Operation Full Distribution

One of my goals for 2013 is to fully distribute all of my self-published e-books.

As it stands, Backpacked is handcuffed to KDP Select, Mousetrapped is on Smashwords but I never re-submitted it to their Premium Catalogue (read: third party retailers) after my last update and although you can purchase a gorgeous ePub or Mobi edition of Self-Printed directly from me (thanks to the lovely people at eBookPartnership.com), the only other place you can get it from is the Amazon Kindle store, although we did have a brief flirtation with Kobo Writing Life a while back.


Why is this? Well, there’s a few reasons:

  • It’s easy to make a good-looking Kindle book. I still format my e-books the way I’ve done it from the beginning, three years ago: by re-formatting the text in a MS Word document until it adheres to a strict set of rules. I’m really good at it now, and sometimes I almost find the process relaxing. (Sometimes…) Ever since I discovered, via a tip in the Smashwords Style Guide, that Kindle conversion automatically indents all your paragraphs and the only way to make it stop is to set the indent to 0.01 inches on the lines you don’t want to appear indented, I’ve found prepping your book for Kindle conversion practically easy. And I like easy.
  • It’s simple to keep track of sales and profits. KDP must have the best-looking user interface of any self-publishing platform. It’s so easy to use: two pages and your book is published. Log in at any time and see at a glance what you’ve sold so far this month, what you sold in total last month and how the past six weeks were for you and your books. Prior months royalties can be scrutinized in a downloadable Excel spreadsheet, and cheques arrive promptly every single month. (In three years, only one KDP cheque has failed to arrive, and it was a lost-in-the-mail situation. They quickly cancelled it and sent another.) My euro sales even go straight into my bank account now. Trying to figure out how many copies I’ve sold via Smashwords on other retailers is like trying to do my taxes with an abacus, and everytime you add another site—be it Kobo, or iTunes Connect, or whoever—you complicate things further.
  • The majority of my sales come from Kindle anyway, so the rest of them don’t seem worth the trouble. Now, I know what you’re going to say: if my books are only available on Kindle, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, it is now. But all throughout 2010 and for a good half of 2011, I was on Kindle and everyone Smashwords could hook me up with, and my Kindle sales were something like 95% of all e-book sales. And this wasn’t because I did such a good job of marketing my Kindle book, because I was never active on dedicated Kindle forums, nor did I advertise with Kindle Nation or anything like that. Kindle just sold my books more, for whatever reason. When KDP Select came along—and the first time I used it, it gave me something like a 150% boost on sales the month after my free promotion—I drained my glass of Kool-Aid. I was all in.

And so, over time, I became less and less enthusiastic about non-Kindle e-book sites. When I updated Mousetrapped, I didn’t bother putting myself through the horror that would be formatting it for Smashwords’ Premium Catalogue. I couldn’t upload the shiny ePub of Self-Printed 2.0 there, so I didn’t bother uploading anything. And I pulled Backpacked—waiting over a month for Kobo to let go—so I could chuck it in KDP Select and promote it as free.

Eggs, one basket, all in.

Up until recently, I wasn’t at all bothered. My Smashwords sales had never lit the world on fire, and who had the time to be checking what people were saying about you—I mean, about your book—on more than the three main English-speaking Amazon sites? But then the tectonic plates beneath the self-publishing world began to move and shift, and so did my thinking.

I’m iniating Operation Full Distribution, and here’s why.

Sales of dedicated e-readers are in decline. This means that nowadays, someone is more likely to buy an iPad than a Kindle, i.e. a device on which they can read e-books but on which they can do loads of other stuff as well. Kindle may be the dominant player now, but will they always be? Yes, you can download the Kindle app for iPad, but iBooks/iTunes’ slice of the e-book pie grows ever bigger. Isn’t it better to hedge your bets and be ready for the day when Kindle books might not dominate?

If one was to be cynical and say that Amazon being nice to us—KDP Select, huge KOLL compensation funds, letting us self-publish on there in the first place—was all just a ploy to get us to fill the Kindle store with titles, many of them exclusive, and to teach their customers that e-books should be cheap so that traditional publishing would, eventually, start to lower their e-book prices too, then one could also say that that job is done. There’s well over a million titles in the Amazon.com Kindle store, and the Top 10 e-book charts on Amazon.co.uk boasted seven traditionally published books for sale at 20p when I checked it on New Year’s Day. They’ve even got agents skipping publishers altogether to publish directly to the Kindle store, and have started publishing books themselves. It’s becoming harder and harder for self-published e-book authors to achieve success, and the odds are decreasing all the time. (Charging sofa change for your e-book so readers will take a chance of you no longer works, for example, because readers can get a book that has been vetted by an agent, editors and maybe even The Sunday Times book reviewer now for less than the cost of your 99c book.) How much longer are Amazon going to need us? And when they don’t need us anymore, what will happen? I feel the tugs on the rug Amazon has laid beneath our self-published feet; it might only be a matter of time before they pull it. Since we don’t know what that world could look like, it might be better to start spreading the risk now.

