Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the best-selling Take Control ebooks.

Electronic Book Experiments Continue

I remain fascinated by the evolution of electronic books, both those that started life on paper and those written purely for the digital world, so I'm continuing my experiments with both types.

New 10 Quick Steps Guides -- Radio host David Lawrence (of Online Tonight and the new David Lawrence Show) has started a series of ebooks that he calls the 10 Quick Steps Guides. Each $10 guide follows a 10-step format that provides either a process or tips for accomplishing the task at hand. In an unusual twist, the 10 Quick Steps Guides are available both in PDF (formatted for reading onscreen) and in MP3 format for listening.


I've written two 10 Quick Steps Guides, one on avoiding spam that offers a series of interconnected strategies for getting spam out of your face, and another on how to make a Wi-Fi connection, using the information I gathered when writing The Wireless Networking Starter Kit.


So far, my Wi-Fi 10 Quick Steps Guide is outselling the Stopping Spam 10 Quick Steps Guide by about two to one, which surprises me. I expected the Stopping Spam 10 Quick Steps to be more popular both because I thought spam was a larger concern and because I wrote it completely from scratch, instead of repurposing the content from a more extensive book people can buy for about $25. That says to me there is a distinct audience for whom a concise electronic guide is more attractive than a longer traditional book.

Amusingly, David had an ex-spammer on his show shortly after the Stopping Spam 10 Quick Steps Guide came out, and the guy both confirmed what I described and agreed that the advice would indeed have worked against him. If your spam load has become distressing, check out the Stopping Spam 10 Quick Steps Guide for my recommendations, which go against the usual approach of setting up new email accounts each time an existing account starts receiving too much spam.

Also interesting is the fact that the PDF versions of the books outsell the MP3 versions about four to one. Most electronic publishers probably wouldn't do even that well, but it makes sense given that people think of David as a radio personality and know his voice. The audio versions of the 10 Quick Steps Guides should appear at soon as well, so I'll be curious to see how well they fare there.

iPhoto 2 VQS Goes Electronic -- Moving from ebooks created to be read onscreen to those converted from traditional books, I've now made my most recent book, iPhoto 2 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide, available in PDF format from Lockergnome. As with The Wireless Networking Starter Kit, which Glenn Fleishman and I also sell through Lockergnome as a PDF, the price of the electronic version of the iPhoto VQS isn't meant to cannibalize sales of the paper version, so I set it at $14, or roughly the cost of the paper version before shipping.

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Of course, anyone who has already purchased the paper version of the iPhoto 2 VQS can get the electronic version for free (see the first page of the book), so the main reason to buy the electronic version is to avoid high shipping costs to international destinations, to take advantage of enhanced searching and navigation features, or if you simply don't want to use paper unnecessarily.

About 180 people have requested the free electronic version after buying the paper version so far; about 500 have downloaded the free (for anyone) electronic version of the older iPhoto 1.1 book, which you can access by sending email to <>.

Changing Roles and Assumptions -- The main realization these experiences have triggered for me is that electronic books confuse much of the standard terminology that surrounds book publishing. We're used to authors writing lengthy books for publishers, who then rely on bookstores for sales, but in the electronic book publishing world, roles are different and assumptions change.

Electronic books written for purely digital distribution are seldom as long as a traditional paper book because people don't want to read as much at the computer screen, because there's no minimum size necessary for a book to avoid looking like a pamphlet, because many ebooks are relatively inexpensive, and frankly, because it's easier for the author. In fact, many ebooks are roughly the same length as a hefty feature article in a magazine; the main difference is that if you as a reader are looking for information on a particular topic, finding it in a current magazine is essentially happenstance, whereas you may be able to find an ebook that addresses your needs precisely.

In the ebook world, there's also little difference between publishers and bookstores. Traditional publishers put most of their effort into creating the book and pushing it into sales channels, but almost none into direct sales. That results in royalty rates for authors that top out at about 20 percent of the selling price to bookstores (the selling price is usually about half of the cover price).

In contrast, ebook publishers generally rely on authors to provide a mostly polished text in return for up to 50 percent royalties on the full price, and they put much more effort into sales and marketing; for instance, David frequently promotes the 10 Quick Steps Guides on his radio shows. Ebook publishers are also often happy to sell each other's books, and to give authors even higher percentages on direct sales the authors generate. That's why you'll see some of David's 10 Quick Steps Guides on GnomeTomes, and why David is setting up affiliate deals with companies like

All that said, the economics of ebook publishing still don't, for the most part, compare to traditional book publishing. An average computer book might sell 8,000 to 12,000 copies and generate between $5,000 and $15,000 for the author. In contrast, my experience is that ebooks are more likely to sell in the 200 to 2,000 range and generate more like $1,000 to $4,000 for the author. The big difference is in the time and effort necessary to create an ebook - it may be a matter of days or weeks from start to finish instead of months for a traditional book.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that these sales levels mean that the overall viability of electronic books is necessarily low. That's because each of these electronic publishers has their own audience - David's radio listeners, or subscribers to the Lockergnome newsletters - and there isn't necessarily much overlap in members, even if people in both audiences are interested in the same content. This fact is another reason these electronic publishers are more like bookstores - a bookstore in one town doesn't generally compete with a bookstore in another town because they have different geographic audiences, and the people buying from Lockergnome may never visit David's 10 Quick Steps Web site.

It's also highly unusual for a single bookstore to sell a few hundred copies of a book, as has happened with my 10 Quick Steps Guides and with the PDF of The Wireless Networking Starter Kit on Lockergnome, so I'm extremely happy with those results. The trick is that we need to create more of these topic-appropriate bookstores for electronic books; once that's done, electronic books might be able to achieve the sales levels of traditional books.


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