If you have a website where you post new content pretty regularly, especially articles that are at least a page long, you should consider finding a way to make your content available on Kindles, iPads and other eBook readers.
Before getting into the methods available, think for a second about the people who would use this service. They represent a special class of reader: those who not only read your site on their laptops, but would find it enjoyable and convenient to have it delivered to an expensive device optimized for extended, away-from-the-desk reading. In other words, these people see value in your writing that others do not. To the degree that they actually exist as part of your audience (a big question), you should really consider finding some way of recognizing that value, and Kindle/ePub publishing is one good way to do that.
Allowing readers to subscribe to an ebook-friendly version of your site’s content presents three main challenges:
Your content needs to be converted ePub and mobi formats, in addition to whatever format(s) you use when writing and publishing on your website. Ideally, it would happen automatically when you hit the “Post” button.
New content needs to be delivered to subscribers; again, as publishers we want to do as little extra work as possible, so this should happen automatically. Also, it’s extremely convenient for subscribers to have the new content be downloaded to their actual iPads and Kindles without any extra steps, rather than simply being notified by email that something new is out there waiting to be downloaded.
You need some way to track and manage subscriptions and payments.
I’ve looked at all the options out there, and here are my findings.
Amazon Kindle Publishing for Blogs
Amazon has a service especially for blogs, which allows people to subscribe for a small fee through the Kindle store, and have your content delivered right to their Kindles automatically as soon as you publish it on your site.
Delivery is fully automatic and goes directly to readers’ devices.
Conversion is fully automated from RSS feeds; no extra work for you as the publisher.
Subscribers lists and incoming payments are fully handled for you.
Amazon gives you near-zero visibility into your subscriber base, and the reports they make available to you about earnings demonstrate a frustrating poverty of information.
Amazon does not allow you to set the price; they almost always set it at $0.99. Additionally, they charge 70% of the subscription price as their take. There have been reports in the support forums of blogs having their price lowered without warning, as well as of payments being sent sporadically.
The formatting performed by Amazon is fully automatic, but it’s also fully disastrous. There’s no published spec or even a set of guidelines for optimizing your site’s HTML to ensure a good conversion. In my tests using this site, which is formed of fully-validated HTML5, whole sections of articles were randomly reordered, and headings were orphaned from articles by page breaks on nearly every article.
This service provides no support for non-Kindle devices, not even using Kindle apps for iOS or Android.
You’re sending subscribers away from your website and onto a third party in order to complete the subscription process. This isn’t usually a big deal — even the New York Times has to use the Kindle store in order to offer Kindle subscriptions — but it’s worth mentioning. It’s conceivable that in five years Kindle publishing will have improved on this, and readers’ expectations could be very different.
Free third-party services
If you provide a decent RSS feed, you could direct your readers to use a third-party service to get your site on their e-readers.
There are a couple of options for this:
- Combining an Instapaper account with an IFTTT recipe. This method supports iOS, Kindle, and Android.
- Kindlefeeder (supports Kindle only)
Using this approach fulfills our ideal of requiring little to no time investment, and creates no need to add extra conversion steps to your publishing workflow. Your subscribers simply manage and fend for themselves.
On the other hand, by going this route, you are effectively asserting that your content has zero economic value, even to those special readers who might find high value in a better solution. You’re saying “I know you won’t pay for a better reading experience, so here’s a hacky way to do it for free.” Ask yourself if that’s an good message to send to your particular readers.1
Leanpub is a service particularly aimed at ebook writers and writers with blogs. They allow you to take Markdown-formatted text and easily repackage it as an ebook. You just save your book in a Dropbox folder, click ‘Publish’, and Leanpub produces ePub, mobi, and PDF versions of your book automatically. Their model is for authors to publish books at an early stage, and allow it to build up a following as successive sections are being released.
Leanpub can be a very workable option for the kind of periodical content we’re talking about, but I should note that it doesn’t have a ‘periodical’ paradigm; it’s completely geared towards books. In order for Leanpub to work as a method for subscribing to your site, you would essentially have to publish your content as an ebook covering a given period (e.g., one year), and republish a new version of that book at set intervals, such as every month or quarter. This also means there is no ‘subscription’ element in their model: no option for monthly charges or automatic renewals. You would need to have subscribers manually ‘renew’ every year by purchasing the next year’s ‘book.’
The conversion is fairly easy, and produces three versions of your content, so it will work and look very decent on pretty much any device.
Customer and payment management built in. There’s a good balance of reader privacy with publisher insight: readers can opt-in to receive additional email updates, or to share their actual address with you, the publisher.
Leanpub passes you a whopping 90% of the payments collected by subscribers (less $0.50 per transaction), and it allows them the option of paying more than the suggested price.
Again, you’d have to be fine with working around Leanpub’s lack of a “periodical” concept: publishing your content as an ebook, and likely having to require yearly (or semi-annual), up-front, non-renewing subscriptions.
