How to design an ebook (or: a letter to a ghost)

We were recently haunted by a ghost that smelled of copy-ink and tweed and pipe-smoke. We noticed that the poor dear felt a bit forlorn because it wasn’t too sure how to lay out its ebooks, so we thought we would help it out with a few words of advice. Obviously you, my dear reader, know perfectly well how to lay out an ebook and, if you’re traditionally published, then your publisher does too. So what follows is irrelevant really. So you don’t need to read it. The ghost was happy though . . .

A letter to the Spirit of Old-School Publishing

Dear Spirit

I know you’re changing. I know that you find yourselves in a world of blogs and tweets and self-pubbers and e-books, which are weird because you can’t scribble on them or burn them or throw them at the cat. And I know that all this can be confusing for an old-school Print-Spirit, so let me see what I can do to help.

But before we start, I should point out an error in the way you conceive of ebooks. You think,

An ebook is a type of book.

And already that’s wrong. Howlingly in error. In truth,

An ebook is a type of website.

Obviously both things, books and ebooks, have a lot of words arranged in a particular order, but that’s not a telling point. This very website contains at least a million words –well over a hundred million if you include user-content – but no one mistakes it for a book.

The main thing (commercially speaking) about a book is that it’s a sign of a completed transaction. A reader hands over a tenner. Gets a book. And that, from a publisher’s point of view, is that. You don’t:

  • Know the reader’s name
  • Have their contact details
  • Or, crucially, have any meaningful way to entice further behaviour. (Yes, there are those ads that use up spare pages in the backs of books, but those things are so lacklustre that they’re spacefillers more than anything.)

So basically, the deal is dead & done. You’ve got your tenner and when the same author brings out the next book in the series you’re going to have to do all those things you did before (secure retail platform, grab some publicity &c &c) in order to get the customer’s attention again. If he or she liked the book the first time around, you’ve got some goodwill in the pot, but the whole attention-grabbing process starts anew every time.

Now, yes, websites too provide content, but any commercially-oriented website only exists in order to get a customer to do something.

In the WW’s case, we would love customers to hand over their money in exchange for various services we offer. Our content is primarily a means to get them to do that. (*** Except, dear reader, that doesn’t apply to you in any way at all. It just applies to everyone else reading this. Hope that’s clear. Ahem. ***)

With an ebook, the same thing. Things we might well want our ebook-website user to do includes, at least, the following things:

  • Give us their email address
  • Buy another book
  • Write a review on Amazon or Goodreads or whatever
  • Commit in some way to the series or the author, so they become an active evangelist for these things, not just a contented consumer.

With a book, we basically can’t do those things. A book is interactive only in the sense that you can scribble on it or burn it. But an ebook ISN’T a book and it IS interactive.


  • It’s easy to get an email address. You just ask.

To make people more likely to say yes, you give them a free story and tell them that they’re joining a Readers’ Club (sounds nice) instead of signing up to a mailing list (sounds bleagh), but it’s the same thing.

In the US, for every six readers of my ebooks, I get 1 email address. But in print-world, it’s perfectly common to  sell 100,000 books by a particular author and collect no email adddresses at all. Does that not strike you, dear Spirit, as a rather sad and lonely thing?

  • Buying another book is another easy-to-induce behaviour.

With both my American books and (now) my British ones, you’ll get to the end of one book and see a description of each book in the series, with the next book in line clearly signalled, and for each book a “View now on Amazon” / “View now in your chosen e-store” message. (My lovely British publisher uses the latter slogan because it needs to be even-handed between retailers.)

For my US readers, it takes two clicks to buy the next book. One click to go through to the Amazon page. A second to hit the “Buy with 1-click” button. Same thing in the UK, except it’s three simple clicks.

So notice this: to induce a buying behaviour, I have only to get my reader to move their forefinger two or three times. (Just for a moment think how much harder it is to induce that same behaviour in a hard-copy reader – then ask yourself, “is an ebook more like a book or more like a website?”)

  • It’s also easy to get readers to write a review.

Amazon doesn’t just provide direct links to a specific book page, it also makes it possible to link direct to the reviews section for that specific book. So for example a book URL has this format:

And the associated reviews can be jumped to direct with this format:

Because we know that Amazon tends to promote books that quickly assemble positive reader reviews (this effect is additional to simply rate of sale) getting reviews quickly will support the book’s overall sales – and if you want reviews, you can just ask for them . . . and make it unbelievably easy for readers to fulfil that request.

