essay before the holidays may explain why it may be my most popular ebook title to date, I read elsewhere that original non-fiction sells well as ebooks. I’m planning to release a dozen ebooks coming over the next two years, mostly reprints and some original essays.

A Dead Tree Traditionalist Among E-Readers

The big story this week is the price war among the various e-readers. Barnes & Noble cut the price on their current Nook 3G + WiFi e-reader to $199 from $259 USD, and introducing a new WiFi-only version for $149 USD. Then Amazon followed with a similar price reduction for the Kindle, dropping the price to $189 USD. That leaves Apple iPad at the high-end price range. Will I go out and get one? Nope. I’m a dead tree traditionalist still sitting on the fence when it comes to e-readers.

My reluctance to jump on the e-reader bandwagon has nothing to do with the technology.

I was a contractor at Sony in 2005 when I led a group of ten QA testers to test what eventually became the Sony Reader in the United States. The hardware was Japanese with Kanji characters on the buttons, the Linux-based software was in English, and the English-language book files converted to HTML were on memory sticks. We glanced at three books a day for three weeks, looking for formatting issues with the conversion process and the display hardware. The e-ink display technology was fantastic. I very much wanted one. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford the price when released the following year.

I’m still price sensitive today. The new Nook is tempting at $149 USD. However, I’m not yet sold that I need a dedicated e-reader. I have the Kindle app on my iPod Touch (a first generation that doesn’t support Apple’s iBooks) for reading ancient texts—”The Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire (six volumes)” by Edward Gibbon—and out of print books—”Shakespeare (PBS Companion Book)” by Michael Woods—that are hard to find elsewhere. E-readers are excellent for these kinds of books.

But for brand new books, I prefer holding the dead tree edition in my hand. Especially if the author does something stupid that makes me mad enough to throw the book against the wall. I did that with the paperback copy of “Cell” by Stephen King when my favorite character got killed off. The book stayed on the floor for a whole week before I picked it up again to finish reading. A good book can provoke powerful emotions in the reader. E-readers aren’t built for hurling across the room against the wall.

I’m a dead tree traditionalist who hasn’t converted over to the paperless office. My short story manuscripts often start off as handwritten with ink or on the typewriter before being entered into the computer. Revisions are done with multiple printouts and red ink spilling everywhere. Every draft is kept in the filing cabinet or storage boxes. I have numerous shelves of dead tree books in my personal library.

If the price was right and I have a good enough reason, I’ll get a dedicated e-reader. Until then, I’ll keep flipping my dead tree pages.

Touching The Kindle & The Dictionary

After I got my iPod Touch (first generation) a few years ago to replace an old Palm PDA with outdated wireless technology that could no longer pick up any access points to reach the Internet at work, I haven’t used it much since then. Although I listened to my 80’s music collection at the gym, I never felt comfortable taking the Touch in that kind of a sweaty environment. When the third generation iPod Shuffle came out, I got one for the gym. I loaded up the Touch with the digital copies that came with certain DVD movies to watch on the train while visiting my father in Sacramento. As for loading up applications, I found two apps useful enough to use my Touch more often now.

I downloaded Kindle for the iPhone and iPod Touch when it first came out, and a sample chapter to test out the features. That was okay. I’m a traditionalist who would rather have the actual dead tree edition to read through for current books. When I decided to pursue a classical education, I was surprised to find that many of the classical drama, history and literature books were either free or cost less than a buck on the Kindle. I’m reading “The History of The Decline And Fall of The Roman Empire: Volumes 1 to 6” by Edward Gibbon, and downloaded “The Jewish Wars” by Flavius Josephus (translated by William Whiston) and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes/The Return of Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Author Canon Doyle. Looks like I’ll be reading all the classics from Kindle on my Touch from now on, saving space in my library for more current dead tree books.

The other application was Dictionary.Com, a free dictionary. I was surprised to discover that Apple doesn’t include the Dictionary from the Mac OS X on the Touch. There’s also the American Heritage Dictionary version that cost $25 USD. Again, I’m a dead tree traditionalist when that much money is involved. (I made the mistake of selling my 1987 copy of The Random House Dictionary of The English Language, Second Edition, a number of years ago.) Since I started writing haiku poems that require counting out a specific number syllables per line, I been consulting the Dictionary on my MacBook more often to determine how many syllables a word breaks into if I wasn’t certain. Having a dictionary on my Touch makes the process of refining my haiku poems in my writing journal much easier. Dictionary.Com also has a thesaurus for looking up other words, but the extended features require wireless access (which really kills the battery life on the Touch).

If you’re a writer with an iPod Touch, these are two must have applications.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.