Stop Making It Bigger

by Eoin Purcell

Most small and medium-sized publishers who haven’t  YET decided to act on digital publishing wonder where to start. They are especially cautious if they have been in business for some time and have a backlist they are worried about converting. That’s a significant up-front cost for small publishers if they only have PDF copies of their titles.

In their minds backlists look like a cost sink rather than a potential digital profit centre. That’s because depending on who you talk to a backlist conversion from PDF to epub or .mobi will cost about €150-€250 and what’s more, it’ll be even more for a high-design title.

If you’ve been publishing say a modest 10 titles a year for ten years, then you’ve a back list of 100 titles and even at the most reasonable quote that might cost you €15,000 to convert. For a small company that’s a chunk of change equivalent to publishing a few new titles a year in cost terms.

Well to my mind, the first thing ANY publisher needs to do, even if they don’t have immediate plans for digital publishing, is stop making that backlist issue bigger and I’ve a pretty sensible strategy for how they can do that AND start preparing for digital publishing.

1) Stop only holding PDF files
Simple enough really, but if you are using in-house design programmes like Indesign or Quark, make sure you hold onto the Quark or Indesign files of your titles AS WELL as holding on to the PDF. If you are using out of company contractors, make it a condition that designers supply original files to you when they deliver the final files. Doing this means that you have files that are easier to convert then PDFs and will thus cost considerably less money when you decide to explore digital publishing and ebooks.
Cost to you: Nothing

2) Convert all new titles yourself
Many of the best in-house design systems offer conversion tools that publishers  can use to create epub and .mobi files themselves. There are other programs that allow you to create them from word files too, so this isn’t as difficult as it might sound. What’s more it future proofs your business going forward against the conversion fees I highlighted above. If you use an external contractor, make them convert the files at source and deliver the resulting files, this should not take them TOO long and for a modest cost at the time of origination you will be ready to sell ebooks.
Cost to you: Nothing to very modest

3) Audit your backlist
So you’ve stopped making the problem bigger and you’ve created files that can easily be converted to ebook formats of your choice. It is time to see just how big the problem is on the backlist. Go through your titles and find out what files you actually have for them. PDF, Indesign, Quark or Word. From an ebook creation perspective Word files and original design files are actually fairly easy to convert (with a little knowledge) so if you have those file types AS WELL as PDF files for your title, you are in a good place. Sort titles into two groups, those with ONLY PDF files and those with Word or Indesign/Quark files.
Cost to you: Time and frustration

4) Convert the easy titles
As I mentioned in 2 (above) in-house design suites will generally have plug-ins that enable you to convert your Indesign/Quark files and there are cheap commercial products that will convert word files. You can make headway in creating a digitzed backlist by converting the files in those formats before worrying about the PDF files. Likewise, external designers will charge MUCH less for converting those files then a PDF, if they don’t, they are probably over-charging you.
Cost to you: Nothing to modest

5) Start selling them
Of course this section requires some thought and strategic planning* before you forge ahead, but once you’ve done that and chosen the right path for your company, you actually have files in formats that can be uploaded to major ebook retail sites. Create accounts, add metadata and start selling them, or sign up with an ebook distributor who will do that work for you. Once the converted titles start to pay back some cash, use that to convert the tricky or PDF-bound titles.
Cost to you: Nothing to modest depending on the sales channel you chose

And there, in five easy steps, is a simple strategy for small and medium-sized publisher looking for somewhere to start on the digital publishing market but worried about their backlist problem.

*Which Green Lamp Media will be happy to help you with. We can provide strategic advice and planning, operations support or we can provide digital publishing services, depending on your needs.


  1. Moriah Jovan23 March, 2011

    make sure you hold onto the Quark or Indesign files of your titles AS WELL as holding on to the PDF.

    They also need their designers to be able to convert their Quark and ID files into RTF and/or Word. Having an EDITED raw text file (instead of the pre-galley-edit text file) will cut the cost by 1/3 to 1/2.

    From an ebook creation perspective Word files and original design files are actually fairly easy to convert (with a little knowledge) so if you have those file types AS WELL as PDF files for your title, you are in a good place.

    Oops. Wrote my bit above before I got here. But the problem is that once the Word file goes into production, it’s never seen again–until somebody uses the unedited file to do the digital book and then readers complain that it has errors that aren’t in the print version.

    …overcharging you…

    Let’s not be too hasty. You should see some of the text that comes out of a PDF (which, in my experience, rides solely on the InDesign/Quark skills of the person who did the original design). About the half the PDFs that come through my shop extract from the PDFs with all the spaces stripped out. You have no idea how long it takes to put spaces back into the text of an 85,000k word book. But I do. Because I did it. And I will never ever do it again without billing the hell out of it. And yes, that’s right. I said HALF the PDFs, which is possibly 10 per month. Of that 10 per month, half of those come back to me and say, “My designer can’t get an RTF out of it. Go ahead and do it.”

    That’s a problem.

    1. fjtorres23 March, 2011

      PDFs are a plague upon mankind.

      For what it’s worth:
      When faced with converting them to something useful, I first try a pure digital converter–mostly as due diligence.
      Once I see the hash that has become of a once useful file, I go straight for the analog hole: I print the thing (Cheap recycled copier paper, of course) and feed it to a scanner. (Back at the office, the graphics specialist has a killer sheet-fed monster good for 100 pages a minute.) I then feed the resulting high-res grayscale image file to either Abbey Finereader (for technical files loaded with graphs and equations) or Nuance Scansoft for mostly-text files, like user guides. On a five year old PC a 400 page scansoft job takes about an hour–lunch time!–and then I save it every way the software offers but my favorite is the Full-page mode which is a poor-man’s page layout mode built out of text boxes, headers, and footers. This I feed, not to word, but to wordpad. Which promptly merges the text boxes and strips away headers and footers, leaving a clean rtf file ready for a generic cleanup macro in word and about an hour of proofing and formating.
      Mostly I run the drill on short technical reports or long (vintage) inhouse software manuals but I did process a friend’s typewritten manuscript once and she seemed pleased with the output. A really good story, too. 😀
      All in all, the print-and-ocr approach seems to work quite a bit better than the same software’s pdf conversion. Not sure why.
      Or why wordpad does such a way better job than word at merging text boxes.
      (“Ours is not to question but to endure.”) 😉

  2. monopole23 March, 2011

    Frankly, for non technical texts, plain text generally suffices for most books. Unicode would be preferred but a plain old TXT file generally looks great on most readers.

    I’d argue for a Dover/Penguin style of cheap but good “paperback ebook” editions.

    Better to get titles in the backlist out legally and cheaply than agonise over typesetting minutiae while torrents of TXT files eat your lunch.

  3. James25 March, 2011

    My small publisher has agreed to experiment with giveaway pricing on Amazon. The experiment started today.


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