When I was a kid, I had no idea I would someday become an independently published author. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to do when I grew up: archaeology, travel writing, commercial art. One of my childhood aspirations was to design books. I loved all the subtleties of type and layout, the feel and smell of ink on pages. I was fascinated by the differences between books published in English and those in foreign languages — should the title run down the spine, or up? Should the table of contents be in the front or the back? And what were those wonderful typefaces they used in French books?
Despite my years as a graphic designer and typographer, working on marketing brochures and newsletters, I never got a chance to be a book designer — that is, until I became an indie author. Now that my childhood fantasy has become a practical reality, one that can have a serious impact on how my books are received, I have to think seriously about the choices I make in putting my books together —
always with an eye toward the reader’s experience, not my own design preferences.
Ebooks are different
Like a lot of indie authors, I anticipate that most of my sales will be ebooks. That means that things such as typefaces and page layouts have to take a back seat to other considerations. The fact is, unlike a physical book that a reader might pick up in a bookstore and thumb through, an ebook can’t rely on delicate typography or eye-catching layout to attract a reader, and it needs to be designed with those differences in mind.
My experience as an avid ebook reader suggests that too many authors and publishers create their ebooks simply by converting the document that was used to create their print book. This is a big mistake, not only because people tend to read ebooks differently than they do print books, but also because the free ebook sample can be a valuable sales tool. And when I say ebook sample, I mean, more specifically, the Kindle sample.
Even if you plan to sell your ebook as widely as possible, you need to keep Kindle sales in the forefront of your mind, simply because, at least in North America, the vast majority of ebook sales are Kindle sales. And while the epub format (used by most booksellers other than Amazon) gives you some additional design options (font choices, for example), everything I’m going to say about the Kindle version will apply to epubs as well.
Optimize your Kindle sample
Why should you think specifically about the Kindle sample — that little taste of the ebook that browsers can read online or download to their ereaders? First, because that sample is the closest a potential reader is going to get to the kind of browsing they might do in a book store. It’s the equivalent of thumbing through your book to get a feel for what’s in store if they decide to buy. Second, because the Kindle sample is one of the few areas in which indie authors actually have an edge over the traditionally published — most big publishers rely on print sales to drive their profits, so they won’t bother doing the things I’m going to suggest. And, finally, because of the way Amazon creates the Kindle sample — they simply take the first 10% of the ebook file. You need to make sure that 10% is not full of useless fluff.
The key difference between print and ebook design hinges on the way ebook navigation differs from print. Since there are no actual pages to turn, hyperlinks move the reader from one point in the book to another. Similarly, if a reader wants to find a particular passage, he doesn’t flip to an index at the back of the book, but does a search on a word that appears in the desired passage. These differences give the ebook designer a certain freedom that you don’t have in print book design, where specific sections need to be in the place where the reader expects to find them — the table of contents in the front, for instance, and the index in the back.
So the question is, how can we design our ebook in such a way that it will take greatest advantage of the Kindle sample? Here are my suggestions:
- Design on the principle that you want the first ten percent of the book to give your reader the best, most thorough experience possible of the book as a whole. Your aim is to give a good equivalent of what the potential buyer would get if he or she were thumbing through the book in a bookstore.
- Leave out all “blank” pages. No “fly leaf,” no blank pages following section titles. These are needed in print books to force new sections to begin on a right-hand page, but you don’t need them in an ebook.
- If you must include pages of blurbs (really? must you?), put them at the end of the book. You don’t need them taking up precious pages of your Kindle sample. If you really think you need endorsements to help sell your book, you can put them in the book description page on Amazon.
- Rethink all “front matter” — does it really need to be in the front? A lot of it probably doesn’t — dedication, for instance, acknowledgments, and things of that sort. They may need to be in the book, but they may not need to be in the sample. If you have an author’s foreword, consider whether it might work just as well as an afterword. If you have an introduction, make sure it really does a good job of letting the reader know what will follow — and make sure it is not so long that it takes up most, or all, of the sample. As a reader, I have been frustrated more than once by finding that a Kindle sample runs out before I have read a single word of the book I’m considering buying.
- If your book is non-fiction, put your table of contents in the normal position at the front of the book, right before the text of the book itself, but make sure that your chapter titles are as informative as possible. If well-done, a table of contents can provide an outline of the whole book. But if your book is a novel, your table of contents is probably just a list of chapter numbers, which tell a reader nothing. In that case, put the table of contents at the end.
- Make sure the opening of the book really hooks the reader. This is your chance to let the book sell itself. If it’s fiction, make sure the beginning introduces the main characters and the dramatic situation that gets the story rolling. In non-fiction, make sure it sets the tone and begins to create your argument, sets out your methodology, or paints a compelling picture of the topic you’ll be discussing.
- Include live links to your author platform, along with a compelling call to action (”Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when my next book is read!”). All the pros know that a key to selling books is keeping readers — whether you have a blog, a website, or just a newsletter sign-up page, you should not miss the opportunity to send your readers there. You can put one at the beginning of the book, as well as the end. That way, a reader who has read nothing but the Kindle sample can be hooked, as well as a reader who makes it to the end of the book. If you don’t have a website or newsletter, you can include hyperlinks to sales pages for your other books or to your Amazon author page (don’t forget to embed your Amazon associate code, or other affiliate sales code, for maximum profit).
The freedom to design your ebook in the most effective way is a key advantage indies have over the traditionally published. The techniques I’ve suggested can help you make sure that the sample of your ebook gives your potential readers a fat-free, but highly flavorful, taste of the book you hope they’ll buy. After all, reaching readers is what writing is all about.
Can you think of other ways to make optimal use of an ebook sample? Are there other important considerations to bear in mind when designing an ebook? Please give us your thoughts in the comments!
Dr. Lisa (L. A.) Nicholas has lived and taught languages, literature, and humanities in several American states and two foreign countries. She is the author of Naturally Healthy Living with Diatomaceous Earth. She is currently working on a science fiction novel called Cast into the Deep of Stars. She blogs at A Catholic Reader.