So you want to write an ebook, but how? This guide will outline the basic steps of creating an ebook.
Writing ebooks has become quite common, but how to write an ebook isn’t so straightforward. By the end of this guide, you will have a solid understanding of the steps it takes to write and publish your own ebook.
This post contains affiliate links.
In April 2010 I decided to write an ebook, mostly as an experiment. I was intrigued by the “launch your own product” process and wanted to figure out how it worked. It was completely uncharted territory for me.
My plan was to finish it by the end of June, publish it in July and then…well, I hoped to sell a few copies.
Things didn’t go according to plan. June came and went, as did July. So did August and September. Then October rolled around and the dark, unfinished project cloud prompted me to make a final push and get it done.
I officially launched Tell Your Time: How To Manage Your Schedule So You Can Live Free on October 26, 2010. By then, I was so relieved it was done I would have been happy with $10 so I could buy an ice cream sundae to celebrate.
But that’s not what happened.
I made significantly more than $10 that first day (like thousands more) and now, here I sit, 4+
months years later, and people keep buying it. Before this whole thing started, I never thought past the first week of launch.
I did some things right and some things wrong. What follows are my honest, personal tips for writing an ebook.
To sell for profit
Many people have made excellent money through the sales of ebooks. If you plan to sell your ebook, read my post 11 Things To Do Before You Start Making Money Online.
To give away for free
Perhaps you’d like to use it as an incentive for people to sign up for your mailing list. Or maybe you want to use it to showcase your expertise or establish your authority on a subject. Maybe you would just like to enrich the lives of others, no strings attached. All are great reasons to offer it for free!
To be published
It used to be that traditional publishing was thought to be the only “legitimate” way to get published, but that’s no longer the case. If you long to be an author and don’t want to go through the long process and uncertainty of traditional publishing, self-publishing is great. Check out my series called Why I Turned Down a Book Deal for more.
To get your feet wet in the digital book market
It’s quick, easy, cheap to produce and potentially more profitable.
As far as publishing goes, it’s not complicated at all. Anyone can do it.
It’s a lot of work
Even though it’s not particularly complicated, writing and publishing an ebook does take work. A lot of work.
Writing is the easy part
Marketing is the hard part. You must have a solid, trustworthy platform from which to launch your ebook. Prepare to spend a lot of time marketing your ebook after you’re done writing it.
Don’t neglect your platform
Don’t drop everything to write an ebook. Spend 10-20% of your time working on your ebook. Spend the other 80-90% of your time building your platform (a blog is a good way to do that). A platform will make selling your ebook incredibly easier since people will know who you are. (This is the same reason you’re unlikely to find a traditional publisher who will sign you if you don’t have a platform.)
Connections with people drive ebook sales
Before you finish your ebook, develop genuine online relationships with others through social media, commenting and other not-scary ways of reaching out to strangers. When it comes time to sell your ebook, these are the people who are most likely to help you spread the word.
Be strategic about the topic of your ebook. This is not a “write whatever and they will come” sort of endeavor. A little research is helpful, as is some serious thought.
This guide covers nonfiction writing although fiction writers are sure to gain a solid understanding of the process as well. (I don’t have any personal experience with fiction, but I would recommend you check out this post by Michael Hyatt.)
For a non-fiction ebook, choose to do one or more of the following:
- P – Solve a Problem. Be helpful. “How to” topics are excellent choices for ebooks. Find a hole and fill it. The hole you find doesn’t have to be huge, it’s just gotta be common to a decent-sized group of people.
- F – Address a Fear. Most of us have fears and we do our best to avoid them. Our fears range from “What are people going to think of me?” to “What if my spouse gets cancer?” to “What if we run out of money?” to “What if I die?” to “What if my children turn out to be tyrants?” and on and on. If you can come up with a topic that addresses a common fear and offers a way to relieve that fear, you just might have a winner of a topic.
