Selling and Marketing ebooks : Our Experience

This note reflects our personal practical experience selling electronic copies of our books.

ebooks are not replacing paper-based books - yet

Ebooks are a brilliant idea in principle; portability, zero production and distribution costs, instant delivery, no consumption of valuable resources.

But you may have noticed that there has been no let-up in the production of paper-based books, newspapers and magazines and, although much vaunted, there has been no mass transfer from paper to electronic media.

The fact is that, at present, despite advances in technology that can deliver almost paper-like ebook readers, they are just not comparable to good old fashioned paperbacks, magazines and newspapers - that you can read and flick through on the train, bus, beach. Paper-based media is, on the whole, cheap, convenient, easy to obtain (bookshops, on the internet) and robust.

Few people read full-sized books on electronic media

It is more likely that you will ‘read’ War and Peace from a fat paperback ….or listen to it in .mp3 format (another story) than risk your eyesight with an ebook reader or your PC’s screen. And this is likely to happen for some years to come – unless paper becomes exorbitantly expensive to produce and distribute. This is not great news for the writers of fiction wanting to distribute by ebooks.

Pdf Format rules the roost

The most popular format, by far for electronic copy is Adobe’s Portable Document Format, or pdf. This ubiquitous format is now the de facto standard by which electronic documents are distributed via the Internet, and surprisingly it’s not a Microsoft product! Pdfs can be read almost universally on PCs and a great many other devices – including PDAs and many other portable devices including some mobile phones.

No one distributes documents as MS Word files, unless they are templates, or documents for use within an organisation that are subject to editing, or have no need of protection. Pdf files, when produced on a good pdf writer application (e.g. Adobe’s Distiller), are very compact, secure and can be used for a variety of purposes – e.g. printing machines using colour separation methods.

Most  electronic documents are shorter than full books

Although whole books are distributed in pdf format, the most popular use for this format is for shorter documents: brochures, instruction manuals, guides, newsletters and documents that need to be tamper-proof (e.g. electronic invoices, contracts, etc.). We believe that this is in this area that electronic documents are beginning to replace traditional paper-based media. For long documents (e.g. book length), those that are of high information/instructional content that can be dipped into (e.g. by keywords or index) for specific snippets of data and information – are most suited to ebook format. Those, such as novels, which require continuous reading, are not so suited.

Most eBooks are printed to be read

With ready access to fast laser printers, increasingly colour, most pdf documents and ebooks are printed out (double-sided if a duplex printer is available) before reading. This confirms the preference for paper-based reading but indicates the use of pdfs for easy, instant distribution.


This is an interesting area. Take away the paper, the cover, the logistics of delivery and what is it you are selling? Intellectual property (IP) of course! And how do you price this product? When you buy a book in a bookshop, you take away a tangible product – even if it was full of blank paper, it had a cost of production and distribution and it has some intrinsic material value. What proportion of the book that you bought was for the intellectual property?

For pricing, we reckon that, for our books, - which are not ‘art books’, 50% of the value is in the material and 50% is the IP. In our case, we sell information , methods and instructions. Most of our customers don’t specifically want to buy a book and they are not reading for pleasure, they want to obtain the information and learn from it. So how much is this worth?

We think that 40-45% of the conventional book price is about right. The customer gets the information for less than half price and we have zero manufacturing and distribution costs – perfect.  This figure is not plucked out of the air, it’s the result of experimentation. We started at 50% and tried various ‘offers’ over a period of time, down to 20%. It made no difference to sales. We conclude that for people who want to obtain information from us, the price, provided it is not exorbitant, does not seem to matter that much.

Note, selling conventional books through a bookseller or Internet bookshop involves the handing over of at least 50% of the cover price in commission and, when perhaps another 30% is lost in distribution and production costs, ebooks sold directly for 25-40% of the normal price is not a bad return and can be more profitable than physical books.

How we sell ebooks

To download one of our ebooks , a visitor has to provide us with an email address and, if they are willing, some basic information we use for market analysis (not compulsory), then for free we provide a single compressed file (.rar format) that self unwraps into 3 .pdf files:

  • A free ‘taster’ a useful chapter that will be of use – together with the Table of Contents and Index (so they see what goodies are there)
  • A FAQ file – what to do, etc.
  • The full document – but with a password.

If they want to buy, customers need to purchase a password – through our eCommerce pages.

Does this work?

It works well, 100s of downloads are made every week, however, only a small proportion of people go on to buy. This may because they book is not what they want – but more likely because it costs real money – and most web users have a reluctance to spend money if they can find the information for free elsewhere. This said, we sell as many ebooks as we do conventional books – via the web.

Security, Copyright Breaches?

What’s to stop someone buying an ebook and mass-producing it? In some parts of the world brands, IP and copyright are hard to protect. There is nothing, physically, that can stop mass reproduction of your ebook*. It’s a risk you run in distributing such a portable copy of your book. IT IS SOMETHING YOU NEED TO THINK ABOUT CAREFULLY. Our books are not Harry Potters, they are not best sellers. If someone wants to down load our book and crack the password, there’s not much to stop them.

However, the world is a big place, most people are honest and there is good business to be had. If your book is reproduced in quantity you will get to find out about it (if its in your own language) – probably via the Internet. You can name and shame, and ultimately sue – providing your book has been properly registered (with an ISBN, and legally deposited).

*But note, you can make it harder by setting options when you create your pdf file, to inhibit edit/copy text and printing within Adobe Acrobat reader.

 Third Party Distributors

ebook resellers are springing up all over as they see a niche market for ebooks. For technologically capable companies, selling ebooks is very easy, however, few people would go to a purely ebook-orientated site to browse and buy.  It is likely that the traditional book distributors and search engine companies will dominate as they have the pulling power. However, as we demonstrate in our PC publishing book, selling your books through third parties is not the optimum marketing sales model for self-publishers. Direct sales of ebooks is technically very easy but drawing in the customers to a less than well-known website – that’ where the challenge lies! 


As a business model, selling ebooks, directly to customers is a fantastic one; we wish we could sell a lot more – it’s easy to do and all sales processes are automated. However, there is still only a limited appetite for full-size ebooks, only certain types of books sell (ie those that appeal to technology-orientated customers). Conventional books are far more convenient to read and refer to. Resellers of ebooks may be trailblazers, but their time is yet to come. Like Internet POD (Print-on-Demand) companies, the punter usually pays up front for a distribution service – and the service providers make their money irrespective of the success of your book – a good business model for them, not so good for you.

Do try selling ebooks – but we recommend doing it direct from your own website. If you think you will be better served by a third party, be careful not to sign away your rights or copyright – if you are successful, make sure you are the main beneficiary of your success.

Peter Domanski July 2006



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