When it comes to selling ebooks, Amazon is by far the market leader. According to Publishers Weekly, “Apple and Barnes & Noble remain Amazon’s two largest competitors, although they trail Amazon by a wide margin.” However, millions of readers across the world still turn to other sellers like Apple’s iBooks and Barnes & Noble to buy books.
For an author trying to figure out this business—especially for the first time—it can be confusing and overwhelming to find out how and why to sell your book on different platforms. Sometimes it seems easier sticking to what you know. But, by eliminating all the other players and exclusively publishing on Amazon, you are essentially closing the door to many potential readers. What does this mean for the self-published author? It means that Amazon isn’t the only game in town when it comes to considering who can sell books for you.
In order to demystify these options, we decided to let you hear directly from book distributors Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Kobo so you can decide what’s best for you and your next book. You may be surprised to hear that none of these distributors think you should say goodbye to Amazon publishing. Instead, they advocate broadening your horizons.
In this Q&A, we explore what Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Kobo have to say about what makes each platform unique and how you can see more success using their platform in addition to Amazon. Also, take note of their best insider tips and tricks to navigating the world of indie publishing.
Here is just a little snippet from each of these distributors.
“Authors should spend more time writing and less time tinkering with administrative tasks or tinkering with the upload requirements at multiple retailers.” – Smashwords
“Here’s the painful reality of ‘going wide’—it’s a long game. The advantage of being exclusive to Amazon comes largely in immediate gains…. But it’s a short-term strategy, and the most successful authors recognize that they should be planning for long-term.” – Draft2Digital
“The three ‘secrets’ to self-publishing success are: Practice, Patience and Persistence. Don’t drop in and out. Keep your titles available while continuing to write new material. Keep writing, keep practicing your craft, be patient because it takes time for people to grow a following on any platform.” – Kobo
Read on to get detailed answers to your pressing questions.
Question: What Makes Your Platform Unique? Why Should Authors Sign Up With You?
Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks. Since 2008, we’ve helped over 120,000 authors and small, independent presses release over 415,000 titles. Dozens and dozens of our authors have become international bestsellers and have hit the bestseller lists of traditional media like the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal.
Smashwords’ global retailer distribution network also includes distribution to public libraries through our partnerships with OverDrive, Baker & Taylor Axis 360, Odilo and Askews & Holts.
We make it fast, free and easy to publish and distribute your ebook, and we provide free resources to help guide you along the way to becoming a more professional author. These resources include the Smashwords Style Guide (how to format your original manuscript to prepare it for ebook conversion); Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (41 tips to help authors reach more readers); and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (reveals 30 best practices of the bestselling indie ebook authors). We also provide free video tutorials.
Books sold at the Smashwords store earn the author about 80 percent of the list price as their royalty. Books sold at one of our retail partner stores will earn the author 60 percent of list as their royalty.
Although Smashwords does operate a retail store at Smashwords.com—where readers can download books in all of the most popular formats so that our authors’ books can be enjoyed on any device—95 percent or more of your sales will come from our global retail partners. Our biggest value to authors is through our distribution, though I believe some authors think Smashwords is only a retailer.
‘Going wide’ is a topic Draft2Digital is addressing a lot recently, especially with the introduction of their new Universal Book Links (UBLs). A lot of authors are struggling with the question of should they or shouldn’t they, when it comes to branching out from Amazon. The biggest reason Draft2Digital created UBLs as part of their offering through Books2Read.com: authors can use a single URL to promote their work, and Books2Read finds every store where their book appears online. Meaning readers only have to click on one link, and they’ll be taken to the store of their choice. Even if the author is exclusive to Amazon, the link uses globalization to direct readers to the regional Amazon store of their choice.
Draft2Digital’s uniqueness comes largely from their relationships. One of the first things most authors notice when comparing them to the competition is that they aren’t necessarily in all of the same sales channels. There’s some crossover, but there are also some missing faces. They are constantly expanding vendor relationships to include new sales channels. However, they are selective when choosing distribution partners because they are a company founded by authors, and they know exactly how much authors can struggle in all of this.
A founding principle of the company boils down to this: Find the biggest pain points for authors, and eliminate them. And if it’s at all possible (and it usually is), do it for free.
That’s what makes us different than any other distributor. We have authors on staff who know the struggle to find good resources and tools, without busting our budgets. So we want to provide those resources and tools. We generate our revenue entirely from a percentage of royalties, and we avoid charging authors directly for services, unless there’s just no alternative. That means we only succeed if the author succeeds—and that’s the right business philosophy for everyone.