- C – Satisfy a Curiosity. People wonder about stuff. This is why celebrity gossip is so popular and why reality shows are captivating for many. What’s it like to live in a family of 19? How does so-and-so run his business successfully? Who’s going to be wearing what at the Oscars? You get the picture. The bottom line is, we are intrigued by information that’s not readily available. If you have an inside peek into something the masses might like to know (and are free to share that information), it might be a good ebook topic.
In Tell Your Time, I tried to tackle both the P and the F. I address the fear of living a lackluster life with the how of managing your time in a simple, straightforward 4-step way.
Choose a topic you’re passionate about
Once your ebook is launched, people are likely to ask questions about your topic. If you’re writing to make a quick buck but know nothing about the subject, things will fizzle when you can’t answer their questions. Or, you’ll be frustrated having to answer questions about something you could care less about.
Choose a topic you’re good at
Do others ask your advice about a particular topic? What do you do that people marvel at? What are the questions you get most often? We’re all an expert at something.
For me, I enjoy organizing and most of all, efficiency. So an ebook on time management wasn’t a stretch at all. I also had already gotten positive feedback on the information so it made me confident others might find it helpful as well.
Choose a topic with substance
I read once that an ebook should be at least 25 pages long. That seems reasonable to me. If your topic can be sufficiently described in less than 25 pages, write a blog post, a blog series or a guest post.
Related: My Top Guest Posting Tips
I’m dancing on the line of this one with Tell Your Time coming in at about 28 pages. However, this was somewhat purposeful in that I was deliberately trying to keep it succinct to align with my Unique Selling Proposition (USP) which is a book on time management that isn’t time consuming.
Choose a topic that fits with your established online identity
If people know you as the woman who is an expert knitter, your ebook will be easier to sell if it has something to do with knitting. If, however, everyone knows you as the expert knitter but you write an ebook about investing in the stock market, it’s going to be a harder sell.
Exceptions to this rule:
- You want to break into the “investing in the stock market” niche and you’re going to use your ebook as a way to do that.
- For some reason (maybe you mentioned it inadvertently in a blog post at one point), you have gotten a BOATLOAD of questions about investing in the stock market and since it doesn’t really fit into your regular blog, you decide to write an ebook about it so you don’t have to keep answering all the questions individually.
Expand on something you’ve already done
Is there a topic or series about which you get a lot of questions and an ebook would give you the space to dive deeper?
Expand on something the internet is talking about
Is there a hot topic you’re seeing online or in your niche or social media circles? Do you have the expertise to address it in a thoughtful way?
Or, check the bestseller lists on Amazon for ideas. How can you branch out and offer your own angle? (Thanks to Mandi Ehman for this tip.)
Think about your target audience
The ability to put yourself in your potential reader’s shoes will make writing much easier and your finished product much better.
- Who will want to read it?
- When it’s done, who will you market your ebook to?
- What do they want to know? What questions do you get from them repeatedly? What are they asking about your topic?
- Is there enough of them? You don’t have to appeal to everyone on earth. However, if you’d like to write an ebook about ancient Mongolian tribal burial rituals, it’d be good to know if there are a whole lot of people who share your interest before you dive in.
- Will they find it? Do they spend time online? Will they know how to access it? For example, ebooks targeting older populations are going to be trickier to sell than those targeting the 18-24 crowd simply because the older crowd (not all though!) are less internet savvy.
- Will they pay for it?
Create something others can’t easily get for free
Most of the information we come across really isn’t anything new, just packaged differently (“there’s nothing new under the sun”). So, it’s doubtful any of us will ever come up with a completely and totally novel idea. Still, make sure your ebook is unique enough that someone isn’t able to find it for free elsewhere in near-identical form.
And if your ebook content could be found elsewhere, have a solid Unique Selling Proposition (USP). That is, make sure before you get started that you have good reason why someone should shell out cash for your product and not just get the information for free from the other guy.
In my case, time management books and blogs abound. One thing I’ve noticed about them though, is that many are heavy on theory, overwhelming and (ironically) time consuming. In response, I made Tell Your Time short and to the point. I also came up with the tagline “What if you could change your life in less than 30 pages?” I wanted people to see that it was different right off the bat.
