Friday, 12 October 2018

Publishing Platforms for the Indie Writer

A post and conversation on Twitter the other day has inspired this blog post's topic; as a self-publishing indie writer of erotica, which do I think is the better option for an author to take - publishing an e-book via multiple platforms, or opting into Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service, which requires exclusive availability?

I should preface this by saying; I am no expert on self-publishing. I have two novels in the marketplace, both niche erotica. I have been doing this for less than a year. I write for fun and not profit, although I am pleased that the success of my novels has exceeded my expectations. There are people who have written entire books, blogs and websites about how to maximise your earnings as a self-published author in both the mainstream and adult-only marketplaces, and there are a great many authors who make a sizeable, even liveable, income from self-published e-books. If they have something to say about platforms and exclusivity, their advice probably comes from a more informed, researched and considered position than mine does!

That aside, I can talk about my own experience within my narrow field.

Firstly, an explanation. When you as an author choose to publish a novel or story or other work as an e-book, currently you face a choice as to what option you take.

You can choose to make your book available across multiple platforms, so that different retailers can sell it. Obviously the main one of these is Amazon, they have come to dominate the marketplace for both electronic books (the Kindle is the market leader in e-readers) and traditional books. But there is also Smashwords, who function as both a marketplace for e-books and a distributor to other retailers (such as Barnes & Noble) as well as several others, including specialist retailers.

That is one option. The other is that you can opt to sell exclusively with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP Select) and not have your e-book available via any other digital platform. The incentive Amazon offers for this exclusivity is that you can then be entitled to some of the 'pot' of royalties for Kindle Unlimited, Amazon's subscription-based virtual lending-library (KOLL), as long as readers can borrow your book via KU. Amazon pays you a small sum per page read on KU, with the amount being dictated by the overall size of the pot, which grows as they get more subscribers.

(It should go without saying that if you don't want to make your book available via KU, you have no requirement to go Amazon-exclusive and indeed the best option for you will doubtless be multi-platforming).

So while at first glance this would seem to be a no-brainer (more platforms = more potential sales = more potential royalties), having a book available via KU has a number of selling points; especially if you are an author of erotica or other less-mainstream genres.

When I began selling books, I didn't actually realise that KU required your book to be available exclusively through Amazon. Chalk that up to eager excitement on my part to publish - I simply didn't read all the terms before hitting 'publish'. As a result, for a couple of months I had a book available on both KU, and also via a non-Amazon retailer, in this case Smashwords.

I don't recommend doing this. While Amazon is so vast it is possible to 'game' both marketplaces (at least in my experience for a short time) as your books tend to fly under the radar of the various automated processes they have to keep track of things (unless someone actively reports that they are not exclusive) it is a breach of your terms and will undoubtedly lead to some sort of punitive action from Amazon if they find out - with ignorance being no excuse. In the end, when I realised, I opted to remove my books from Smashwords and keep them Amazon exclusive and in the KU scheme.

My reason for choosing that option, ultimately, came down to the fact that I was getting more readers through KU than I was through Smashwords. My sales on Smashwords had started well, but had petered out to almost nothing by the time I discontinued selling through them. I also wasn't confident that Smashwords was as secure as Amazon in terms of being able to protect my work from being pirated, due to the wide variety of file formats they made books available in (including .pdf). While this is great for accessibility, it also greatly increases the risk of your book being circulated for free without your permission, in my opinion.

So compared to Smashwords, KU was performing much better for me. It's true that the amount you receive per page view is small, but overall my total income from KU pageviews is about half as much as my income from book sales on Amazon, whereas my income from Smashwords had peaked at 25% what I was earning from Amazon sales and had dropped to less than 10% by the time I took the books off that platform.

It's perhaps understandable that a book on Smashwords doesn't perform as well as it does on Amazon. Amazon dominates the marketplace to the point that the existence of alternative retailers for e-books is not well-known. I hadn't heard of Smashwords until I began investigating platforms for self-publishing, and as authors who often mostly interact with other authors, we can become ignorant of the fact that sites like Smashwords might be common knowledge to us, but are not always well-known to consumers.

That said, Smashwords has one major selling point for me, and that's the fact that it is an authorised distributor serving Apple iBooks, which I think is Amazon's main competitor in the e-book market. So while Smashwords itself might not be on the radar for many consumers, the places it distributes books to may well be. I don't think I personally made enough of the Apple connection when I was promoting my books, and had I done so it might have benefited me somewhat; that said, it is more difficult for authors to market works on iBooks directly to readers in my opinion as Apple doesn't have a webstore in the same way as Amazon; browsing and purchasing is done via the app. That said, Apple does offer a lot of tools to aid authors who wish to use them.