Kobo Writing Life was built for writers by writers. We have the world’s best dashboard for easy and simple analytics in understanding two things: 1) where in the world your books are selling and 2) approximately how much you’ve earned. (Compare that to the dozens of ways you have to re-filter your info on the Kindle dashboard just to see what’s selling and in what territory. It’s truly a feat of mathemagic to try to determine what your royalties are actually going to be. Lots of confusion and hidden costs too (such as the hidden processing costs for payment which means you’re NOT really making 70% even though you think you are.
KWL offers authors 70 percent for items prices $2.99 USD and higher. WITH NO CAP. IE, you don’t have to limit your price to $9.99 USD. We still pay 70 percent no matter how high you price. This allows authors to create larger box sets that provide value for readers without the author losing too much money in the process. Also, Kobo customers care more about QUALITY than bargain basement 99 cent novels. That’s a huge thing that makes for a longer term sustainable opportunity for writers.
Also, at the lower end, we pay 45 percent (between 99 cents and $2.99) rather than 35 percent
Authors should understand that Kobo sells into 190 countries and also partners with different retailers. In Canada, our ebooks sell directly on Kobo.com but also on www.chapters.indigo.ca – our Canadian retail partner (think of them like a “Barnes and Noble” in Canada. In the US we’ve partnered with the ABA so Kobo ebooks are also available through hundreds of indie bookstores across the US. In the UK we’re partnered with WHSmith and Waterstones. In France it’s FNAC. In Italy it’s Mondadori. In the Netherlands it’s BOL.
Most KWL authors sell about 75 percent of their titles through Canada and Australia. The breakdown is different for different authors, but Canada and Australia are two of the larger markets – and they’re markets that Amazon doesn’t have nearly the same foothold in. Compare Kobo sales in Canada to Kindle and you’ll see that Kobo (born in Canada and that’s our largest territory) has as much of the Canadian market as Kindle has of the US – I mentioned that Canada is our largest territory – but of note — Japan is now becoming a larger market than Canada – not hard to imagine given the population there and the fact our mother company Rakuten is headquartered there). Authors’ global sales through Kobo Writing Life are where they find new customers in new territories outside of the ones that Amazon is large in.
Question: How Can Authors Find More Success Using Your Platform?
Authors should spend more time writing and less time tinkering with administrative tasks or tinkering with the upload requirements at multiple retailers.
Smashwords’ biggest value to authors is through our distribution network. This is a HUGE time saver for authors. Imagine if you wanted to update the metadata on five of your books. You would have to go to each retailer, one by one, to update that information for each book. With a distributor, you update the metadata once and you’re done. The distributor does the heavy lifting for you. The same is true if you need to upload a revised edition of your book. If you work with a distributor, you upload the revision once and you’re done. If you decide to work directly with the retailers, you have to upload the revision one by one at every store and contend with every retailer’s unique formatting and upload requirements.
Authors who are enjoying the most success with us are distributing broadly and not opting out of any retail channels. As a distributor, we have a unique vantage point which enables us to see how each of your books are performing at each of the retailers. By contrast, the merchandising managers at the retailers can only see how books are performing at their specific store. When the merchandising managers at the retailers ask us to recommend titles for them to consider for upcoming promotions, we can quickly see how authors’ books are performing. If an author has opted out of some of our retail channels, we can’t see how her books are performing and therefore can’t make a recomendation. On the other hand, for an author who’s opted in to every channel, if we see that the title is selling well across multiple channels, then we can recommend that author’s book with confidence. We just responded to a request for romance titles from the mercandising managers at iBooks and were pleased to see that dozens of titles were accepted to run in the promotion.
Here’s the painful reality of ‘going wide’—it’s a long game.
The advantage of being exclusive to Amazon comes largely in immediate gains. For zero overhead, you can participate in the KU fund, and get paid just for the normalized page reads that come through. We’ll never argue that this isn’t a boon for authors. It is. But it’s a short-term strategy, and the most successful authors recognize that they should be planning for long-term.
Most of the authors I know want to be read by more than just a thousand or so folks who happen to own Kindles or read on Kindle apps. They want to have their work read and loved by people all over the planet. And sad to say, but Amazon only has 11 or so regional marketplaces at the moment. That covers a lot of countries worldwide, but not all of them.
There are huge emerging markets in regions such as Africa and Indonesia, where technological evolution jumped from stone age to smartphones almost overnight. Now we have English-speaking people in underdeveloped nations ravenous for information and stories. They’re consuming everything they can get onto their devices. And that means that those of us who are getting to those markets first will have first-mover advantage. There are entire nations who have never head of Stephen King or John Grisham or J.K. Rowling. To them, any given indie author could be the biggest megastar they can imagine.
