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Writing as a Business: Wide Distribution vs. Amazon Exclusivity

Smashwords challenged the publishing industry when Mark Coker launched it in 2007. By 2010, the company was profitable, and was distributing books not only on its own website, but through partnerships with Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Sony.

Apple was also in the self-publishing game, and Amazon offered Kindle Direct Publishing options to authors starting in 2007.  Apple was the first to offer authors a 70% royalty under certain conditions, and Amazon KDP soon followed. Compared to traditional deals which often offered print royalties from 4-7% to new authors, this was a big deal.

Then Amazon, as per their usual mode of operation, started Kindle Select. This platform requires that authors offer titles exclusively on Amazon in exchange for certain benefits: marketing options are one of them, including the ability to run 5 free days of promotion, and 7 day Kindle countdown deals. The books in the exclusive program are also offered in the Kindle Unlimited program, a program where readers pay a certain amount each month to read as many books as they would like.

The payout from Kindle Unlimited varies quite a bit from author to author, as they get paid according to a “pages read” formula based on a monthly global fund set by Amazon. Many authors find great success with this program: many think it damages author earnings overall.

Thus arises the controversy. Do you distribute your book as widely as possible, making it available on several different platforms? Which ones matter the most? Should I use something like Smashwords or should I upload my work to each outlet directly? Or do you offer your work exclusively on Amazon through their distribution network? We’ll tackle each of these in turn, and examine the costs and benefits of each method.

Wide Distribution

It sounds like a great idea. Getting your work in front of as many people as possible seems like the logical answer, and for many authors it is. The reality is that most author sales come from Amazon: they are the largest book distributor in the world. However, number two is iBooks through Apple.

Smashwords

There are, of course, several ways to get your work on all of these platforms. One of them mentioned already, and one of the oldest platforms is Smashwords. Smashwords was formed by Mark Coker after he and his wife shopped around a manuscript, made all of the changes requested by publishing houses, only to have it still be rejected. They knew they had a fan base, they just needed a platform to reach them.

So Mark went to work in 2005 on developing his own platform and launched it in 2007. It is still one of the largest eBook distribution platforms in the world. Smashwords also helps writers distribute their work across other platforms like Kobo, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and library systems in exchange for a small royalty.

They used to also distribute books to Amazon KDP, until Amazon changed their ability to do so, and created a more exclusive platform. More on that in a moment. Smashwords is unique in a number of ways. They were the first to offer e-book distribution in an affordable way. Mark offers tons of free advice from how to successfully format and upload your eBook to marketing and other advice for authors.

Smashwords Alternatives

Of course, Smashwords was not the only company to form an aggregate for distributing books. Draft2Digital, Lulu, and other self-publishing platforms soon followed. Ingram Spark is another, and many of these have one primary advantage over Smashwords: they offer print on demand services as well.

For this post, we will be talking primarily about e-books, since they are the bread and butter of most fiction writers at the moment. Print books are more expensive, harder to distribute, and you make less money on them. However, you do make money on them, and having them as an option is great.

Individual Uploads

The other option you have for wide distribution is to upload your books to all of the different outlets where you want it placed one at a time. There are pros and cons to this option.

Pro: You’ll get the highest royalty from each. Smashwords and any other book distributor takes a percentage of your sales to cover their costs of placing the books for you. This is usually a percentage or royalty rather than being a flat fee.

This means of course that the more books you sell, the more they make, which can be a good thing, as they will help you market your work. However, this does mean less money in your pocket at the end of the day.

Pro: Your book will be in exactly the right format for each platform. Every eBook format and platform has its quirks, and if you do individual uploads, you can be sure that your work meets the requirements for every site and distributor.

Con: It’s time-consuming and can be complicated. Just as knowing your book will be right for each platform due to each one’s quirks, you will have to deal with those quirks when uploading files. Don’t get me wrong, once you have done it a few times it does get easier. However, there is still a time cost involved, and you need to factor that into your schedule and your business plan.

Pros: Better metadata. If you upload on individual platforms, you get better search meta data on each, making your book easier to discover on that platform. This metadata also translates to Google and other search engines when potential readers are looking for your work.

Advantages of Wide Distribution

The advantage of distributing your book widely is that those who do not use Amazon for whatever reason can find your book in a number of places. These can include digital library collections. eBook platforms popular in other countries, and those who use iBooks and Apple products exclusively.

While Amazon is number one in book distribution, the second distributor is iBooks. Depending the genre of your work and how you do your marketing, by not having your work there and on Kobo you could be missing a large segment of customers.

However, some research shows that while not everyone uses Amazon, many people who use iBooks and Kobo also use Kindle apps to get books that are exclusive to Amazon. We’ll discuss this option next.

It’s simply important to understand that wide distribution means you can reach a larger variety of readers. You never know when one of those readers will become a “superfan” and spread the word about your books far and wide.

Even missing one reader could potentially be costly. So why would anyone want to distribute exclusively through Amazon? There are some valid reasons, and we will talk about those next.