In my post My Top Writing Tips, I share practical tips to get the words flowing, but here are some tips for ebooks specifically.
Use the right writing software
Use the right brainstorming and outlining tools
Use one spot to capture all your ideas and research
When you’re in the process of writing your ebook, chances are you’ll spend a fair amount of your time thinking about it. Many times, your ideas won’t come when you’re actually sitting at your computer writing. If you’re like me, ideas come in the car, in the shower, while I’m surfing the web, when I can’t sleep at 2 am or when I’m standing in line at the post office. Designate one spot to be your capture spot and stick with it.
Many people use Evernote.
This way, when you sit down to write, you’ll know exactly where to find all your brilliant ideas. If you don’t have one spot for such a purpose, you’ll either have miscellaneous and extraneous pieces of paper here and there and everywhere, or you’ll just plain forget all the great stuff that was about to make you millions. Poof. Gone. That would be sad.
Block out scheduled writing time
I don’t recommend squeezing “writing an ebook” into the cracks and crevices of your life. Unless you’re a master at project planning and follow through, dedicate a chunk of time every day (or several times a week) to your ebook project.
If there are days you have more time to spend on it, excellent! If not, at least you’ll see steady progress, even if it’s only 15 minutes at a time.
In my case, there were days and sometimes weeks when I didn’t touch my ebook. It was discouraging and a bit defeating. It also caused undue stress toward the end of the project when there was a deadline looming and I had to make up for lost time.
Once this ebook is done, you can keep that chunk of time in your schedule to start on your next ebook or project, ever increasing your income streams.
Keep track of your time
I did not keep track of how much time I spent working on my ebook. I wish I had. Why? Because I like to know which of my income streams are generating the most money based on an hourly rate. I wish I had kept track of my time so I could determine whether or not it has paid off…and if it’s worth it to write another one.
When it’s time to write, do nothing else. Turn everything off knowing you’ll be able to get to those things as soon as our writing window is over.
If noise bothers you, make sure your writing window happens when there’s little of it. Otherwise, put in ear plugs or ear buds. If you need to clean up around your writing spot first, do that too. I’m amazed at how significantly more productive I am when my writing surface is clear of stuff.
Save, save, save…and in multiple places.
Before you begin, create a spot on your computer in which to save all ebook-related material. Unless you are using software that automatically saves things for you, you’ll be saving every 2 minutes. There’s nothin’ like spending forever writing something only to lose it because it wasn’t saved.
I also recommend you set up an alternate place to save your work, preferably not on your computer.
Dropbox is a free cloud storage solution. Another suggestion is to copy and paste your draft into an email and send it to yourself. If you’re using Gmail, just archive it and you’ll always have a copy not on your computer too.
Pretend you’re your target
The ability to see things from the perspective of your reader is key. Sometimes we know a topic so well we forget that others may be seeing it for the first time.
Do some serious thinking about who your target market is. Define them. Picture them in your brain. Anticipate their questions. Pretend you are them and think about what would most connect with you. Then, write that.
Pick a ship date and hook
Once you start writing and get into a rhythm, you’ll likely be able to estimate how long this thing will take you to complete.
Next, pull out a calendar.
Determine a “ship” date. In other words, what day will you launch your ebook? The reason I suggest you pull out your calendar is to make your launch date coincide with calendar events on which you can “hook” your launch.
For example, you may remember me saying I originally had my launch date set for July. The reason I chose that date was because July is when things start ramping up for back-to-school sales and events. It’s a time of year when people are in the mood to get their schedules in order. Therefore, I had a hook for selling an ebook about time management.
Lots of people (i.e. potential affiliates) are writing about back-to-school things in July and August, so they would be more likely convinced to promote my time management ebook at the same time too.
In my case, July came and went, so I had to think of Plan B. The next logical time of year when people are thinking about time management is the new year. That would have been fine, but I launched in late October instead. Doing so had several advantages:
- One message I used for promotion was “Get your schedule under control before the holiday craziness hits. Enjoy the holidays this year, eliminate stress and get a head start on the New Year.”
