10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service

e-publishing, e-books, e-reading, self-publishing

Last updated in January 2019

With new services continually appearing on the market that promise to help writers self-publish or distribute their e-books, it’s imperative that you educate yourself about how these services typically operate and understand the fine print of any new service before deciding to commit.

Note that when I discuss “services,” they typically fall into 2 categories:

  • Single-channel, retailer-driven services (e.g., Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, Apple Books)
  • E-book distribution services that may include some kind of formatting and conversion service; sometimes these services also act as retailers. Draft2Digital and Smashwords are two of the most well-known services.
  • … and there are also other types of services offered by consultants, partnership-style publishers, and literary agents.

Here are 10 questions you must ask of any new service you consider using.

1. Is the service exclusive or nonexclusive?

E-publishing services marketed directly to authors almost always operate on a nonexclusive basis. That means you can use their service to sell your e-book while also selling your e-book anywhere else you like (or using any other service).

There are two notable exceptions right now:

  • Amazon’s Kindle Select. Amazon asks for a 3-month exclusive if you join the Kindle Select program (which allows your book to be lent out through Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library). If you want to read more about this option, read bestselling author CJ Lyons’ perspective.
  • E-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author tool (available only to Mac users). However, exclusivity is only demanded for the specific edition created through Apple’s software. It doesn’t apply to any edition of that e-book formatted outside of the iBooks Author tool and distributed elsewhere. This means you will end up having two different editions available, one of which can only ever be sold through the iBookstore.

2. If it’s exclusive, what’s the term of the contract?

For example, with KDP Select, the term is 90 days. This is acceptable for most authors.

However, if you’re working with an agent to publish e-book (or digital-only publishers), you will likely be asked to sign a contract that has a longer term. This is simply to ensure that, after your e-book files are prepared, your cover designed, and all ducks put in a row, that you don’t suddenly change your mind and take your e-book elsewhere. The agent or publishing partner needs to be confident of recouping their initial outlay.

I recommend you not commit for longer than a year due to how fast the market conditions can change for e-books.

3. Do you control the price?

While some services may have reasonable pricing restrictions (e.g, not allowing you to price below 99 cents), standard practice is to give the author complete control over pricing.

Caveat: Most e-book retailers mandate that you not offer more favorable pricing anywhere else (whether at another retailer or from your own site). Amazon in particular is known for carefully policing this and will automatically lower the price of your e-book if they find you pricing it lower somewhere else. (Some authors use this to their advantage and make their e-book available for free elsewhere so Amazon will then push the price of the Kindle edition to free.)

4. What’s the upfront fee and/or how is the royalty calculated?

While different services have different models, the fees should be transparent and upfront. For example:

  • Services such as Amazon KDP, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, Apple’s iBookstore, and Kobo are all free to use. They make their money by taking a cut of your sales. Usually you earn 60-70% of your list price (assuming you price in the range they specify).
  • Smashwords and Draft2Digital are free to use and distribute to major e-book retailers. They take approximately 10% of your sales after the retailer takes their cut, and there may be some additional transaction fees.

Always read the fine print in these cases. For instance, if you price your book very low (99 cents), and there’s a 25-cent transaction fee for each of your sales, you’ve just cut into your profits even if you’re earning 70% or 80% of list. Another example: Amazon charges a nominal fee for file delivery—but only on the 70% royalty rate— that can cut into your profits if your ebook file is large.

5. Are there hidden fees or charges?

You can end up paying more than standard rates for conversion/formatting if your book runs very long, if you have an inconvenient file format that needs extra work (common with PDFs), if you have a lot of chart/table/image formatting, and so on. If your work has any kind of “special needs,” expect a service to charge you more.

6. What file formats do they accept?

This is critical to know upfront because it usually determines (1) whether or not you can use the service in the first place and (2) how much you’ll get charged for formatting and conversion if that’s a service you need.

A few things to know:

  • Microsoft Word (or any text file) is commonly accepted. However: If you’re publishing direct to Kindle or Nook (or use Smashwords, which is automated too), unless you “unformat” your Word document, it may look terrible on an e-reading device when automatically converted to an e-book format. Most retailer’s e-publishing services have extensive guidelines, preview programs, and other ways of ensuring your work looks OK before your e-book goes live.
  • EPUB is the industry standard e-book file format. If you want to create your own EPUB file, see the end of this post for recommendations.
  • Many conversion/formatting services typically offer you EPUB and MOBI files since that covers you on Amazon and just about any other e-book retailer.
  • PDF is one of the most difficult file formats to convert to EPUB. Expect to pay.

