Keith Gascoigne

Writer’s Blog


Why is Epublishing such a Mess?

I have spent nearly a year trying to understand what epublishing is and I have, time after time, come up against a wall of confusing comments, obfuscation, misinformation, double-speak in other words ‘smoke and mirrors’. I am all right at reading tax forms and pension scams schemes but when it comes to epublishing information I get somewhat perplexed.

When I smell smoke and see mirrors (AKA ‘deceased rodent’) I know that I am in trouble. This ‘trouble’ cost me months of my time so I share it with you, dear reader, writer, author, self-epublisher in the hope that it might save you time, confusion, tears, frustration, exasperation and at the same time expose these mongers of confusion.

I don’t think that too many of the general public really know what epub and ebooks are so I include the following for those perplexed by technology, smoke and mirrors.

What epub ebooks are

Basically, ebooks are electronic books produced in the world-wide epub format, which is simply a way of getting a limited machine (small, basic, ebook reader) to show the contents of a longish book text on a small screen, using limited computing power. Note that the epub format is open to all and does not need any specialized software to read them. Ebooks are open-format for all to read.

What commercial ebooks are now (mainly)

The large companies who sell commercial epub ebooks: Apple, Amazon, Kobo, Nook, et al and who want to dominate the market to make large profits out of the readers, each use their own special ‘format’ (remember the fights over audio and videotape formats). These ‘special’ restricting formats come in the way of the so-called ‘Digital Rights Management’ (DRM) to prevent purchasers reading the books on different ereaders and prevent them copying them for their friends or family to read. It is simply a method of locking the paying readers into one company or another. This is achieved by putting software on your ebook reader that controls what you can read.

Obvously, most authors don’t want people to copy their books, after all, writing books is hard work and takes a long time and for many of us (myself included) is the only source of income. I think most intelligent authors (most of us) don’t mind if a few people copy one or two for their friends and family to read as this is a way of advertizing and many authors give ebooks away for free (I did this hoping that each copy might alert the reader to my other books). What no-one wants is for some unethical creature to steal a book and publish it as their own and make a profit out of someone’s hard work This does happen – there are unethical opportunists everywhere.

That is, very basically, the problem that authors face. It is a question of balance. I work, I need money to live but I want people to read my books - especially in countries where people are too poor to buy them at prices that we in the so-called ‘West’ consider acceptable. That is one set of problems. The next is more difficult to sort out.

The obfuscation, smoke and mirrors

I spent months reading ebook distribution company splurges to entice me to use them to distribute my ebooks. Few of them think that an intelligent writer can produce well-formatted epub ebooks themselves and insult their intelligence. Most distribution companies (not all; there are some that are open and honest) use misinformation, obfuscation, ‘smoke and mirrors’ to confuse the people who write books into thinking that it is all very, very complicated and complex - too much for the writer to do - but we can do it for you for a fee. What these companies are doing is nothing new. Lawyers and politicians have been doing this to us for decades and they - especially the politicians, set an example for others to follow. So the ebooks distribution companies, that have sprung up like fungi, follow the leaders and rulers of our society in obfuscation. However, like fungi, many are poisonous toadstools but some are safe and good to consume.

The poisonous ones dress things up to make themselves look good and also to confuse writers and authors so that they end up paying for simple services dressed up with tinsel and glitter. Paraphrased from one distributer-aggregator website:

We operate what is commonly referred to as the hybrid pricing model - the publisher sets the customer price for titles in Apple’s iBookstore and supplies all other retailers on traditional reseller (wholesale) terms. This hybrid model is commonly adopted by publishers in the US and also by some in the UK. Unlike the reseller model – where the publisher sells to the wholesaler/retailer at agreed discount terms off the publishers suggested digital list price and the wholesaler/retailer sets the price to the consumer – the agency model has the publisher setting the consumer price except for new titles when the Apple pricing grid is applied. New titles can be defined as original or first publication. For these titles the pricing grid is applied for the first seven months of publication. The pricing grid refers to the print price of the original edition...

Got that? This is commonly typical, unfortunately.

What they really mean is that ebook retailers like Apple act as traditional agents while ebook retailers like Amazon act as merchants (wholesalers).