- It allowed me to take advantage of the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend which was a huge selling weekend for me. (Everyone’s looking for a sale that time of year, so I discounted the ebook and pushed #1 above.)
- I was able to promote it to a captive audience of potential affiliates at a blogging conference (along with the huge help of Crystal from MoneySavingMom.com).
- I still had another sale the first week of the new year. The benefit was that plenty of people had read the book by now so I had testimonials to bolster my sales pitch.
We’ll talk more about selling and promoting later, but my point here is to set a “ship” date. Give yourself enough time to get the ebook written, prepared for launch and launched, but challenge yourself to get the thing done in a timely manner as well. Setting a “ship” date gives you something to work towards instead of just letting the project drag on indefinitely.
Once your ebook is written, do the jig. Then, obviously, edit it. Read and reread it.
If you’re the type that tends to be wordy, eliminate everything that doesn’t contribute to the main idea of your ebook. Ebooks are often read on computer screens or other digital devices, many of which are not ideal for reading. So, if you can get your information across in a more concise way, do it.
If you’re the type that tends to be lacking in words, make sure the vital parts of your ebook are sufficiently explained. If a reader has a question about your ebook, they will have to go out of their way to contact you for clarification (unlike the ability to easily post a comment in response to a blog post, for example). Make it clear so they aren’t frustrated.
Ask people close to you — you know, the ones who will tell you the truth and love you no matter what — if they will read your material and give feedback. (I don’t recommend approaching fellow bloggers or other business or networking acquaintances for feedback at this stage. More explanation on that to come.) Take special note of any clarification questions they ask or confusion they express; these are the areas you’ll definitely want to go back and modify. Then, take your loved one out for lunch as a thank you. Just a suggestion.
Strive for excellence, not perfection
Having just told you to edit until you’re blue in the face (practically), don’t get stuck trying to make it “just so.” Do your best but accept that it’ll never be perfect. You still want to make your ship date, remember?
Choose a great title
Now is a good time to choose a title. Here are a few reasons why:
- Editing makes the content of your ebook fresh in your mind. Reading it from start to finish provides a perspective you didn’t have when you were in the thick of writing.
- Now that your content is mostly finalized, you might realize that over the course of writing, you took some twists and turns you didn’t anticipate. If you chose a title at the beginning, review it to make sure it accurately represents what your final copy communicates.
- If others are reading/editing your ebook for you, take the opportunity to toss around title ideas with them too.
The ideal title (plus an alternative)
The ideal title is one that encapsulates the main idea of your ebook in just a few words. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to come up with such a title. In that case, find a catchy title and then create a subtitle which provides further explanation. In any case, a potential reader should have a good idea of what your ebook is about simply by reading the title.
Choose a title with an available domain name
Other than choosing a title that actually fits the content of your ebook, if possible, choose a title with an available domain name. Then, register that domain.
This is likely to make choosing a title a bit tricky, so take some time in doing so. You’ll have to weigh all the possibilities and perhaps spend a fair amount of time searching. But if you can snag the domain name of your ebook title, it’s a major bonus when it comes to marketing and promotion.
If you can’t find an available domain name, you may need to get creative. For example, if your ebook title is already taken, you might decide to tack on “book” or “ebook” to the end. (Check out my post How to Choose a Domain Name for more ideas.)
Once you’re satisfied with the content of your ebook you’ll need to format it so it looks good on a page.
The following tips are for PDF formatting. If you want to format your ebook for Kindle and Nook, I highly recommend checking out the Kindle Direct Publishing Help and Nook FAQ & Support Resources Page (Nook).
Choose a page size
I recommend formatting it to fit a standard page size (8 1/2 by 11 inches here in the States). This will make it easier for you to set it up and for your readers to print (if they do). You can choose either a “portrait” or “landscape” setup. However, if you go with landscape, I suggest you break up your text into at least two or three columns across the page to make reading easier.
