Starting in digital publishing

 7 April 2011

Clare Hey was an editor at HarperCollins before starting Shortfire Press, a digital-only short story publishing house. She has five pieces of advice for publishing online.

Clare Hey started Shortfire Press, a digital-only short story publishing house.
Clare Hey started Shortfire Press, a digital-only short story publishing house.

Getting into digital publishing

The ebook popularity is increasing rapidly. 6.5 million people in the UK now have an eReader and 7 percent of adults received one for Christmas.

With the rise of ebooks has come an expansion in digital publishing. It is now easier than ever to set yourself up as a small independent publisher. I did it myself, setting up Shortfire Press, a digital-only short story publishing house which launched January 2011.

My background was in editorial. I had worked at HarperCollins for eight years, editing and commissioning fiction so I was already deeply connected to the world of physical books.

But ebooks have shaken up the publishing industry – creating concern for publishers as well as new opportunities. So when I became a freelance editor, I took the chance to make the most out the new digital landscape.

I did it on my own using my own savings and I made plenty of mistakes along the way. I learnt a lot too – and am learning more every day. If I could speak to myself at the beginning of the project, knowing what I know now, this is what I’d say:

1) Digital publishing is not free

Digital publishing is not free, despite its appearance. You need to consider how you plan to get your ebooks to the readership: Amazon, a dedicated website, an app?

Each option has its pros and cons and costs associated. I spent a long time researching all the different costs and forced myself to make some sort of a business plan. I’m an editor, not a money person, so this was the trickiest thing.

Then there were all the extra costs I didn’t know about: ISBNs, web-hosting fees, payment gateway charges… the list goes on.

2) Make your book look good

Make sure your ebook looks good and is error-free. Customers won’t come back if they don’t think you’re professional.

With open-source programmes such as Sigil and Calibre, it is fairly easy to create an ebook even if, like me, you don’t have much knowledge of html.

Remember though (and it sounds obvious but it’s important), take the time to make sure your ebook looks good. Make sure it is proofread and error-free. Your customers won’t come back if they don’t think you’re professional.

3) Know the law

If you are publishing other writers’ work, you need to draw up a contract so both parties know where they stand. It is worth investing in a lawyer to help on this.

Think carefully about your business name – check if it is trademarked. This was one of my mistakes and I paid for it. The name I chose first turned out to be trademarked (I hadn’t checked) and I got a terrifying legal letter and had to change my name. Not recommended!

4) Selling your ebook

If you sell as a lower price, weigh up the difference in cost, versus possible increase in sales.

Decide your business model. This is something the biggest brains in the media are arguing about: will people pay for online content or do they expect everything to be free?

Your price point is extremely important. You need to know, for example, that Amazon will take 65 percent if you charge less than £2.99 for your ebook.

Make a financial decision, weighing up the difference in cost versus the possible increase in sales if you sell as a lower price point.

5) Marketing your ebook

Once you have your website, how will you reach your reader? As more and more people enter the digital publishing market, the harder it becomes to get your ebooks noticed.

You need to find out who your readers are, where they congregate, and go and talk to them. Social networking sites such as twitter and facebook are great, but you need to do more. Think about pay-per-click advertising, publicity and search engine optimisation.

Starting a digital publishing business

In starting any small business, you have to be passionate about what you are doing – it goes without saying. But you also need to think about what you can add to the world of digital publishing. There are so many people doing it that finding your niche is hugely important.

  • What is it that you can add?
  • How can you differentiate yourself and produce something people actually want?
  • Where does your experience lie and how can you exploit it?

That’s why I went for short stories at Shortfire Press. No-one else seemed to be doing them and the opportunity digital publishing presented to sell stories one-by-one to a whole new audience seemed too good to miss.

But what is most important above all is quality. Your readers need to trust that the ebooks you are selling them are great reads, well edited and well presented. Your reputation is everything, and that’s how you’ll get readers coming back time and again.

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