7. Who owns the e-book files after they are created?

It is ideal if you own the e-book files, and that is usually the case when you pay out of pocket for conversion and formatting services. Some services, like Draft2Digital, essentially offer free e-book conversion tools when starting with a Word document. That means that they consider any converted e-book files yours to do with as you please whether or not you distribute through their system.

8. Are DRM protections or proprietary formats involved?

DRM stands for digital rights management. DRM is supposed to prevent piracy, or illegal copying and distribution of your e-book after is sold. However, I agree with those who argue that DRM is not reader- or consumer-friendly, and should not be used. The industry standard e-book format, EPUB, does not use DRM.

There are only 2 areas where you’re likely to run into a proprietary format or DRM.

  • Amazon Kindle uses a proprietary format with DRM. If you use the Kindle Direct Publishing program to publish your e-book, no matter what type of file you upload, they will automatically convert it to their proprietary, DRM-locked format. However, because their service is not exclusive, you can always make your e-book available in other formats through other services, without restriction.
  • The Apple iBooks Author tool creates e-books in a proprietary format. No other device aside from an iPad or iPhone can view an e-book created by the Apple iBooks Author tool.

9. Where is your e-book distributed?

If you’re using a service like Amazon KDP, or Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, the answer is pretty simple: Your e-book is distributed only through those specific retailers. When you use a multiple-channel e-book distribution service (such as Smashwords or Draft2Digital), then the mix of retailers they reach will vary. At minimum, you want to reach Kindle and Apple, since they currently make up about the bulk of all e-book sales, followed by Nook, Kobo (essential for Canadians), and Google Play.

10. Can you make changes to your e-book after it goes on sale?

If you’re working directly with retailers (e.g., Amazon and Barnes & Noble), you can upload new and revised files as often as you like—they don’t care. Same goes with Smashwords and Draft2Digital.

Single-channel services (retailers) I recommend

Distribution services I recommend

E-book creation tools and services I recommend

Still have questions? Leave a comment.
Posted in E-Books and tagged , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Thanks for going over this. I love that you take your time to research this stuff. I find it all a bit baffling so I tend to stay with the decisions we’ve already made. (Love  Smashwords, btw)

As an aside, We use Atlantis Word Processor to create our ePub for our store – in case anyone’s interested. Atlantis is a robust program and is $35. The ePub version is very popular. (Go to Save Special, eBook, and wha la, you have an ePub.) I’m not Mac-friendly so you’d have to ask someone else if it works on Macs.

Siddhartha Herdegen

You can also publish a book on the internet. With the line between eReaders and tablet computers blurring it won’t be long until online books are just as accessible as eBooks.

As an example of online publishing, Amie Kweon’s site Lacuna Books (http://lacunabooks.com/) is a nice site that publishes in HTML and EPUB. (The site is free to use for both authors and readers.)

Rick Novy

 EPUB is not converging with HTML, it *is* HTML.  Take it from me, I used to code EPUB files by hand back in the day…two years ago.


Thanks for this very helpful rundown, Jane. Even for those of us watching this e-book scene very closely, the landscape is confusing. 

I’m curious where a tool like Adobe InDesign might fit into this, since it can output to both PDF and ePUB. I guess the challenge (assuming mastery of InDesign) then becomes distribution?

Kris Dalpiaz

Thanks for covering this, Jane. I found it very helpful.

I’m curious about Amazon’s policy on making books free on their site when they find them free on other sites. Do you know if this is a blanket policy of theirs, or have they been known to ignore it, or worse, take down a book from their site because of it?


Should we anticipate that if the ‘free’ offer was for a limited time, the Amazon price would go back up at the end of that time?

Pam Stucky

It’s definitely not a next day thing. They’re quicker to lower prices than raise them, in my experience.

Jill Kemerer

Wow! This is such a great post. I’m linking this for my RWA group. Thanks for the clear breakdown and recommendations!

Stacy Green

Hi Jane. What do you think of the various e-publishing/small press houses out there? Do you consider them a different beast than what you discussed above? 


Well said Jane.  Accurate and thorough overview.  Thanks

Mari Passananti

Excellent overview. One counterpoint, though PDF to ePub is a more complicated conversion, i think you get a better looking ebook when you send PDF typeset pages to an ebook creator for file conversion. I.e. the chapter headings and any art stay intact.

Joseph Wheeler

It can be helpful to send a PDF as an example of what you want the final eBook to look like, however, a PDF requires a special process to extract the text that is time consuming and cumbersome.