Use generous margins
I think a 1-inch margin all the way around is a safe bet. Not only does this make reading easier, it also eliminates the problem some printers have which is to cut off a larger portion at the bottom (portrait) or on one side (landscape) when smaller margins are specified.
Whitespace is your friend
Whitespace refers to the parts of the page which are empty and not filled with text or other content. Large margins create whitespace, as does a wider-than-normal line height (like 1.5), a larger font (I used 14), bullets, lists etc. You want reading to be effortless and whitespace is a key factor in making that happen.
Decide if you’re going to get fancy
If you’re so inclined, you might consider inserting captions, pull-quotes (highlighting special portions of your text in a larger font or box somewhere on the page) call outs (like labels for illustrations; similar to captions for images), etc. (You can find examples of how these look here.) It’ll be more work, but done right, it could add a nice touch to your finished product.
On the flip side, it might cause formatting issues, so I’d recommend checking on several digital devices to see how it renders before you make it a definite go.
Clean, simple and uniform formatting is best. Don’t go crazy with a wide array of font sizes, colors, underlining, etc. If a reader turns a page and thinks, “Wow, that heading is large,” or “Bright font color!” you’ve gone too far. A reader’s attention should be on your content, not your formatting. Only format enough to make your ebook more easily readable.
Pay special attention to images
If you’re using images, make sure they are well done and proportioned correctly so they aren’t skewed. If you’re not a photographer yourself, consider purchasing professional images from a site like Dollar Photo Club. If your photos are only average and you don’t want to spend the money on professional ones, I think it’s better to leave them out altogether. Low-quality images can diminish the perceived value of an ebook.
Add a header & footer
Use the footer option to insert page numbers (done automatically) as well as a link to your website. Read your word processor’s Help section if you don’t know how to insert page numbers.
Include front matter and/or back (end) matter
- Copyright Information. This is something I did not pay a whole lot of attention to and will certainly update in future editons. Because I’m a bad example, I’ll send you over to Dave Taylor’s site where he discusses this issue and gives you some examples.
- Table of Contents. This is just a good idea. Make it better by linking your Table of Contents to the actual sections in your ebook.
- About the Author. A bio at the end of your ebook gives you the chance to tell a little bit about yourself but more importantly, it gives you a natural opportunity to insert a call to action, such as inviting your reader to visit your website and sign up for your email list.
- Acknowledgements, End Notes, Bibliography, etc. If your ebook calls for any of these pages — particularly credit to anyone quoted or referenced — by all means, include them. However, keep in mind that they are likely only going to be glanced over. So, be accurate, but don’t spend untold amounts of time getting them “just so”.
- Printables. If you are providing printables, they could be included within the body of the ebook or at the end. My recommendation is to put them where they fit naturally and cause the least amount of reading disruption. Require readers to sign up for your email list to download the printables.
Get an ebook cover
Unless you are exceptionally talented, I highly recommend you get a professionally designed cover. The cover will set the tone for your whole ebook. If you get someone to design it for you, ask if they can also make matching banners and graphics.
If you’d like to find a designer, you have a ton of options. A few resources I have not used myself but have read good things about are oDesk and 99designs — both allow you to find people you can outsource projects like this to (as well as things like Virtual Assistance, logo creation and all sorts of things). Please do your homework and be sure to read up on anyone you might work with, but an ebook cover might be a great and cheap way to test one of these services out.
Save your document as a PDF
The software tools mentioned above will allow you to this easily.
Check the links
One your ebook is saved in its final form, go through it and check all links.
Print it out
Once you’ve put everything together, be sure to print out your ebook to make sure it prints correctly and as you intended. Also, check it out on digital devices to make sure it renders properly.
Other posts in this series
How to Write an Ebook
How to Write an Ebook: Pricing
How to Write an Ebook: Distribution
How to Write an Ebook: Creating a Sales Page (or Site)
How to Write an Ebook: Preparing for Affiliates
How to Write an Ebook: Taking care of your affiliates
How to Write an Ebook: Paying your affiliates
How to Write an Ebook: Marketing