Writing an eBook: Lessons learned on how, where, and why

Those of you know me will know I published two eBooks earlier this year. This post will deal a little with the ‘how’ and ‘why’ I did it, but also I hope it’ll help you think about whether it’s something you want to do for yourself.

Self-publishing isn’t just about fiction or recipe books, it isn’t just about making lots of money or becoming a house-hold name. It’s about control over your knowledge, control and influence over availability and presentation of your work, and above all it’s about your name and your ‘brand’.

Just so you know I’m talking from experience, here are the details of my two self-published works (to date) – I have grown and strengthened my reputation based around my work as Learning Technologist and with QR Codes, and I write here on these topics frequently:

  • eBook QR Codes in Education from David HopkinsQR Codes in Education: “These black and white squares have appeared everywhere from billboards at the side of the road, roof tops, cola cans, buses, magazines, etc. So why not in your library, textbook, assignment, project, or classroom display? The ability to use them to direct students or colleagues to online resources (presentation slides, websites, video, book location, etc.) is powerful and engaging and, when well implemented, can offer a level of interaction and engagement. It’s not about what they are but about how we use them and what they can offer me in an educational setting.”
  • What is a Learning Technologist? eBookWhat is a Learning Technologist?: “My journey as a Learning Technologist started in 2007 and has taken many turns and overcome many obstacles. What has remained throughout is the question of ‘what is a Learning Technologist’? Looking at published work and personal experience I have collected my blog posts together in this eBook and added further commentary and notes to provide the background to the posts and the work I am engaged in.”


I’ll deal with the first real questions about writing an eBook … why

  • Knowledge: For me the reason to write the book was simply to collate my thoughts and knowledge into one collection of resources in one easily downloadable and read volume. If you’re writing a non-fiction resource or textbook then you are the subject specialist, so why haven’t you already published your work?
  • Control: Self-publishing your work gives you complete control over content, structure, length, availability, design, costs, etc.
  • Big vs. Small: have you tried to get a book deal with a large or respected publisher? If so then you’ll know how hard it is, even if your book topic is niche and specialist and it matches the publisher’s brief. Writing your own book and publishing it yourself makes this whole process easier.
  • Speed: As above, writing for a publisher is hard, if you can get the deal, and the whole process can take months, if not years. Self-published work is entirely in your control over how long it can take. As an example my QR Code book took about 3 months to write.
  • Fun: Yes, for the fun of it. Many wont enjoy the experience but I did. Not only was it therapeutic to dump my thoughts on to ‘paper’ and organise them properly, but the idea of creating a resource that may (or may not) be valuable to someone other than myself was, and still is, exciting.

“Self-publishing enables you to determine your own fate. There’s no need to endure the frustration of finding and working with a publisher.” Guy Kawasaki


It’s not as difficult as it seems, and it’s not the daft question that some may think … how do you write an eBook?

  • Word: Start with an empty Word document, and I mean empty. It must have no formatting or anything in it. When you write make sure you use the in-build formats consistently, and make sure any changes always reference ‘Normal’. This will help your book when it is converted from Word to EPUB or MOBI formats.
    Writing an eBook - Use Word styles
    A good resource you may want to read through while you think about writing is this free style guide from the Smashwords website, which explains all about text formatting, images, links, lists, headings, chapters, etc. It’s also worth checking out the website for Guy Kawasaki’s APE book for access to the downloads section, where you can download an empty Word template that has some great formatting.
  • Calibre: It isn’t necessary to convert your Word file into the required eBook formats as all the major providers will do this for you using their own software, but you can test your work yourself using this free software. Not only can you see on the screen how it will convert (bar minor subtle changes that each platform will undoubtedly have) you can send to your different devices or Apps to see how it will read and fit on them. Download Calibre for free.
  • Links: I put quite a few links in my books referencing original materials and further reading. While you can, and probably should, put the full long URL in I preferred to use the Goo.gl shortening service as the links looked uniform over the whole book, and I could see the number of click made from the book – e.g. http://goo.gl/29YcV+
  • Images: It depends on the subject matter for your book as to whether you want/need images but if you do consider the size of them and resolution – the more/larger the images the larger the file download size is. Amazon will penalise you for large download sizes, per megabyte of size.
  • Cover art: The professional eBooks authors recommend getting a professional artist to generate your cover art. I’m not so sure it’s worth it, but each to their own. I created my own by browsing through Google images and the Amazon Kindle store for ideas (font, colours, layout, title, picture, etc.) and mashed them together. As you can see above I have my own ‘style’ in development … what will yours be?
  • Proof reading: Get someone (not family) to proof read it. I asked a few key and trusted people to proof read it for me and let me know all the issues and errors I’d made, as well as recommendations for making it a better resource. This was incredibly valuable and helped keep me directed and focussed.


Before you publish and market your book (you can still advertise it for pre-order, this is a good idea to generate interest before it’s ready) please pause. Take a day or week away from it to get some perspective. Come back and re-read the whole book, the blurb you’ve written, and check spelling, grammar, links, etc. Get someone else to proof read it, again, and then re-read it yourself, again. Each time you proof read it check something different – one re-read for spelling, another for grammar, another for layout consistencies, etc.

Only when you’re absolutely certain, 100% no doubts, can you progress. Got it?