Amazon Exclusivity

After reading the above section, you may wonder why anyone would choose to distribute exclusively anywhere. The reason is simple” Amazon offers some unique benefits for authors who do so.

What are those unique benefits, and why do they matter? Here is a quick rundown.

KDP Select

Kindle Direct Publishing is the platform authors use to load their work on to Amazon, and it is abbreviated KDP. KDP Select is the program by which authors offer their product only through Amazon for a period of at least 90 days, and in exchange get certain privileges other authors and most publishers who do wide distribution do not get.

Free Days: You can offer your book for a certain number of days in each 90 day period. Offering a book for free, especially if you have a series or other books for readers to find, can boost rankings and sales over the long run. This includes the book you offer for free or your other work.

You can also offer Kindle Countdown Deals: these are deals where your book starts at one price and changes over the course of a few days. These are easy deals to market, and coupled with good social media and Amazon ads can net you some good short term sales and long term exposure.

Your books will be automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s Netflix-like book lending program whereby readers pay a monthly fee and can read as many books as they would like.

 

Kindle Unlimited

I’m treating this as a separate topic because some authors love it, some hate it, and there are very few in between. The way it works is this: every month, Amazon sets a global fund for authors whose work is in Kindle Unlimited. The author gets paid according to the number of pages read. It used to be after a certain percentage of the book was read, but authors of longer works complained that readers would have to read more of their work for them to get paid the same amount of money as other authors.

As with any system like this, there have been those who have cheated it by having bots read books for them, hiring click farms in India and other countries where “readers’ click through books quickly to get tons of page reads.

Amazon cracked down on this, but unfortunately, many legitimate authors who were not cheating also got in trouble when they had sudden uptakes in pages read. This only added fuel to the controversy.

Many authors argue that this system is hurting author incomes rather than helping them. Authors who are well-known get more page reads and make more money. Not to mention those still gaming the system who take money away from the fund, lowering the amount available for other authors.

Others claim Kindle Unlimited payments have boosted their income, and hail the program as an innovative way for authors to earn more. The system seems similar to that of Spotify or Apple Music. For some the rewards will be great: for those who do not get pages read or “listens” as in the case of musicians, the system will feel broken.

Either way, Kindle Unlimited is an option avid readers love, and authors are divided on. Amazon calls it a benefit for authors in the KDP Select program, and it can be, with proper marketing support.

Conclusion

Wide distribution vs. Amazon exclusives has been a debate for several years now. Amazon proponents like Hugh Howey will tell you that this “all my eggs in one basket” approach works, because at any time an author can move their eggs should they become dissatisfied.

Others say this is foolish: missing readers on other platforms is simply not worth the price, even if the benefits are legitimate.

Ultimately, the answer is up to you: do you want your work many places, or can you make an Amazon exclusive work for you?

We will look at some specific case studies and experiments a little later in the series, but for now, let me know what you think. Comment below, and share your experiences.

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Why I Bother to Write Fiction at All

There are times when I realize fiction is really hard work. It is perhaps the most time consuming of things that I do in the writing and publishing world, and if you work out the pay by the word or the hour, there are plenty of other ways to make more money writing.

At the same time, I love it. I am a born storyteller. Every article I write, every blog I post is a story of some sort. Even marketing materials take the reader on a journey, if a short one. The reader has a problem, and the writer leads them on the journey to solve it, even if it is as mundane as someone with dirty clothes looking for the best laundry soap to get them clean.

But every now and then, a reader or reviewer reaches out, and when you hear or read that your words, the story you have told, touches someone, you pause and realize those words, those touched lives, are why you do what you do. It is worth all of the pain, the hours of writing and editing that go into producing a book.

It happened to me again recently, when I got a notification of a five-star review of my Kindle short, The Angel. The reviewer said simply this:

“I’ve suffered several tragedies in the last few years. I thought I had dealt with each loss in turn. Yet Lambert’s prose is so deceptively innocent that shines a light on any darkness lurking on the fringes of your consciousness. I found the message of The Angel stayed with me for days.”

Her words warmed my heart. They made me smile in all the right ways. There was more, too. You can read her full review here. https://findingmeinwords.wordpress.com/2017/02/27/the-angel/

I write stories so not only will they be read, but the world will be changed for the better because they have been told. I have not always been successful in achieving that goal. Sometimes a story is just a story.

But The Angel was different. It was special to me and still is. When I read Hans Christian Anderson’s poem “The Dying Child” I knew it had to be a part of this.

When we read, we do so for many reasons. We want to feel, we want to escape, we want to travel to other places. But sometimes if I can make you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, if the light that shines from my stories can dispel the darkness in you at all, it is worth it.

That is why I write stories. That is why I bother to write fiction at all. Because words can change the world, even if only the world of one person, and only for a moment.

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Write, Revise, Publish, Market, Repeat

Okay, I have been a slacker myself. I have excuses: the last year has been hard. Divorce, moving three times, all of that jazz you may have read about my life on this blog and elsewhere. Not to mention that now I have been planning a wedding. My soon to be wife has a rare disease that has resulted in hospitalizations and unexpected expenses, things that have made our financial situation challenging at best. You can read more about that here (and there are even ways to help, should you so desire).