So what have we learned so far?

My dear Spirit, we’ve learned (i) that an ebook is a website, (ii) that websites are there to induce particular behaviours, and (iii) that it’s easy to do so. We also know which behaviours we are most interested in encouraging.

Good. That leaves the simple question of how actually to do it.

The conventional attitude of many an old-school Print Spirit is to do as follows:

  1. Include a ‘Stay in Touch‘ or ‘Subscribe to my Newsletter’ paragraph buried somewhere in the end material of the ebook
  2. List out the books in the series (or other books by the author, if you’re not writing a series) the way you list them in print titles. Something like this:

Other books by Wonderful Author
The Dog Who Barked
The Cat Who Miaowed
The Donkey Who Brayed
The Duck Who Swore
The Goat Who Went Mental and Shot Everyone

Those ideas look perfectly sensible, do they not? Professional. Simple. Neat.

Luckily, we’re now in a position to understand the barking wrongness of both ideas.

Take the second (and most barking one) first.

That list is just a list. It looks boring. It IS boring. And you can’t click anything on it. We have here a glorious opportunity to induce a behaviour – a BUYING behaviour, one that leads to MONEY IN OUR POCKET – and we aren’t going to take it.


Website users don’t want lists; they want links. So give them links.

We could do it like this for example:

Other books by Wonderful Author
The Dog Who Barked (see more)
The Cat Who Miaowed (see more)
The Donkey Who Brayed (see more)
The Duck Who Swore (see more)
The Goat Who Went Mental and Shot Everyone (see more)

Now that’s already about fifty million times better than our first suggestions, is it not? That ‘see more’ link would pop readers straight through to Amazon or through to a ‘Choose your e-store’ landing page. Your readers are now only two or three clicks from purchase.

But is that the best possible way? I mean, a list is still boring even if you have links in it. Also people aren’t dumb but they are impatient, and it’s not absolutely clear if this list is ordered and, if so, how it’s ordered. So wouldn’t it be better to indicate book 1, book 2, etc, to make things absolutely clear? (Amazon does this and Amazon is probably quite good at inducing buying behaviours.) And if titles alone were enough to incentivise purchasing decisions, then why do book blurbs exist? So shouldn’t we have something by way of description? And since websites look nicer with images, and since books look nicer with cover images, then why the hell aren’t we showing the book as well as just naming it?

And then: those “see more” links – what do we really think of those? I mean, what happens on websites where people actually want to sell stuff?

Amazon does this:

buy-button-AMZAnd Amazon is quite good at inducing buying behaviours, is it not, Spirit? So, we might guess that the type of links that most effectively induce a buying behaviour are brightly coloured, unmissable and alluring.So perhaps our list of series titles should look like something yumptious and colourful and enticing and clickable. I know we’re not allowed to say so in present company but – let’s whisper it softly – a series listing of that sort is actually better than print.

As for the “stay in touch”  or “subscribe to my newsletter” blurb at the back – that’s madness too. Not such a terrible madness this time – at least it is seeking to induce a desired behaviour – but what well-designed website ever had only one link to something that matters to the website owner? And what well-designed website places that crucial link at what is probably the least-travelled bit of real estate in the whole domain? Answer: none and none. Only someone who doesn’t think of an ebook as a website could possibly think that was a good idea.

[Indeed, in print-world, people tend to refer to those full page notices for other books in the series as ‘ads’. And yes, I suppose in print-world that’s a fair term for the things. But to do so in e-world hints at conceptual error. An ad is an annoying interpolation in otherwise interesting content – and an interpolation that’s promoting some third party product at that.

The back-of-book material we’re talking about will contain no interpolations, promote no third party products and will provide nothing but rich material aimed at people-who-like-books-by-Wonderful-Author. To be sure, that rich material will include links that make it easy to purchase the various novels we’re selling, but even those links will be seen as rich content by our audience because they make it easy to do something they probably want to do anyway.

And even if the messages are graphical – pretty pictures, not boring text – they’re still not ads: they’re just calls-to-action – the kind of content that always lives on websites. The WW website has a million bright, attractive calls-to-action that make it easy for our users to do things they came to us for (take a course, get editorial feedback, whatever). But we don’t have a single ad anywhere on the site, and neither we nor our users think of our CTAs as “ads”. They’re not ads.]