Thanks for that overview, Jane.  My experience has been much as you outline. After I attended your e-publishing workshop at the Willamette Writers conference last August I got real serious about self-publishing. I used BookBaby for conversion of my first self-published e-book, The Forty Column Castle, which is a 275 page mystery and was easy to format and convert.  Important is to follow BookBaby’s conversion guidelines which is on their web site. BookBaby did a nice job on the cover art,  and the book went live mid-December. I found BookBaby very responsive to email and phone calls on their 800… Read more »

Julie H. Ferguson

Excellent info for authors considering self-e-publishing.
I have one point to raise – Kindle Direct Publishing now allows authors the option to allow or refuse DRM at the point of uploading a ms.


Great article, it is good to be able to pass on your wisdom and research Jane, it is a jungle out there and there are some wily predators emerging! We work with authors from around the world, but a note for UK authors who may be reading this, re. the landscape over here.  Amazon sells more eBooks by quite a long way as you would expect but Barnes and Noble do not feature (yet).  Time will tell if Amazon can continue to increase their share and completely dominate sales, but readers will stay loyal to other brands if they make… Read more »

D.B. Smyth

Excellent list. Thank you!


Excellent post. I epublished my book through Kindle Direct Publishing last month on my own. Now, I’m trying to format it for CreateSpace so it will go on Amazon as a paper back. I’m also working on a trailer and will be studying Smashwords. I am very happy with the results. This hasn’t cost me a dime. I’ve spent time, but it’s been worth all I’ve learned.

John Richardson

Very informative article, Jane. After trying 25 times to get my previously formatted Word document through Smashword’s Meatgrinder, I finally gave in and used the nuclear option and ran my file through notepad to remove all formatting. With just some minor paragraph and headings formatting it went through fine. Hopefully Smashwords will allow direct ePub uploading soon. Their conversion software creates very basic ePubs, but once you save your document with them, it actually shows up in the Apple iBooks store and on B&N in just over a week. The Kindle converter automatically adds indented paragraphs to a standard file… Read more »


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Bob Mayer

A good post for the basics of how this works.  The reality is the concept of the true “self” published author is flawed.  I believe we all need help and there are a lot of different ways to get that help.  I really like the ACX model for audio books and predict someone will come up with a service like that for eBooks where all the talent and the content providers are brought together in a system.  For more details, we have The ShelfLess Book: The Complete Digital Author coming out on the 26th of this month, detailing our experiences… Read more »


Thank you for your post.  Audio books is an area that should be expanded for indie writers.  And I, for one, am interested in reading ‘The Shelfless Book”.  I’ll try to bookmark it somehow. 

Bill O'Hanlon

Jane, you rock. Always so generous and clear.

[…] 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service by Jane Friedman. […]

D. T. Gray

Thanks for the article. I’ve published on smashwords myself, but this has given me a couple of ideas to keep in mind for future publishing. I do have a question though: I published on smashwords but recently I made my book available on amazon, did I screw up?

[…] Considering e-pubbing? Jane Friedman has 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service […]

Angela Thomas

Thank you for sharing this information.

[…] Via janefriedman.com Share this:TwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponEmailPrintDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]


Very helpful to a neophyte. I’m using Friesen Press for my first book, and I’m exploring using E-publishing for the next (still in gestation, close to delivery.) Thanks for this information.

[…] contracts require as much consideration as traditional publishing […]

“Smashwords…which distributes to all major e-book retailers except Kindle). You can probably reach 95%+ of your market with that approach, if not 100%.
Even if you are just aiming at the US market there are myriad smaller ebook stores not served by Smashwords, and internationally far, far more. 

With B&N exclusive to the US, Amazon forcing overseas customers (non-Kindle countries) to pay a $2 surcharge and blocking sales to many countries, and Apple only reaching about twenty countries, you are missing out on huge potential sales as ereading develops around the world.


I would be interested in learning about the international market.  And thank you for this article.


Just connected with you through twitter.  And please, will you share your tips on how you manage to keep up with so many social sites?  Is there a secret trick or do you have eight hands? lol


Jane, thank you, thank you for this link.  I loved it.


Ok, is there a solution?


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Anne R. Allen

This is such an excellent, comprehensive post!  Re #10: A friend who uses BookBaby says they do charge a fee for corrections–a fairly hefty one.  So people using BookBaby should be especially careful to get their work proofread by a number of readers before going ahead with them.


