Amazon, Smashwords, Oh My: Where And How To Sell Ebooks
I've now self-published some reasonably successful books and I have more on the way. Big Plans, my friends. Big Plans! So it's time to write down Lessons Learned about Internet self-publishing. And of course, I welcome feedback and disagreement!
I've been obsessed with online communities and Internet culture since the scrawny 11-year-old version of Clarisse got her first dial-up connection (17 years ago!). Now I'm enjoying this opportunity to watch the self-publishing revolution. It's got a real sense of the Wild West about it. On the down side, Internet self-publishing can be somewhat confusing and challenging. On the up side, there are lots of opportunities for agile thinkers and self-promotional hustlers.
I have the sense that the field is both aggressively expanding and organizing itself, which means there are some Big Chances ... but in the years to come, it'll get harder for plucky newcomers to break in. So if you want to get in on self-publishing, you probably won't find a better time than now.
I promise to be just as detailed on this topic as I am on every topic I blog about. I'm basically writing the guide I wish I'd had when I decided to self-publish.
#1. Where to Self-Publish:
The upsides and downsides of Amazon, Smashwords, and other markets, circa 2012.
Note: If you have lots of spare cash, and if you trust other people to succeed at obsessively fiddly technical formatting tasks, then you can hire someone to prepare your book files. In fact, it doesn't cost that much -- from what I can tell, you can get plenty done for a few hundred dollars. So if you are not techie and you have money, then you might consider just hiring someone to format your ebook file and put it on the market for you. In that case, you can skip the rest of this entry, although it might be helpful for your understanding of the market.
However, if you are interested in getting deep into this industry and/or plan to do a lot of publishing, you're probably better off just learning how it works.
Formats and Platforms: Super Basic 101 Primer
An ebook "platform" is a word for the device that you read your ebooks on. For example, the Kindle e-reader is the Amazon platform; the iPad is its own platform, the Barnes & Noble Nook is another platform, etc. Kindles are dominant, and the non-Kindle ebook platforms have been jockeying for position. Depending on the website/platform, a self-published author usually gets around 60-90% of the cover price on each ebook sale.
A file "format" is a term for the type of file you are reading. For example, if you use Microsoft Word a lot, then you read your computer files in Word's DOC format. Another file format that you're accustomed to reading on your computer is PDF. When it comes to e-readers, there are a lot of different formats; the most popular is EPUB. EPUB is free and open, which the software geeks in the audience will know is great for development. It's used by almost all the big e-readers except Amazon Kindle, which uses its own format.
The ebook industry is not standardized. Wikipedia has a gloriously dense article detailing different ebook formats, which ruefully notes that the multiplicity has been compared to the Tower of Babel. (Those of you who remember how we used to watch movies on videotape -- you know, back in the Stone Age, before DVDs? -- may also remember the epic industrial Betamax vs. VHS battle. That's exactly what's happening now with ebooks, except messier and unresolved.)
Obviously, old-fashioned physical paper books are another possible "format." And now there are a bunch of great "print-on-demand" websites allowing you to make your book into a physical book that can be purchased, printed and shipped within days. Costs are higher, of course, because there's a physical product involved, but you don't have to pay those costs up front because they're deducted from each book sale -- and you can still release paper books at an amazingly reasonable price.
Where To Sell
Personally, I use CreateSpace to put out paper copies of my books, because CreateSpace is owned by Amazon ... which means that the physical books are then available on Amazon, too. There are other print-on-demand sites (and you could certainly put your book on more than one, if you feel like going through the effort). There are also debates about who puts out the highest-quality paperback. So far, however, I'm satisfied with CreateSpace.
If you've already got your own blog or website, then it's worth considering whether you want to sell ebooks directly to your readers -- thereby evading the percentage demanded by middlemen like Amazon. If you don't have the technical chops to code an Internet storefront for your website, I've heard about sites like E-Junkie that look like a fairly cheap way of "renting" one. I'm not doing this yet, but I might eventually.
When self-publishing ebooks, you absolutely must hit Amazon, because the vast majority of ebooks are sold for Amazon Kindle. Putting your ebook on Amazon is not optional. However, you don't necessarily want to waste time putting your book on every other e-reader website, since you might only grab a few sales per site. What to do?
Enter Smashwords, another e-publishing site. You put a book file on Smashwords, and Smashwords will convert the file into multiple formats. Also, if you do it properly, then Smashwords will distribute your book to other platforms through those websites. In other words, once you have Smashwords, you also have Barnes & Noble and Sony and lots of others. (Smashwords says they'll eventually distribute all their titles to Kindle too, but I wouldn't recommend waiting around for that to work out.)