OK, that was a digression, but from our new perspective, the whole question of how to design an ebook starts to look very simple indeed. Here’s how to do it:

  • The middle bit – the actual book – should be easy to read. If that bit is laid out like a book (even though it’s a book-on-a-website), that’s fine. After all, that bit is only there (a) to satisfy a contract, and (b) to lure the reader into our cunning trap.

In other words, the actual content can look the way ebooks have always looked. No problems there.

  • For everything else, we should ditch EVERYTHING that print books do.

An ebook is not a book. It is a website.

An ebook is not a book. It is a website.

An ebook is not a book. It is a website.

So screw books. They make for a stupid template. Nothing that lives in a book (except for the actual text of the actual novel) should have houseroom in our ebook-website, unless our website happens to want that exact piece of content in that exact form. Which will almost never be the case.

Quite simply, the design rules that should govern the front-bit of the ebook and the back-bit of the ebook should be the rules that govern every decent bit of web design anywhere, ever. So any competent web designer will:

  • Use links wherever we want the user to DO SOMETHING.
  • Make those links attractive which means, mostly, graphical.
  • But because some devices are B/W only and because some readers will prefer text-only links, then include those too as alternatives. Some readers will click one thing, some will click another – so give them options.
  • Remember that old-fashioned text still matters here, as it does on every website on the planet. We can’t plant links in the ebook text itself – that’s sacred – but what about the author’s note? Why in God’s name should that be the same in the print book as the ebook? The print book text can’t induce behaviours, so it shouldn’t really bother to try.The ebook author’s note CAN induce behaviours so it should bloody well seek to do so.
  • That said, the front-bit and the back-bit of the ebook do have somewhat different flavours and uses. The front bit is most likely to be looked at (A) by people who have bought the book but not yet read it, and (B) Amazon-users using the “Read inside” feature (ie: readers who haven’t yet bought the book). So putting a “buy the next book” type link in here probably isn’t smart, whereas putting a “Get your free download” feature probably is – because then Amazon users think, “heck, this is buy-one-get-one-free, is it? Sweet!” . . . and of course people may want to get the free download even before they’ve read the book. Multiple, duplicative links, remember.
  • The back bit is different, because readers are likely to have read the book, so they’ll be receptive to:
    • Buying the next book
    • Finding out more about the series (and maybe buying other books, beyond just the next one in the series, possibly because they started at #3 and want to go back to #1 and #2, or because they enjoyed #1 so much they want to go on a reading binge and stock up with #2, #3 and #4 as well. You don’t know. So, give readers ALL the options, which means giving readers LINKS to all the options.)
    • Signing up to your Readers Club.

And guess what? These things aren’t theoretical. They’re real. My conversion rates are awesome: people who buy one of my books are highly likely to buy another. And people who buy one of my books are highly likely to sign up to my Readers’ Club. That’s good for me and it’s good for them.

The best route to e-sales is simple, and twofold:

The single most important tool we have is an email list, because it allows us to contact committed past purchasers and gets them to make a purchase. That’s good in itself – sales are yummy – but because we can get them to make a wave of purchases over a 24-48 hour window, we can get a level of visibility (via Amazon bestseller lists & “you might like to know” emails) that we would never otherwise achieve. So one email-induced purchase probably yields 5 further purchases in addition.

Our second killer tool is to use the ebook itself as a platform to promote sales. Google made money because it figured out a way to allow advertisers to place a link-based ad in front of people at the exact moment they were thinking about whatever it was the advertiser was selling. Ebooks give us that precise platform and that bejewelled moment.

Better, actually. Much better. If you put “toner cartridges” into Google, you probably want to buy toner cartridges but you aren’t excited/sad/happy/moved, with the result that Google ads have a sadly functional quality to them. Not so with our ebook readers: they’ve just finished a book whose whole purpose is to change their mood. Assuming they didn’t hate the book, they are elated, excited, even a little bit in love . . . and we couldn’t possibly have a better moment to get something from that reader: an email address, or money, or both.


Rant over.

And tell me, Oh Tweedy Spirit, does all this not sound a little bit exciting? And even – dare I say it – a little bit obvious?

The truth is that it IS obvious. The only reason anyone could ever think otherwise is that older-school publishers sometimes have this insane tendency to think of ebooks as books.

They’re not books. They’re websites.

They’re not books. They’re websites.

They’re not books. They’re websites.

And if you want to check out more resources, then can we recommend also these useful links:

Some helpful design suggestions from Fizzle; ditto from those folks at Hubspot; and some really helpful templates from the Master (aka, Joel Friedlander.)

So long, Spirit, and have fun.


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