The conversion does require additional steps to be added to your publishing workflow. If you already compose your writing in Markdown format, creating an ebook version with Leanpub shouldn’t be that difficult, but it’s still not automatic. In addition, you may find yourself investing extra work in adding ‘finishing touches’ to the ebook publication (covers, forewords, etc).
Subscribers do receive email notifications of new editions, but content is not delivered to their device directly; they need to click a link in the email in order to open the dashboard where they can download the file. There are, however, buttons in this dashboard which iPad and Kindle users can use to have the file sent directly to their devices (via a Readmill account or their Kindle email address).
Leanpub creates a PDF version of your content over whose appearance you have very little control.
Again, perhaps not a big deal at this time, but it’s worth noting that you’re sending readers off-site to a third part to complete the subscription process. Leanpub presents much better than Amazon’s Kindle store listings, however.
Self-managed conversion, email, & payments
It is conceivable that you could handle all of this yourself by combining off-the-shelf software and services with intermediate- to advanced-level technical skills.
For example, you could generate ePub and mobi files using a combination of either Sigil or pandoc and Calibre. For detailed notes on other methods of conversion, read Pat Shaughnessy’s post My eBook build process and some PDF, EPUB and MOBI tips.
These are examples that you can use to get started, but I should note that I’m not fully confident they would even work, mainly because it’s unclear to me whether any services (including Sendy and Mailchimp) would allow you to attach ePub or mobi files to your mass emails.
Assuming you were able to get it to work, it would look like this.
Ongoing fees would be very small. On subscription payments, Stripe would charge 2.5% + $0.30 per transaction. Outgoing emails are $0.10 per 1,000 using Sendy; Mailchimp is free up to 2,000 subscribers, but after that it costs between $8-$20 per month per 1,000 subscribers (depending on the plan, possibly less if you have more than 10k subscribers).
You have complete control over formatting of your ePub and mobi files, and a fully branded subscription experience.
Managing subscriber payments, device preferences, and support requests, could be a nightmare.
Manual conversion of content becomes its own full-blown publishing exercise in addition to your web publishing workflow.
Suppose we consider a hypothetical blog that has 2,500 subscribers willing to pay the publisher’s ideal price of $24/year ($2/month). Of these, let’s say 70% are Kindle users and 30% use either iOS or nook. Here is the actual revenue that would be realized from the available options:
Amazon Kindle Blogs: $6,237 per year. Only Kindle customers are served (1,750 of the 2,500), and Amazon controls the price, setting it at $0.99 instead of $2.00 per month. Readers experience poor formatting and irregular delivery, which might affect subscription turnover.
Leanpub: $52,750 per year2. Readers are notified by email of new content, which they must download to their devices (again “Send to iPad” and “Send to Kindle” links are provided).
Self-managed: $57,507. ($60k less $2,490 in Stripe transaction fees — assuming no chargebacks — and $3 in email sending fees.) For the extra $4,757, you must provide your own subscriber support and develop a manual conversion process for ePub and mobi files. This option may not be able to provide automatic delivery to reader’s devices.
But perhaps 2,500 premium subscribers seems a bit lofty? What if we drop down to only 100 subscribers per year, with the same proportions & ideal price?
- Amazon: $249
- Leanpub: $2,110
- Self-managed: $2,300
What’s obvious in all this is that there’s no neutral architecture or channel for distributing subscription content to ebook readers. Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Apple each have their own file format, their own own stores, and their own separate delivery mechanisms for getting content onto their reader devices.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. On the web, there are independent standards that have been developed and defended through advocacy, and as a result, anyone can put up a website on any server, and all people need in order to read it is the site’s address. Reading ebooks could be just as convenient.
On March 26th, 2011, Apple updated their podcast RSS feed specification to include support for ePub files as enclosures. This means that you can now create an “epubcast”, essentially a web address that readers could use to subscribe to ebook-formatted content, in the same way that you can create a podcast for people to subscribe to MP3 audio content.
It’s not clear yet what Apple plans to use this for. One possibility is that Apple could make it possible to publish to the iOS Newsstand with an epubcast, rather than forcing publishers to write their own apps.
But it’s easy to see the potential of the epubcast. If CMSs would begin offering automatic conversion to ePub files, and if (unlikely as it is) iPads, Kindles and Nooks would all support ePub and allow you to subscribe to publications using the epubcast format, we would see a boom of new content for tablets and ebook readers, and it would be vastly simpler to get that content on our devices. Web publishing, and publishing in general, might even undergo the biggest renaissance since the invention of the web.
1 This isn’t to denigrate services like Instapaper or Kindlefeeder. Those services are valuable to us as readers for saving one-off articles, or in cases where the website hasn’t provided any other method of getting their content on my Kindle. What I’m saying is that the message you as a publisher send to your readers by telling them to go that route (explicitly or not) needs to be consciously considered. ↩
2 An earlier version of this article mistakenly ommitted part of Leanpub’s fees; in addition to 10% of the purchase price, Leanpub charges $0.50 per transaction. This and the following paragraphs have been updated with correct figures. ↩