I have to say, though, I've considered putting a separate file on all those different ebook websites rather than going through Smashwords. There would be advantages to doing so if I had the time and patience. Which brings me to:
How To Sell on Smashwords: Pros and Cons
Smashwords has a lot of up sides. Centralized distribution to so many websites is huge (although the book does have to meet their "Premium Distribution Guidelines," which you can read by clicking here). Smashwords also sells books directly through its website, and when books are sold through Smashwords.com, the site gives a really high percentage to authors (around 85%, minus some costs).
At Smashwords.com, buyers can grab ebooks in pretty much any format they want (seven are offered). However, if you -- the author -- don't want a specific format to be available, then you can restrict that format without restricting the others. For example, if I want my book available in PDF and EPUB but not Plain Text, then there's a checklist where I can pick PDF, EPUB, and not Plain Text.
Smashwords is, I believe, the hands-down best option for book buyers. When a customer buys a Smashwords book, they buy the right to download any of the formats. Suppose you buy my first book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, at Smashwords. Now that you've bought it, you have the right to download it in any or all of the available formats, whenever you want. Also, Smashwords doesn't use Digital Rights Management (DRM) on any books, which means that once you buy the file, there are no limits on what you can do with it. (More on DRM later.)
Personally, I always advise buyers to go through Smashwords for their own sake. Of course, again, I do get an especially hefty cut of my Smashwords sales.
Smashwords allows booksellers to create coupons, including coupons for 100% off. I love this. It's my primary method of sending copies to reviewers, because they can then easily download the book in whatever format they want. Since you can track the coupons in your Smashwords Dashboard, you can also track sales tactics via coupons.
Also, Smashwords allows booksellers to give away books for free, which Amazon doesn't; there are ways to give away free books on Amazon, but they're fiddly. (Basically, the most straightforward way to give a free book on Amazon is to list a book for sale at the lowest Amazon price, 99¢, and then list it for free elsewhere. Amazon matches prices that are lower than Amazon's, so they'll price-match your book down to free. But they also reserve the right to sell all their books at whatever price they want. So right now I'm having issues getting Amazon to continue giving away my short free sample of The S&M Feminist. It's annoying. Here's the free sample on Smashwords.)
Books are published on Smashwords almost immediately, assuming you formatted them correctly (hang on, we'll get to formatting). In contrast, Amazon takes around 24 hours to review books. (However, Smashwords takes longer than 24 hours to review books for Premium Distribution, so the secondary markets are slower than Amazon.) If you change a Smashwords book -- like fixing a typo -- the change takes effect immediately (but again, the Premium Distribution will lag). And people who already bought it can download the new version whenever they want (or the old version, if they prefer).
Amazon also takes about 24 hours to review changes to books, even if you're fixing one typo. This is forgivable, but what gets me is that if you make a change to your book, then Amazon makes it ridiculously difficult and annoying to allow customers to download the new version -- even if they already paid for the book. I discovered this when I tried to take advantage of the supposedly flexible ebook nature of Confessions, and add a new scene post-publication; I don't plan on ever updating an ebook again if I can help it, unless I feel like it's actually worth charging people the cover price all over again. (And, please note, I didn't try to do anything that Amazon's customer service hadn't told me I could do. They said it would be easy!)
The big downside of Smashwords is that they force you to put your book through the site as a Microsoft Word DOC file. Then they take the DOC file and convert it into all the different ebook formats they sell. You can't put the file through Smashwords in any other format. This means that even if you have your book in a nice clean EPUB already, you have to hack it up into a crappy DOC file and allow them to re-make it into an EPUB.
This is especially irritating for a nerdy user like me -- I hate Word -- but there are plenty of ways it's irritating for everyone. Most importantly, the conversion process is clumsy (they even call it Meatgrinder), and there are a lot of things you have no control over. (Yet paradoxically, you have to be ridiculously careful about the DOC formatting, because the slightest error can become a giant weird thing when fed through Meatgrinder.) If you're detail-oriented, then issues like being unable to insert page breaks where you want them will bug you. It certainly bugs me enough that I've considered making the EPUB file myself, then putting it on all those other sites separately. I don't like putting out a product that's less than professional.
However, after formatting my books for three different distributors -- Amazon, CreateSpace and Smashwords -- I've been wanting to move on to new projects. So Smashwords' clumsy Meatgrinder wins. For now. (I anticipate that I'll learn more about EPUBs at some point when I get to take a breather.)