It is essential you test your work: whether it is in Word format or MOBI or ePub or PDF, it doesn’t matter … test it! Zak Mensah has written about the kit he has on hand to test his eBooks – I’m sure if, like me, you don’t have it lying around like Zak does, ask around and see if your friends and colleagues can help you out for the price of a coffee or cup cake.


There are many options, now you’ve written your work, on how and where to publish it.

  • Book details: You will need to introduce your book on the platforms (below) so get some good ‘cover text’ or ‘book blurb’ written and fine-tuned before you start the upload process. If you can get a(nother) trusted and recognised leader in your field to write a few lines of praise then add this too – anything to help sell your work!
  • ISBN: If you are going to make your work available at a price then you ought to get yourself an ISBN number, and in fact for all online platforms (below, except for Amazon) you must have one. If you are producing the same content for different mediums (soft back, hard back, eBook, etc.) then you will need a different ISBN for each version. I got my single ISBN from ISBN Agency.
  • Amazon: By far the easiest platform to publish your work to, and with the widest reach for eBook readers. You will need to ask your bank for your International Bank Account number and sort code, set yourself up with an account on KDP.Amazon and you are nearly there. The process is easy and intuitive and you have the ability to view your eBook on screen how it will appear on the Kindle or through the Kindle App on different platforms – very nice!
    KDP Amazon - Preview your eBooks
  • iTunes: Don’t even try this route unless you have a Mac or access to one: you can only connect and upload to the publisher section if it is done through iTunes Connect and iTunes Producer, on the Mac. If you do have this ability then make sure you have all your files and text and images and costs worked out in advance as the interface it not very intuitive and can take several attempts to get it right. Don’t be alarmed if it takes several weeks before your eBook is listed … it took 28 days for mine!
  • Barnes & Noble: Equally difficult to get on because of the EIN issue, and is only a small market share of the eBook market. If you are considering covering all bases in case one platform suddenly takes off then this is also a must to be listed on.
  • Smashwords: I was dubious about this www.smashwords.com as they effectively act as the publisher, even though you retain all rights to the content. Smashwords does make it easy to manage both the book and it’s availability, as well as voucher codes, and will actually handle publishing to all of the above platforms for you (Amazon, iTunes, etc.), if you have all the correct IDs, EIN, and ISBN details. Be careful about the formatting, text size, and bullet points – Smashwords doesn’t like too much formatting, and no font above 18pt is accepted  – you’ll have to resubmit with corrections before it’s accepted and published.
  • Blog: If you don’t want to use one of the established platforms and have your own website or blog, then why not utilise it and provide your eBook (free or at cost)? There are many plugins available for WordPress that will turn it into an eBook platforms and even handle the orders, payment, and delivery of DRM and DRM-free eBooks.

For all platforms for publishing (except Amazon *update, see below) you will need (for non-US authors) to get yourself an American IRS Employers Identification Number (EIN). For this reason alone, and the hassle it comes with, I would recommend just going with Amazon, and only Amazon.

Just an aside and a quick note for you –  I have been publicising all of the above methods of buying and downloading my eBooks and I would say that 90% of sales/downloads are from Amazon, 8% from iTunes, and the rest split between Smashwords and B&N.


Admittedly not everyone is going to be a whiz at this, but you need to try – whether it’s about the money or just the kudos for having your own self-published eBook.

  • Anyone thinking of self-publishing ought to get themselves a copy of Guy Kawasaki’s book ‘APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book’ in order to fully understand the process of being author, publishers, and entrepreneur. Be aware, however, that this is aimed at the fiction market of work where people are trying to become the next JK Rowling, and is not always applicable to non-fiction or academic texts.
  • Tweet and post about your work often, but considerately – don’t overwhelm people with the ‘buy my book’ content but tailor it to the social network with appropriate content.
  • Ask trusted and respected colleagues or peers to review your work on their blogs and even offer a voucher or discounted version for their readers – Julian Wood was most kind in his write-up of my QR Code book and his readers had a 60% discount code available for one month of his review.

This is by no means everything I have learned during my two self-published eBooks, but the above are perhaps the most important elements that need consideration before, during, and after writing your work. If you have anything to add or any questions then please drop me a line and I’ll help if I can.


What would I do differently with the experience and knowledge I’ve now got? I would use a more interesting default template for the eBook with font and font sizes already defined and ready to go (I used one of the default Word 2010 versions, not very ‘pretty’ but effective nonetheless). I would also ignore all other platforms and just go with Amazon – it’s the easiest to register with, set up, and publish through. Amazon reporting is easy and straightforward (as are payments). However, check your audience and make sure you can direct them to the most appropriate medium or platform for their interest and publications. If this is your blog then, like me, have a dedicated page (not blog post – it’ll get lost in the noise) for all your eBooks (here’s mine) as well as for each one, including links to reviews, purchase or download options, etc.

Yes, I will write another book, I have three ideas filling my brain so I’ll start plodding away at them and see which one gains the most momentum.

*Update: 30/8/13 – I said earlier that I did not need a US EIN number for Amazon. Well, I found out last night I do. While you can set yourself up with Amazon and start selling your books without one, when it comes to payment of royalties you will be asked (as I was last night) to complete the tax information that was not previously part of the system.

The only way out of this legal and paperwork minefield, as far as I can see, is to set your own website/blog up to promote and deliver/sell your work. This is good if you are technically minded (or know someone who is) but you will have a narrower reach then if you use one of the major publishing websites. Again, you retain absolute control of the whole process, but could limit the reach of your work.