[…] 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service […]

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Our product is 50% graphics and 50% words.  What is the best way for us to epublish our work.  It was created in PowerPoint with some animation.  Our target audience is Middle School children so the graphics are a vital part of our product.

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[…] 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service by Jane Friedman […]

Pam Stucky

Thanks for a great article. I have published with BookBaby (and CreateSpace for print) and have been more or less satisfied. One thing I’m doing differently with my second book is that I’ve purchased my own block of ISBNs. I’m hoping I’ve done this correctly! Figuring it all out as I go. Regarding Apple iBooks Author – I’ve been reading about it and every time I read I think I understand but then someone will tell me something and I think I got it all wrong again. After my last round of reading about it, I came to believe that… Read more »

Peter Spenser

I’ve been reading your posts and answers here closely and must ask you to be more careful when speaking about apples and oranges, so to speak, though, admittedly, Apple Computer doesn’t make that easy. The only e-books that Apple won’t allow you to sell elsewhere (though you can give them away) are those made using the “iBooks Author” creation engine (not “Apple iBooks” which is the term that you have used repeatedly here). Those files end with the file extension of .ibooks specifically. But the iBooks reader app lets you read, and the iBookstore also accepts (as it always has) regular EPUB… Read more »

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[…] Jane Freidman provides this very practical post with ten questions to consider before committing to any epublishing service. Written from a small US publisher and/or author perspective, the questions give a neat roundup of considerations before committing to a retailer driven service such as Amazon, Apple or Kobo or a multichannel distribution service such as Smashwords or its competitors. […]


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DoctorZed Publishing

Thanks Jane. One question you might like to add (to 11) is “What promotion do e-publishers provide?” There’s no point getting published if nobody knows about the ebook.  Cheers 🙂 http://www.doctorzed.com/

[…] It’s a tremendous area of growth and opportunity for authors. Most e-publishing services are nonexclusive, free to use, and allow the author to retain complete control over the product and its pricing — a huge departure from early self-publishing services. Here’s a post I wrote that sums up the essentials: 10 Questions to Ask Before You Commit to an E-Publishing Service. […]


Once again, lots of useful content. Bravo, Jane! This will be a file I save for future reference. My book, SLEEPING WITH A WITCH DOCTOR, will be published by Tate Publishers next fall and will be in the dead trees format as well as epub. But the next book, I may go for epub alone. Depends on how much of each format sells this coming year. Thanks again for clarifying several points for me.


I would like to use the photo on this page for non-commercial use. Is it possible?

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Any opinion on Booklocker’s ebook services. They offer to publish with no contract and no upfront fee. There information appears very transparent to me. Just interested in your assessment.

Liam Rooney

Thanks Jane.  I’ve been trying to absorb as many aspects of ebook publishing as I can, and assessing the options. Is there a single source that is considered a valid Consumer-Reports-type of evaluator of ebook publishers?  Also, considering the learning curve just to procure services, would it be less complicated to simply contract out the various formatting services for the respective e-readers and sell a selection of ebook versions on a no-frills website of one’s own?

Liam Rooney

Thanks. It appears that your site is probably the closest thing there is to an objective evaluator of ebook publishing services.  Also, with the technology and business models evolving so rapidly, it seems the only way to truly know how good service will be is to roll the dice and hire one.

[…] departure from early self-publishing services. Here’s a post I wrote that sums up the essentials: 10 Questions to Ask Before You Commit to an E-Publishing Service. What determines success in e-publishing, aside from a quality book, is online reach to a target […]


This information is helpful, but as a newbie, with a book in progress that is 80% photographs and little tech knowledge or time to do the eBook self-publishing and marketing myself–I have been looking at PublishGreen.com, but their packages seem really pricey to me.  It would take a lot of book sales just to recoup my investment.  Would I be better off to take the time to learn the process myself or can you recommend a service that offers packages that won’t drain the bank account?  

mark williams int.

If you have 80% photographs then your ebook file will be significantly larger than a standard text file. Companies like Amazon Kindle charge you for every download sold.

For a standard novel that’s just a few cents  and nothing to worry about. Sell an ebook for 2.99 and with the 70% “royalty” you’ll collect 2.00, having paid maybe 0.05 for the download.

For an ebook laden with images, or with video content as is the trend now, that download fee increases dramatically and can run to several dollars per sale, potentially wiping-out the royalties on a low-priced ebook.


Thanks, Jane and Mark!  Good advice…


Thank you for the breakdown in every day terms.  I have been considering publishing my blog to Kindle, but have not been able to find the answers to my questions in the legal jargon of their “terms and conditions” page.

-author of Simple Observations