Aggregator or formatter -- or both?
Companies that specialize in e-publishing fall into two major camps: aggregators and formatters. Formatters will accept your content as a document or text file -- or pretty much anything reasonable -- and translate it into one or multiple e-formats, depending on what you're willing to pay. They do the hard work for you; that's the whole point. Not all will accept PDF files, and those that do will charge extra for the additional work the conversion entails, as explained above.
Photos and illustrations are okay, of course; most companies will accept up to a certain number of JPGs, GIFs, etc., as part of the basic fee and then charge extra for anything over that number. (That goes for the number of pages, too; the maximums vary by company.)
For their part, aggregators will take a manuscript you have already formatted (or that you've paid a formatter to do) and submit it to multiple e-stores (Apple, Amazon, etc.) on your behalf. They then get a percentage of your royalties; this is on top of any percentage that the bookseller itself gets.
Some will also, if you wish, handle marketing, manage your metadata, deal with the online booksellers (including tracking any revenue) and get an ISBN number for you, which is recommended even if you're not planning on charging for the book. Not every aggregator provides the same menu of services, however. Some aggregators also function as formatters and vice-versa. It's a confusing world out there, so choose carefully.
One example of an aggregator is BookBaby, which works with self-published authors, defined as people who do not have an agent or a signed contract with a publisher (some aggregators work only with agented writers or with publishing houses that have a printed book they want to convert into an e-format). BookBaby will accept content in Word files or as a PDF.
Smashwords, another firm that has become well-known as an aggregator and e-book distribution platform, also works with self-published authors. Smashwords does not accept PDFs but does accept Word files. It then puts your manuscript through its Meatgrinder converter to make the e-book available in different e-formats.
So it pays to look around to see which aggregator/formatter best suits your needs. For example, if you wish your book to go to the Japanese or Chinese markets, Apple requires it to be in ePub3 format (as opposed to ePub2), so your aggregation/formatting partner must know how to do that. Not all do.
Also, payment options vary. BookBaby, for instance, offers a variety of pricing packages. A Standard Package translates your text to both ePub and MOBI formats, provides a proof for your approval prior to distribution to booksellers and includes some other benefits for $99 plus 15% commission. If you opt for the $249 Premium Pack, you get all the same benefits as the previous package, and you get to keep all your revenue; BookBaby takes no cut.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.