Lee Foster’s Ebook Publishing Revolution

by | Jan 18, 2012

by Lee Foster

Today I welcome a friend from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA), travel book author Lee Foster, an energetic practitioner in the ongoing ebook publishing revolution around us. Lee is a veteran and award-winning travel journalist whose work has won eight Lowell Thomas Awards, the highest awards in travel journalism.

You can see more about Lee’s articles, photos, 10 books, and 4 apps on his website at www.fostertravel.com. Beyond ebooks, Lee has been a pioneer in app publishing.

In this article Lee focuses on “The Ebook Publishing Revolution.” Lee has just released his independently-published print book as an ebook through BookBaby and will keep 100% of the net sales.

At the same time, one of Lee’s traditional print publishing partners has released ebooks of two of his earlier books, with Lee getting 20% of the net sales.

What will be the future of independent author/traditional publisher relationships? Lee has many insights into the current publishing scene, including the debt that writers/photographers owe to musicians, who led the way in digital publishing. Lee is impressed with the simplicity of ebook publishing files and has a perspective on the price of ebooks, always a controversial subject.

Here’s the first half of Lee’s article. Look out tomorrow for the conclusion.

We are in the midst of a fast-developing publishing revolution in ebooks. The most revolutionary aspect of the current scene is that I, as a travel writer/photographer, can publish an ebook of my work and keep 100% of the net sale.

I have done just that, publishing my travel literary book, Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time, for $2.99 in the Apple iBook Store, the Amazon Kindle Store, and the other viable stores for Barnes & Noble Nook and the Sony Reader. The book also sells as a printed book for $14.95. The book won a Best Travel Commentary award from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association.

The deal sounds too good to be true. When things sound too good to be true, they usually are not true. But this is an exception. My partner in this venture is an entity known as BookBaby.

Simultaneously, one of my traditional print book publishing partners, Countryman Press, has released two of my books published through them as ebooks in the same stores. The titles are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington DC.

The Countryman price for these ebooks, which sell as print books at $14.95, are $9.95 in the Amazon Kindle Store and $10.95 in the Apple iBook Store. They pay me 20% of the net sale as my royalty.

A careful reader will already detect some issues with all the conflicting figures presented. What is the basis of price? What is the share of royalty? Where is this publishing drama headed? How will author/traditional publisher relationships evolve, given the revolution in process.

To understand what is happening, I present three aspects, which may at first seem ironic and tangential, but are, in fact, central to the discussion:

    1. The Ebook Publishing Link Between Musicians and Writers/Photographers
    1. The Layout Simplicity of Ebooks
  1. The Pricing of Ebooks

Let’s get started:

The Ebook Publishing Link Between Musicians and Writers/Photographers

Ironically, there is a special link between musicians and writers/photographers in the new publishing world of ebooks and apps.

Musicians have led the way in the publishing of digital files, meaning downloadable files or files on a CD product. Now writers/photographers are beginning to benefit from the publishing of digital files, meaning ebooks and apps, either downloadable or on a CD. Most of the activity and benefit is in the downloadable sector.

Writers/photographers owe a great debt of gratitude to musicians, who have created the ground-breaking relationships for selling in this manner in the new digital age.

An interesting expression of this relationship can be seen in a Portland-based company that started with the company named CDBaby and has now expanded to include an ebook-publishing branch called BookBaby.

CDBaby claims to have published music from more than 250,000 independent musical artists, paying them about $200 million in royalties. BookBaby hopes to do the same for writers/photographers who want to publish ebooks.

BookBaby, like CDBaby, has an unusual business model. They charge a small up-front fee of $199 for formatting and placement of the ebook in the main store structures (Amazon Kindle, Apple iBook, B&N Nook, and Sony Reader). There may be further charges for graphics-intensive layouts, cover design, and ISBN assignment (if the author doesn’t have his or her own ISBNs).

They also charge a longtail fee of $19/year to keep the ebook in their system for every year after the first year. Beyond that, they return to the creator 100% of all sales.

Ed: Readers of The Book Designer get a discount from BookBaby: simply use the coupon code jfbookman2 at checkout!

It sounds almost too good to be true. However, these people have vast experience with handling digital files and setting up automatic bullet-proof accounting systems in CDBaby, which has a similar revenue payout. So they can now make this same offer to writers/photographers. CDBaby/BookBaby describes itself as a “non-predatory” publisher.

I used BookBaby for my book, and it worked. My book looks great in both its Kindle and Apple versions. I will use BookBaby for two future ebooks I plan to do.

Joel has conducted two fascinating interviews with the CDBaby/BookBaby CEO, Brian Felsen. The most recent is at:

Brian Felsen of BookBaby.com on the Future of e-Books

and the earlier one is at:

e-Book Distribution with BookBaby’s Brian Felsen

Felsen comments that they have had so much success with musicians that it is easy for the company now to branch out to writers/photographers who want to market their products as ebooks. After all, digital files are digital files.

Ed: Tomorrow, in the conclusion to this article, Lee will explore his second and third points, The Layout Simplicity of Ebooks and the Pricing of Ebooks.