Pro Tip: When you decide to publish on Smashwords, read the free Smashwords Style Guide first. Just read it all the way through. Think about what you've read. And only then should you start formatting. It's actually got some good tips even if you aren't publishing on Smashwords, too.
How To Sell on Amazon: Pros and Cons
Amazon is frustrating in that 800-pound-gorilla way. They're smart, but they can also get away with a lot of crap because they're gigantic and they dominate the market. I've had less-than-stellar experiences with their customer service -- I mentioned two already. And they're creepily monopolistic. (Of course, as JA Konrath recently pointed out, it's not unexpected for ebook retailers to do things like try to demand exclusive deals with authors, and other companies are getting away with as much as they can, too. Sidenote: if you're into publishing and you aren't reading Konrath, you should be.)
But hey. Amazon is just really big. As I noted before, it's not optional to sell through them, so might as well run with it. And authors get 70% on most sales (though not all -- some are 35%). That ain't shabby.
Amazon's books are sold in their own format ... but you can send them your book in a bunch of different formats. If you really want to use a DOC file (gross) then you can, and they'll make it into a Kindle ebook. But if you know HTML, then you can hand over some basic HTML, which is a lot more precise. (And if you don't know basic HTML and you want to do anything on the Internet, do yourself a favor and learn posthaste. It's easy, I promise. Friends recommend the free HTML-and-other tutorials from W3 Schools; I've been using them to brush up, and they're good.)
You can put an EPUB through the Amazon converter, too, although I don't know if that usually goes smoothly. Hopefully, Amazon will eventually use EPUBs, like everyone else. But what with the monopolistic thing, I'm not holding my breath: Amazon wants to use their own format because it forces buyers to stick with Amazon's devices.
There are a couple options with Amazon that I don't like, but I will tell you about them for the sake of completeness. One is that Amazon is experimenting with a "lending library" where Kindle users can borrow books for free. Amazon has created a fund to pay authors who put their books in the library, but they demand that authors give them exclusive publishing rights in exchange for the honor of participation! There have been a couple big success stories, but I've also heard from people who are stuck with the exclusivity and haven't gotten any extra money. So I'm not gonna do it. But you could. And let me know how it goes.
Another is that Amazon offers authors the option of putting Digital Rights Management (DRM) on their ebooks. So, if you want DRM on your ebooks, you can do that. I don't recommend it, though. In theory, DRM is a technical modification that makes it harder for an ebook to be pirated. In practice, there's no evidence that DRM reduces pirating, partly because it's fairly easy to "jailbreak" an ebook and distribute it underground anyway. DRM also makes it much harder for legitimate buyers to use their ebooks. This annoys many readers and makes them feel like they're being treated like criminals (because they are). There's lots more to say about this, but I'll stop there, because the Electronic Frontier Foundation has written it all for me.
Pro tip: When selling through Amazon, you should definitely set up a free Amazon Affiliate account. Then, whenever you link to your books, use one of your Affiliate links. You'll not only get paid for the book; you'll also get paid a commission for advertising the book. This is also one (vague) method for attempting to track where your sales are coming from, since you'll be able to tell roughly how many sales came through one of your links.
Final Note: Launch All Your Formats At Once
If you have the choice, I recommend releasing all your formats at the same time. When I first released Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, I was a newbie and I was racing against time because I wanted the book to be available when I appeared at the gigantic SXSW-Interactive conference. So I only put it out for Kindle. Within a couple of weeks, I also had it out on Smashwords, then later on CreateSpace.
In the process of doing all the reformatting, I found things I wanted to change. I'm an obsessive editor, obsessive to the point of dementia, but I had still missed stuff. If I'd done all the formats together, then the process would have functioned as multiple extra-obsessive editorial passes, which are always exciting. The book would have been much closer to perfect from Day 1 of its debut. And people wouldn't have complained about being unable to get it in their preferred format; I think that created bad feeling with some of my buyers.
In Conclusion: I hope this was helpful. Again, this is the guide I wanted to exist when I was first researching this topic, so I'm especially interested in feedback and extra questions if you've got 'em. If this was useful, then please spread the word! If you self-publish a book using my advice, then it'd be lovely if you mentioned me in your credits. And if you really want to help me out, you can always send me a donation or better yet, buy one of my books. I may write more about this on the future, too!
[This was originally published on my personal blog in August 2012.]