So for success—what authors need to do more of is think strategically and globally. They could go dig up tons of research about these emerging markets—that would help. But the shortcut to that is to use Draft2Digital to go find those markets for you, which we do.
Authors should stop thinking in terms of “How do I funnel more people to my Amazon book page?” and start thinking in terms of “How to introduce my work to a few million brand new readers in emerging markets around the world?”
The three “secrets” to self-publishing success are: Practice, Patience and Persistence. Don’t drop in and out. Keep your titles available while continuing to write new material. Keep writing, keep practicing your craft, be patience because it takes time for people to grow a following on any platform. And keep at it; even when times are tough and things are slow. The industry and sales go through different waves, different highs and lows. Being patient and being in for the long haul and continuing to write and produce top notch professional material are the keys to success.
One of the most common complaints from authors is that they only sell on Kindle and no where else. Interestingly when you check their websites and social media and newsletters you see them directly all of their links to Amazon. Then they wonder why Amazon is always the largest platform for them. Little bit of self-fulfilling prophecy happening there. Authors should include links to all the platforms and let customers decide where they want to buy.
What’s Your Top Advice for Authors Seeking to Make More Sales?
First, realize there is no single magic bullet to help you suddenly become a bestseller. Everything that you do right, every incremental improvement that you make can have an impact on your sales over time. The top three pieces of advice I’d give are:
- Have your books professionally edited. Books break out and become bestsellers based on reader word-of-mouth more than anything else. Don’t thwart your chances of success by not having your book professionally edited.
- Hire a professional book cover designer. As a reader, whether you realize it or not, every time you enter an online or offline bookstore, you’re rejecting dozens of books until that one cover catches your eye and pulls you in. Your cover image is both marketing and content, and must provide a promise to the reader you’re attempting to reach. Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Ask yourself what it is they’re looking for, and deliver the message through your cover image that this is THE book for them.
- Write more books. Every book you write provides the opportunity for you to hone your craft. The more you write, the better you will become. Just as important, every book you release affords you the opportunity to cross promote your other existing titles. Once a reader finishes one of your books, they’re probably delighted they just finished a fantastic story, but they also may be wondering what they’ll read next. Don’t squander that opportunity. Ensure that backmatter of all your existing titles includes a list of all your available books and links back to your Smashwords author page and/or personal website.
Every year I have the privilege of attending publishing conferences around the country (and occasionally outside the country). As such, I also have the opportunity to listen to bestselling indie authors tell their audiences how they became successful. I’ve never heard of a bestselling indie author doing absolutely everything on her own. The two tasks that all bestselling indie authors tend to agree upon, in terms of who you’ll need to hire, include a professional editor and a professional cover designer. Big NY publishers are adept at finding good books and turning them into great books. If you self-publish, you’re taking on that responsibility.
There are two pieces of advice every author gets for improving sales: Build a mailing list and write more books. People groan hearing these, because they hear them all the time, and also because they are a lot more complicated than they appear. But that’s the start. That’s the general advice.
The specific advice, at least for Draft2Digital, is to start using our new (and free) Universal Book Links as part of your marketing push, and get yourself into as many markets as possible. Then start focusing your marketing on hitting those hot new emerging markets. Take out targeted Facebook ads, Goodreads ads, and Twitter ads, and aim them at these regions. Do your research and find out how regional tastes run, and write some books specifically to target those markets, if you can. And if you can’t, then craft your book descriptions and ad materials so that your book will appeal to those markets. Writing to market will make it much easier for you to appeal to these emerging readers.
These are all long-term strategies, by the way. It’s likely you wouldn’t see mega sales within days of releasing a book in Africa or Indonesia or anywhere else. It will take some time, and some work—mostly in terms of promotion and marketing. But if you’re continuing to produce new books as you do this, eventually all you’ll need is a tiny spark to get a big flame.
Think about it this way: If you have one or two books, and suddenly German readers discover you, they will really enjoy reading your stuff, but then have nowhere else to go. But you have ten, twenty, thirty books (or more, go nuts!), suddenly your revenue is increasing exponentially. There’s more of you to be discovered, and more of you to explore. Your discoverability goes up by bounds.
And if you’re using UBLs, you don’t have to spend extra time making different sets of marketing materials to target different regions. You can use one link, and that will let readers worldwide find your work in the store they prefer. If they don’t happen to have access to the Kindle store, then they’ll still be able to find you in hundreds of other places online.
To be successful outside of the US, authors need to think about their global pricing. Don’t just set a USD price and walk away. Optimize your pricing in the other currencies. KWL allows you to price in 8 currencies, and very soon you’ll be able to opt in pricing in 14 currencies; meaning you can make your price look good to localized customers.
