Skip to main content

What Is an Ebook... Really?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

At this point in time, most people are familiar with the concept of an ebook. In simplest terms, it's a written work that is consumed via electronic methods and devices. But when authors choose to self-publish their work as ebooks, the question and its answer get a whole lot more complicated.

The ebook complexity comes in when deciding how and where to publish. Each outlet and point of reader consumption has different requirements, selling issues and risks... yes, risks. So understanding these issues is critical prior to self-publishing in an electronic format.

Amazon Kindle Ebooks and Reading Devices

These days, Amazon's Kindle program is synonymous with ebooks. Though there were others before it and others since (such as the Barnes & Noble Nook), the Kindle reading device has, for many, become a prominent device standard.

In the early days of reading devices, authors and self-publishers had to have a good understanding of e-publishing formatting standards such as EPUB. Today, Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform can accept and convert manuscripts in commonly available (and understood!) Microsoft Word, HTML or plain text documents. This has enabled authors to simply publish ebooks with software and skills they already know and have.

PDF files can also be accepted on KDP... with some strong cautions. Because PDF is a printing standard, these files may not translate well onto reading devices that flexibly render text to fit the device and reader preferences (such as text size). Therefore, this document format is not typically recommended, even though it's tempting if the manuscript includes a lot of pictures, tables, graphs, etc. See the Kindle support documentation for including special elements without resorting to less flexible document types such as PDF.

Even more good news for authors who are self-publishing on the Kindle platform is that Amazon now offers a free Kindle reading app that anyone can download to enable reading Kindle books on a variety of devices including smartphones, tablets, and desktops. So the "my readers might not have a Kindle" fear is now just a memory for authors who are self-publishing.

As with all self-publishing platforms, understand your rights, requirements and responsibilities when publishing with KDP or similar programs.

Online Ebook Retail Sites

Similar to the Kindle Store on Amazon, independent ebook sites are also an option for distribution of self-published ebooks. A popular example is Smashwords. Readers who buy ebooks from these sites can download ebooks they want for reading on various devices or possibly even online.

Also similar to the Kindle Store, these sites may pay authors a royalty for each ebook sale and usually charge authors a fee for order processing.

There are some sites that are "free" for both authors and readers. Be VERY cautious and only go with reputable ebook sites that will protect your work and that of other authors. For example, I had a friend who had an entire book stolen and it was being offered through a "free" ebook site. As of this writing, she's still trying to untangle how this happened and who is responsible for uploading her work to this site without her permission, knowledge, or paying her.

Also make sure that all agreements you make with these sites, and ALL self-publishing platforms you use, protect your copyrights! If you have questions, seek legal advice before submitting anything.

PDF (or "Profit Deleting Format?") for Ebooks

With the strictest definition of an ebook being that the manuscript is in an electronic format that can be consumed on an electronic device, a book offered in a PDF file satisfies that description.

Some authors object to self-publishing on the KDP platform, sometimes because of their objections to Amazon or Kindle in general. Other times, they feel that they will make more money if they sell it on their own. Still, others may wish to use their ebook as a sales lead generator and want more distribution control—and the ability to get customer information—which may not be possible through Amazon, KDP, or other ebook sites.

But publishing by selling or offering a PDF through one's website has its own risks. First, authors are responsible for tracking sales and reporting revenues for income taxes, sales taxes (yes, some areas tax sales of digital goods), delivery of ebooks to customers, customer service issues and, most notably, security of customer data and ebook content. Consult a CPA or tax professional on tax and accounting issues that apply to your situation.

If an author decides to sell his own PDF on his website, then delivers it to readers as an attachment via email, what's to prevent the recipient from forwarding it to his entire email contact list? Not much unless measures are taken to prevent either sharing or viewing! This decreases the potential for the author to sell his ebook to any of the reader's contacts. Why should they buy it? They got it for free.

However, if the author is using this PDF ebook as a lead generator to attract new sales prospects, and the ebook buyer shares it with his contacts, it may be a win for the author.

The caution here is that you need to know what you hope to accomplish by publishing a PDF ebook without the help of an ebook retail or self-publishing platform and you need to understand the risks involved.

Important Ebook Decision: To DRM or Not DRM

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a protection choice that should be offered to authors using any retail ebook site or self-publishing platform for ebooks. With DRM, readers are restricted when sharing ebooks with others. Without DRM, readers may freely share any ebook.

There are proponents and opponents of DRM. Those who are for it say that it protects authors' intellectual property and earning potential. Those who oppose it say that it restricts readers' rights to use or share their ebook purchases in any way they wish. They reason that a print book could be shared with a friend... why not an ebook? Though one would think that authors would be for DRM, that is not always the case. Some authors may wish to have their readers freely distribute their work, possibly as a service to the world or community or even to help promote their businesses.

Whichever side of the DRM question you land, make sure you understand the benefits of both options before you decide because your decision cannot be reversed!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 28, 2016:

Lawrence, indeed, showing people the "real" thing engages multiple senses and, often, sales. Yes, it can be quite a conversation starter as you've found. Like you, I love to watch people at events pouring through a copy of my print book.

Thanks for putting the exclamation point on an important aspect of the print versus eBook debate! Have a lovely day!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 27, 2016:


Really good advice here. One thing I would say for the people thinking of the eBook and whether to go 'only eBook' or not is While my sales haven't been 'stellar' I've actually sold almost as many paperback copies as I have for eBooks and people have really enjoyed having the 'real thing' in their hands.

I've also found that physically showing the people the book (paperback) has led to some interesting conversations.

Scroll to Continue

As for me, I'm going to always be doing both as people are enjoying both and it's fun seeing them want to read your book!


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 08, 2016:

Thanks for stopping by, Teaches! Glad you found it helpful. Have a terrific week ahead!

Dianna Mendez on August 08, 2016:

Thanks for the information on ebook publishing. You have answered some questions for me.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 31, 2016:

Happy Sunday, Larry! Yep, not many of us really think about this anymore. But it still bears repeating. Thanks for stopping by and have a great week ahead!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on July 31, 2016:

Interesting analysis.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 31, 2016:

Billybuc, I know you're not an ebook fan. For me, it depends on the particular book; sometimes I like the e-version instead of print. So for most things, I do both ebook and print. But I am working on a series that is ebook only (for the moment). I do think it behooves all self published authors to do an analysis of which format is best for the ebook in question and the market it serves.

Thanks for stopping by and chiming in! Have a lovely Sunday!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 31, 2016:

No kidding, Flourish! I think some authors are just so glad they've actually finished an ebook and can have it available somewhere, that they overlook some of the important issues. Thanks for stopping by. Have a lovely Sunday!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 31, 2016:

Hi Jodah! True, I hear "I'm just going to do an ebook" from so many authors these days. While in some ways it is an easier path, it is not without issues. Just trying to show people what's at stake. Thanks so much for stopping by and chiming in! Have a beautiful day!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 31, 2016:

A good, honest, unbiased opinion on it all. I am not a fan of ebooks but I do see the value in them and I refuse to cut my own throat, as an artist, simply because I have a bias.

Happy Sunday my friend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 30, 2016:

After all the time, effort and resource$ put into creating a book it is so important to continue to protect your rights as an author. Good presentation of the options.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on July 30, 2016:

Sound and helpful advice, Heidi. So many writers are going the eBook route these days so it pays to know all the ins and outs.

Related Articles