Photo by anitakhart

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Lee Foster

    LK, you make some helpful observations about my article. Certainly, it would not be wise for an author to spend more on developing a book than will ever be returned. Note that I am only recommending the $199 package because you get “proofs” back as many times as needed before the book is released. BookBaby has a $99 package, which I think of as the “shot in the dark” package because you must be certain that all your material is correctly presented etc.

    However, all considered, it still seems more economical to me to go with BookBaby, even if I was selling fiction at 99 cents. That’s partly because BookBaby will be looking for the new stores. They have just announced that my book will be in the Kobo store and in a new store called Copia. Copia caught my eye in their announcement because of your comment. This happens to be a “social media” type of store where a fiction author and fans might interact, building the market. Here is the comment in their announcement that might interest you:

    “Copia is a popular eBook store with a social twist! Copia customers are encouraged to “annotate” digital texts, share those notes with friends, and to join or start group conversations about the books they’re reading. Copia makes this social reading experience possible not only through their free Copia eReader, but also via free-apps for Mac, PC, iPad, Sony Reader, Nook, and more!”

  2. LK Hunsaker

    Hi Lee, I hope you’re enjoying your travels!

    Yes, I can understand that and I think with the right book that will hit the right market, it makes perfect sense. With statistics that say most indie authors don’t make more than $200 per book, I’d hope new to the game authors will stop and consider that. Those of us who write “off market” fiction in strangely mixed genres might not want that risk, especially with all of the free and 99 cent books getting the bulk of “sales” for ebooks at the moment.

    However, I do think CDBaby has enough market power that it could help sales, and well done formatting can definitely increase long-term sales. I may consider that at some point, possibly with my straight literary fic in progress. Best of luck with it!

  3. Lee Foster

    I am traveling in Israel this week so have been out of touch, but today I have email access. I wrote this guest article for Joel.

    LK raises a good question, and here is my response, which is in sync with Joel’s comment. I have much respect for Smashwords and have heard Mark Coker speak. However, I want some expertise brought to bear on the coversion format of my book. I want a BookBaby expert to look at my book and send me a proof showing how it looks, so that any errors can be caught. I also want the book to appear in all the viable stores. I then want to keep 100% of the net sale. I get this all with BookBaby.

    • Wietske

      This is an amsoewe post!As a YA book blogger, I have one suggestion. In this post you mention having both print and pdf versions to give the reviewer. As someone who reads my books primarily on Kindle, I would recommend (and profoundly appreciate) either a .epub or .mobi file. Yes, a .pdf can be read on an e-reader, but the quality of the file is far less superior than an .epub file.

      • Lee Foster

        Dear Wietske,
        Thanks for your note. I agree ith your observation, that pdfs are quite unsatisfactory, compared to a regular ebook file. I don’t believe I have championed pdfs at all in my article. My experience with pdfs has been highly unsatisfactory. For example, on a recent trip to New Zealand, I bought a Lonely Planet guidebook, thinking it was a true ebook, but it was a pdf. The pdf was difficult to read. None of my three mentioned books exist as pdfs, only as true ebooks.
        Lee Foster

  4. Dmien Darby

    Such an insightful article, much appreciated. It was refreshing because I had not thought about the relationship between eBookers and what has happened to music/movies quite like that. Thank you musicians.
    I am curious to see how the digital information age further evolves over the next few years. SOPA is a troubling start.

  5. LK Hunsaker

    I’m fully supportive of CDBaby and love what they’ve done for indie musicians, and I hope their BookBaby flies well. I have to wonder, though, why authors should pay that setup fee and yearly maintenance when we already have Smashwords that formats our books in all major formats and distributes to most major retailers and costs authors nothing. Many indies would have trouble making up that $199 fee in sales, so unless BookBaby has some kind of marketing assistance that comes with it, I’m not sure why they should go that way. What’s the advantage?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi LK,

      There are a variety of suppliers in this market which is good for authors, since they can choose the one that suits them best. Smashwords, as you point out, requires no fee up front so it’s much more affordable for authors with a limited budget. They also provide free conversion services, a real boon to DIY publishers. Other authors prefer to pay up front rather than in a percentage of their sales as at Smashwords, and prefer having a single point of distribution for all ebook retailers rather than having to distribute to Kindle on their own. And some authors would rather hand the conversion duties to someone else rather than work their way through the formatting necessary to successfully navigate the “meatgrinder.” Keep in mind also that heavily-formatted books will never make it through the Smashwords conversion system, so those authors can’t even use the service. And if you’ve decided to have someone else create your ebook files, you also won’t be able to use Smashwords, which does not accept third-party files.

      What it comes down to is a personal choice between two great companies. I don’t think you can lose either way.

      • LK Hunsaker

        Hi Joel, thank you for your reply. Yes, I can see why certain types of books would work much better through professional formatting if you don’t have the ability to do that yourself, particularly books with images and such. You can always pay someone to format for you and then upload to Smashwords. They do accept that. But for those who expect bigger sales, I see the sense in the one time fee. It’s a gamble either way, I suppose. Options are always a good thing. ;-)



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