For me, however, opting to be Amazon KDP exclusive to be enrolled in KDP Select and have my book available for lending via KU was the right option.


So how can you know if it is the right option for you? Here are a few criteria I think can be considered:

Am I publishing a novel or a short story?
If you're publishing a story that isn't very long, you probably aren't going to receive a lot of money each time someone reads it on KU. It may be better to have it available through multiple platforms for a set price than have it for 'free' to subscribers so you will be paid per page read. However a novel of 200 pages or so will probably generate a little more income, provided everyone who downloads it reads to the end!

On the other hand, short stories still do well on KU because many readers may not consider them good value for money as a purchase compared to a novel priced around the same amount, but may be more inclined to read them if they are getting them as part of their KU subscription. I had a KU subscription for a few months and read a lot more short stories than I normally purchase, because I didn't feel short-changed as a consumer by the comparative costs.

(There are authors who claim to have found ways to game the Amazon KU system and some websites that will tell you how this can be achieved (book-stuffing etc.), I am not a supporter of this approach however, mostly because it creates a bad experience for the unwary consumer).

How much effort do I want to put into marketing my book?
One of Amazon's key advantages over its competitors is the size of its customer base and the tools it has set up to market books and other products to them. Even if you do almost nothing to promote your book to a wider readership, you will probably still sell some copies if it's on Amazon, and having it available to loan to KU subscribers will probably increase that attention.

Most authors I have encountered who report success across multiple platforms are those who take their time to do a lot of marketing and promotion of their books via social media, via their own websites and so on. If you are constantly putting out word about your books, no matter where they are available, you are maximising interest; but many authors either lack the time to put this kind of work in, or just aren't interested in playing this game. For myself, I am probably in the middle ground; I would much rather spend the little free time I have writing than I would advertising, but I also enjoy social media and blogging. If you're prepared to put the work in, you might find you don't need KU, but it is a lot of work to raise awareness about alternative platforms when they struggle to find an audience themselves due to Amazon's marketplace dominance, and you often seem to end up having to market the platform almost as much as you market the book you are selling on it.

Am I writing something that may prove too controversial for Amazon?
This is especially pertinent for someone writing erotica. All e-book retailers have rules about what they consider acceptable content, and some are stricter than others. For example, Amazon say that they don't allow erotica in which the theme is incestuous relationships between family members. I don't write about those themes myself, but I know some of those who do find careful ways to get around Amazon's rules; but there is always the risk Amazon will be alerted to the content of your book or else your work will be caught up in one of their legendary purges. So if you write, say, mother-son incest, it is probably best not to put all your eggs in one basket (and really, Amazon's rules say you should avoid their platform altogether). Other platforms are more lenient, and may represent a better option.

More generally, a point I have made before is that consumers of erotica are not necessarily looking for what I call a 'forever book' - that is, something they will keep and return to again and again. They're looking for something to read for a particular experience or thrill and once they have read it they will move on to the next novel or story. In that regard, the lending function of KU is perhaps the best option for erotic works as it enables readers to get the thrill-read they desire without asking them to spend money on an individual transaction.

Do I just not like Amazon?
It sounds flippant. But much the same as many big multi-national companies, Amazon has more than its fair share of critics and people opposed to them on ethical grounds. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has more money than God and is growing richer everyday; meanwhile there are stories of incredibly poor treatment of Amazon's warehouse workers and exploitation of loopholes to limit the amount of money Amazon pays in taxes to the countries it operates in. More generally, there is the undeniable impact online retailing has had on the book marketplace, with many physical bookstores - both independents and chains - struggling to stay afloat, unable to compete with the lower prices of the Amazon monolith.

So there is definitely a discussion to be had about whether, as an independent author who has free choice over where to sell your books, you should actually rebel against Amazon's market dominance and make your work as widely-available as possible.

Even if you're someone like me, who does not have any real ethical qualms about selling on Amazon, you should recognise that a healthy marketplace needs some competition. For instance, the percentage Amazon pays in royalties to its self-publishing authors is currently priced competitively with other platforms like Smashwords and iBooks, in order to encourage authors to use the Amazon KDP platform. If Amazon eliminated its competitors, they would have no need to offer a competitive percentage in royalties; they could throw authors a pittance and keep the rest in profit, and the authors would have no recourse because it wouldn't be as though we could take our books elsewhere. So as e-book authors it can be argued we do have a long-term advantage to multi-platforming in order to protect our income now and in the future by helping to maintain a diverse marketplace.


In the end, what works for one author might not be the best option for another, and every way of doing things has its advantages and disadvantages. But the beauty of being a self-published writer is having the control over how you distribute your work; if something isn't working for you, changing how you do things is easy, and entirely in your hands.

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