That’s just what they are, though. Excuses. The deal with writing is simply this: there are three steps, production, distribution, and marketing. Let any one of those three go, and your work will not sell as well. I know I have shared these before.

Wait a minute before we get too far though: there is another aspect to this. If writing is your only source of income, you may face some significant challenges, especially at first. So I do recommend you look at the Three Legged Stool method for your “career.” Have more than one source of income.

Good Advice

Production

What is production of a book? Writing and revising are what you do. Editing, sourcing a book cover, and formatting are all tasks you should hire out. You need an editor, because you become word blind to the faults in your own work, although there are tools you can use to self-edit, and save yourself some money on editing.

As to book covers and formatting: you can learn to format your own work if you are going to self-publish, but unless you have a background in graphic design, or you have certain talents, creating your own covers is challenging at best.

The other aspect is this: if you do everything yourself, your project becomes very narcissistic and that shows. Collaboration makes every project better. Let artists do their art, editors do their work, and your work will be better for it. Enough of that soapbox. That is something I can cover in a blog post later.

Distribution

So what about Kindle Select, and making your work exclusive to Amazon? Does it work? Good question, and there are as many opinions as there are writers. While I believe Kindle Select may work for some short term gain, I believe in the long run having your work as widely available as possible is the best move for authors.

This means you either need to become adept at uploading your work to various different sites, you need to hire an aggregator who is, or use a service like Smashowrds, or you need to find a publisher.

As to whether to self-publish or hire a publisher, that will be covered later as well: for now just know that self-publishing is a lot of work, but gives you a lot of control, but is a pay now method of publishing. You need money to invest. Using a publisher (I recommend a small press, rather than the traditional Big 5) is a pay later method. Initially you are investing someone else’s money in your work, and pay it back later in the form of royalties.

No matter what way you go, you must treat this section, and all sections of your writing career, as a business. You need to look at what you, or someone else invested, and then look at how many books you need to sell to recover that cost. Make no mistake, just because a publisher invests in you once does not mean they will do so again if your sales do not ever cover their costs. In other words if your book does not pay out for them, you can hardly expect them to throw more money at your next book.

write for foodMarketing

This is a beautiful transition to marketing. You must market yourself and your work all the time. But as an author, if you just blast “buy my book” promos all the time, you will join a crowd of voices no one is listening too. You must develop relationships over trying to develop sales. Relationships with other authors are great, but relationships with readers is what sells books.

It is easy to do this with social media, it is also equally easy to screw it up. There are some great tips at Bad Red Head Media, Novel Publicity, and through many groups online, from K-boards to LinkedIn and Facebook. If you did not do the free Bad Red Head Media 30 day author challenge, either because you did not hear about it or didn’t think it would be worth your effort, you missed out.

As with other aspects of your writing, you need to pay for promotions. Pay people who know how to market to help you market your work, even if just to learn from them how to better do it yourself. Pay for ads, whether that is with the golden BookBub, E-Reader News Today, Kindle Daily Deals, or whatever method you desire to use.

And for God’s sake, blog, and guest blog. Don’t miss a great opportunity to communicate with your readers, other authors, and your community in general. You are the world’s foremost expert on your book, your writing methods, and what has and has not worked for you. Share them, and we all win.

Each of these topics could go on for hours, and at some point I just might. But for now take this away. Your writing is a business. You need to write, revise, publish, market, and repeat. The more material you have out there, the more you market and people know your name and brand, and the more often you do all of it, the more success you will have as an author.

Artbusiness

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Five Stars: Parallax View

5155kx8aTKL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Book Description:

It’s spring, 1987, late in the Cold War, and CIA clandestine operations agent Tracie Tanner is tasked with what should be a relatively simple mission: deliver a secret communique from Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

After smuggling the document out of East Germany, Tracie believes she is in the clear. She’s wrong. A shadowy cabal is work, people who will stop at nothing to prevent the explosive information contained in the letter from reaching the White House.

Soon, Tanner is knee-deep in airplane crashes and murder, paired up with a young Maine air traffic controller and on the run for their lives, unsure who she can trust at CIA, but committed to completing her mission, no matter the cost…

My Review:

 One thing you can always count on with an Allan Leverone thriller is that it will pull you in, and you won’t ba able to stop reading until you reach the last page. This thriller is no exception. You can’t help but care about the characters, and turn the next page to find out what happens next. For a little while you’re transported back in time and you believe that a lone air traffic controller dying of a brain tumor and a wounded CIA agent may just prevent World War Three. But until the very last moment, you have no idea the sacrifice it might require.

Another hit from an author that combines the tech-savy writings of Clancy with the thrill rides suspense of Koontz. If you haven’t read his stuff, and you aren’t following this guy, you’re missing out on one of the next big superstars of the thriller genre. Five stars without a single reservation.

Buy Parallax View here and check out Allan’s other work here.

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