They go on to state that the author has little control over the typeface used and some ebook readers have only one typeface and others offer a few and limited choice but the consumer decides which font they want to use, not the publisher or author.

This means that the limited ebook readers are dictating the font-sets that authors can use. So what happens if the writer is using foreign words or glyphs in the text that are not included in the ebook reader’s inadequate memory store? I, like other authors, use foreign words in my travel books. Well, the author simply embeds the correct font set containing all the fonts and glyphs into the book. Where is the problem? Smoke and mirrors that is where.

Writers are intelligent – they have to be because writing a book takes many skills and much thought and knowledge yet these people insult our intelligence treating us as simpletons. This is why the bad fungi companies use the smoke and mirrors of puerile-speak.

Some of this patronizing garbage is encouraged because most ebook readers are little bits of plastic that can’t even store a useful range of fonts, have the memory of a virus and are slower than a gastropod. By the time I have waited a few minutes for my not-very-old ebook reader to react to a finger-push I have forgotten what I did and why I did it but even that simple device produces, perfectly, words like, ‘Teşekkürler’, ‘Köyceğiz’ - from the embedded font set in my ebook. (If you don’t have the Liberation Serif font-set in your browser you won’t see the glyphs correctly). Read my Travels in Turkey ebook and see.

The good distributer-aggregators - and there are some - are noticable in many ways and some by their thoughtful and kind responses to emails.


These use the traditional, agency model where I ask them to sell my ebook for me, they do this and take a commission for doing it and sell it at the price I set, which is a fair, tried and tested arrangement. If my ebook doesn’t sell then either the book is not what most readers want to read at the time or my price is too high or it needs more publicity but I have control over my work.

The others (wholesalers, merchants) are called ‘nonagency’ dealers and buy my book like they would a sack of potatoes or a barrel of fish and then they sell it at any price they want. This produces price wars, reduces my control, my choices and these wholesalers use my book as ammunition in their aggressive price-wars to gain top position in the ebook wars that they have produced. I don’t want my ebooks to be used as ‘ammunition’ in someone else’s ‘war’. It is a book not an offensive weapon.

Any profit that I might get from this wholesale-war, which will be miniscule, has to pay me enough to continue writing or I end up on the beach and the beaches around here are cold. At the same time, companies like Amazon and the others get obscenely rich – all at my and all the other writers’ expense. That is unfair. My biggest surprise is that so many writers use Amazon without a word of complaint. These writers must be comfortably off, have another income or just don’t care. I’m sure Amazon would listen?

Of course, Amazon have done a lot of good to promote ebooks but they should play fair with the producers of the goods that they need to sell. They have also, very publicly, done a lot of bad things – their recent spat with Hachette, which set author against author; their removal of a reader’s whole account (Linn who lives in Norway but bought her Kindle in the UK); removing an ebook from sale after a reader complained that there were too many hyphens in the text: perhaps that low-brow-reader had never come-across the hyphen before? Hasn’t he read James Joyce?

One nonagency ebook retailer-reseller based in the USA, charges authors who do not live in America or Canada a large, extra commission fee ‘because they don’t sell in american dollars’ or something unbelievable like that. I see this as racist behavior - and so it goes on and on and on. It appears to me to be like watching little children at a party wanting all the cake and the cherries on top and the ice-cream.

Eventually, I found an ebook distributer-aggregator which or who (the man) appears intelligent, helpful, open and honest using plain english (no smoke and mirrors) – a rarity today in the shark-filled sea (my God - another hyphen - send for the hyphen-police).

At the moment I use only agency model ebook retailers, Apple being the main of course – long may it continue.

So after wading through all that (there is a lot more but you get the idea), I (and quite a few others) have come to see that epublishing, as it is at the moment, is a bit of a mess fueled by greed, selfishness, unfairness and a certain amount of short-sightedness and stupidity.

This is an excellent read: Scholarly Kitchen and produces much food for thought. What Michael Clarke states about DRM is right, it is a problem not a solution and proprietary rights should go. (Please come back here after you have read it.)

Unglue-it is a sort of crowd funding for authors and something that I would like to use but at the moment I need to go the traditional way for a while.

I like writing. I live to write but, at the moment, ebook publishing leaves me feeling somewhat dirty.

2014-12-30. Have a happy new year.