Whenever I talk to people about e-publishing, the first thing I say is, "It's easy!" And it is, in a way. I can't think of many ways to make the actual act of e-publishing easier: all you have to do is fill out a webform or two. The hardest part is troubleshooting file upload issues.
But that's not actually what we talk about when we talk about e-publishing, as I was reminded recently by two excellent blogs; Iain Broome's Write for Your Life and Chuck Wendig's post, "The Precarious Portentious Perils of Self-Publishing." They're both absolutely right: e-publishing isn't "easy," and just like traditional publishing, it must be done right in order to succeed. I even say it myself, over and over in my tweets and my e-publishing e-book: being a successful e-publisher necessitating making a lifestyle change for me. Easy? Yeah, right.
So let me correct my vocabulary here. Putting e-books for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc., is easy. Just browse around the Kindle store and you'll see exactly how easy it is--anyone with two minutes can upload their own version of Pride and Prejudice or any other of the hundreds of thousands of FREE public domain books (ie, books whose authors died before 1910) and attempt to make money by convincing readers to buy them. There are no creative quality checks that I'm aware of in place on any e-bookstore. I'm assuming that since you're taking the time to research e-publishing, though, you're not one of those people: you have actual, personal, creative work that you want to give to the world.
What else will you find in e-bookstores besides public domain books? You'll find someone's NaNoWriMo novel that they just finished two weeks ago and haven't reread once alongside a memoir that a respected journalist crafted for ten years. You'll find beautiful covers, carefully written descriptions, and professionally-done edits alongside something with an internet-generated cover and content that didn't even get the benefit of spell check.
The first--and probably, the hardest--step of e-publishing is to figure out where your work lies on this scale. Take a few long steps back and really examine your works. Since there's no creative moderation, we as e-publishing authors need to self-moderate. Let's face it: there are some things that simply don't deserve to see the light of day. I have a pretty fat folder of stories--even novels--that I'd be embarrassed to publish. Yes, embarrassed. When I wrote them, I thought they were the best things ever, but time tells me very differently. As Chuck Wendig points out, the can-do spirit of e-publishing can make you feel like you should e-publish as soon as you've finished something. Resist the temptation. Let it age--weeks, months, even years--as long as need be until you have enough perspective to really know if it's good enough to e-publish.
Once you've found something you'll be proud of to put your name on in e-bookstores, be completely honest with yourself about what it needs. As crazy as it may sound, I actually want my work to be professionally edited; I think that everything--everything--can benefit from a good edit. If you don't know an editor, this will mean finding a reputable freelance editor and paying them to look at your work (this isn't too hard--there are a lot of freelance editors out there. It can be as easy to find one as looking on Craigslist. Ask for references and samples. The hardest part about this is probably giving yourself permission to pay someone else to read your work, which goes counter to what you really want to happen). Once you get their edits, you have to put aside your pride once again and look at their comments and suggestions. Do they make sense? Can you do what they suggest without changing the fundamental story you want to tell? If so, then make the changes.
Next, come up with a great description. You can ask your editor for help with it if you're not inspired yourself--or have a friend or family member, someone who's read your piece and loved it, give you some suggestions. You want to make it compelling, completely free of grammar and spelling errors. And most importantly, it must actually make sense--and give the reader a real sense of what they're going to purchase.
Besides edits, a cover is the only other place where I think you should pay money for anything while e-publishing. Look at the e-books in your e-bookstore of choice. And then go to a bricks and mortar bookstore, and look at the book covers. How many bad ones do you see in each place? I don't just mean a color or typeface you dislike; something truly unprofessional and hideous. Chances are, you'll see no such covers in a bookstore, and too many to count in an e-bookstore. Readers really do judge books by their covers--sometimes they're the only thing they can judge them by. So make yourself a good cover, if you have enough technical know-how to do so. If you don't, admit it and pay someone else to make a cover for you rather than attempting something with clip art. It will pay off in the end.
After all that deliberating and decision-making? Well, then there's the formatting, but that's a topic for another day; and I promise, it's not as scary as it sounds.
Being honest enough to assess the needs of your work is tough, especially when the e-publishing bug bites. Just remember, the e-book market grows every day. Take your time to produce a quality work, and you'll find readers for it. If every conscientious, professional author makes an effort to produce professional-quality content, it will stand out. And maybe by doing so we can work together to change the quality bar for all e-books.