Example: $3.99 USD auto converts to something ugly like $5.24. Authors who manually over-ride that to $5.99 aren’t just making the title look more appealing (a normal .99 price point) – but customers also round UP in their head to the next dollar anyway – it’s a pricing psychology thing – so a customer willing to spend $5.24 CAD on a book is just as likely to buy it at CAD – so you get an extra 70 cents in your pocket rounding UP to the nearest .99 Do the same in AUS and NZD.
Visit the KWL Blog for various different bits of advice from our team and from the global merchandising team.
Question: What Else Do You Want Authors to Know About You and Your Platform?
We think Amazon is the smartest in the business and would never encourage you to not have your books there. For the long-term success of your author career, however, I would encourage you not to go exclusive with any one retailer. Diversify. Make sure your books are everywhere readers go to find books. Use a distributor–even if it’s not Smashwords–to help you save time reaching a wider, global market.
Take advantage of ebook preorders. Even if your second book doesn’t yet have a finished cover image or a completed manuscript, at Smashwords you can set the book today as an “assetless” preorder and we’ll ship it for you to iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. You’ll need to upload the finished manuscript and cover art no later than 10 business days prior to your release date. At iBooks they’ll let you accumulate preorders for up to 12 months. Your readers reserve a copy of your book but their credit cards aren’t charged until release day. When it comes to bestseller lists at the retailers, they look at sales volume of course, yet the most recent sales are weighed more heavily than older sales. So, for example, sales in the last 12-24 hours are weighted more heavily in the bestseller algorithms than books that sold in the last two days or two weeks. Since iBooks allows you to accumulate up to 12 months worth of preorders, and each of those orders counts as a full sale, it’s like having a concentration of sales all hitting on day one which can cause a spike in your sales ranking.
Kobo and Barnes & Noble allow up to 8 months of preorder accumulation, I believe, and your book receives partial credit for your accumulated orders. Amazon does not grant credit for accumulated preorders, and as such your Amazon preorders can cannibalize your first day’s sales rank. Some authors choose to upload new releases to Amazon on release day so they can concentrate more sales on day one. Still, having an preorder listed at Amazon still provides the author the benefit of better advanced marketing leading up to release day.
The thing you most need to know about Draft2Digital, honestly, is that we’re right here in the trenches with you. Aaron Pogue, our President and one of our founders, is an indie published author. I (Kevin Tumlinson, Director of Marketing) am an indie published author. Most of our team is comprised of people who study self-publishing and the whole publishing industry day and night. We’re out there identifying exactly what pain points plague authors most, so that we can beat them up and give you back your lunch money.
Basically, we went and built the tools we need most to make it as authors, so we know other authors need them as well. And our focus is “make it easy.” Making things easy for authors is what we do, because we can’t stand how complicated things can get. We want to take care of all the garbage that weighs an author down, so they can focus on the one thing they really want to do: Write books.
We’re expanding into new sales channels all the time. We’re adding new cool feature all the time. We’re making new inroads and building new relationships within the industry, all the time. Everyone who is part of the D2D catalog today is seeing the growth of the company, and they’re going to benefit from all of it. There’s a reason why our authors are so loyal to us, once they come onboard—because we’re unfailing loyal to them.
I guess I could sum it up with one phrase then, aimed at every author, everywhere: You are not alone.
First thing that authors need to understand is that Amazon is, by far, the world’s largest online bookstore and has been in existence for about 20 years. They were (behind Sony) among the first to come to market with an ereader and in the market longer than anyone else, so it’s far easier to gain traction on the platform that everyone knows and goes to for “books” (even, though, of course, Amazon is an everything store and books were just one of the first items they started selling.) Gaining traction on other sites takes two important things that aren’t as common in a lot of indie authors (particularly those who give up easy and early and drop off the distributing wide path) – TIME and PATIENCE. It takes time to grow on different platforms.
Opting in and out of a platform doesn’t help, because you have to start from scratch each time you opt in – continually crippling your own development of an audience outside the one platform where you lay all your eggs.
The other thing that authors from the US are typically unaware of is what is happening in the publishing world outside our borders. One thing I would challenge authors to consider would be seeing WHERE their Kindle sales are coming from. IE, the .com Amazon site? Perhaps also the UK site. Nook, of course, is now just .com and US. But iBooks has a lot of reach outside the US (as well as inside), and Kobo has a lot of reach outside the US market as well.
So, consider, when looking at your sales, what platforms sell better in what countries. And if authors are fine to sell only within the US and perhaps the UK, then KDP Select might be an option. If they want more global exposure to other customers (and in markets that are growing now the way the US was 3 to 5 years ago), then go wide and include Kobo in your sales channels.