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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.