As Smashwords founder Mark Coker is forever reiterating on the Smashwords blog, sales ranks are very important for discoverability. The higher or better your sales rank, the higher chance there is of you being discovered by a new reader, generally and simplistically-speaking. I’ve been on Amazon now for almost three years with Mousetrapped, and my other books have been on there since they were published. I’ve never “interruppted” their Amazon ranking, and as sales rank history is partly responsible for where the sales rank is at today, that’s a good thing. But how many times have I published/unpublished on Smashwords? Well, um, a few. And each time I republished, I was basically starting from scratch on, say, Barnes and Noble’s Nook store, or iBooks, or wherever. So I wasn’t giving my Smashwords retailers a chance to do as well as my Kindle books. As has been pointed out in many blog posts on the subject of Kindle dominance, self-published authors also have a tendancy to direct potential readers to their Kindle listings more than anything else, and I was as guilty of that as anyone. So now, let’s see what happens when I give it a proper chance.

There’s a but coming though, and it’s in the shape of a dollar sign. I ran Backpacked through KDP Select back in November, and it was downloaded for free something like 20,000 times in the five days. Since then its sales have really picked up, especially on Amazon.com, and borrows are way up too. And when you consider the “bonus” KDP Select fund, it means than whenever a copy of Backpacked is borrowed, I stand a good chance of making as much or even more than I would were it purchased — and my new reader pays nothing outside of their Prime membership fee. This improved sales effect has lasted about six weeks, at this stage, so I’m going to ride it out. That means no Smashwords for Backpacked, for now. Not yet. I make a large part of my income from my e-book sales, and so I can’t be completely experimental with my approach to it. So we’ll see. I’ll keep you updated.

My new book, Travelled, will be released in three e-book only parts this year before the full book is released in e-book and paperback just in time for Christmas, and I think KDP Select could benefit that, if it’s still going by the time it comes out. With three parts making up a whole book, I think it’d be a good idea to run the first part through a free promotion the week the second part comes out, to help snare new readers. So I don’t plan on abandoning KDP Select completely; I’ll still use sparingly as long as it works for me.

But my ultimate goal is, by this time next year, to have every book of mine available everywhere e-books can feasibly be sold. Let’s just give the other guys a chance—a proper chance—and see what happens.

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What do you think? Do you have your e-books only on Kindle, or elsewhere as well? Any good reports from the land of full distribution? Or is KDP Select results keeping you sweet? Let me know in the comments… 

33 thoughts on “Operation Full Distribution

  1. Russell Phillips says:

    I’ve got four books out, all are on Amazon, Smashwords (in the premium catalogue) and a couple of other places. Roughly two-thirds of my sales come from Amazon. I’ve never used KDP Select, but I’m about to publish a fifth book, and I’m seriously considering putting it in KDP Select for the first few months. I’m curious to try KDP Select, but I’m wary of having all my eggs in one basket (whether that basket is Amazon or someone else). The trouble is, with most of my sales coming from Amazon, it feels like I’ve got most of my eggs in their basket anyway. I don’t link to the Amazon page for my books, I link to the page on my website, so readers can choose where to buy them. It seems that most choose Amazon.

  2. claudenougat says:

    I’m like you, all on KDP…and thinking hard about it, whether I should expand etc or not. Very useful post, thanks!

    I’m not sure Amazon is going to get nasty with self-published authors as so many fear…not worth their while, I should think.

    But book discoverability is not just a matter of price or rank or number of reviews. I only wish I knew what it was tied to! But I suspect that traditionally published authors have a lot easier time of it: they have access to the traditional media (newspapers, dedicated magazines, literary critics) and historic prizes (like the Pulitzer, Booker etc). Self-published authors do not, and I do think that’s where the problem lies!

  3. Scott Hunter says:

    Hi Catherine – I think Amazon will be OK with SP authors in the long term – it’s all revenue for them after all. I do hope that the playing field levels out a little, though; a monopoly is rarely a good thing. As for KDP, it did very well for me last year – 50K + sales. This year, well, from September really, a little bit slower.

  4. MarkM says:

    At the risk of intruding, I am not a self-publisher, but a reader and have to say I only discovered you and this blog through your KDP Select in November. (Off topic, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have enjoyed flipping through your blog despite having nothing to publish!). Because you take the time to format everything nicely, it was an enjoyable read on the Kindle and, this part is key, because you put all the links in the back of the book, I was then able to learn more about you, your other books, discover this blog, etc. So now, I’m off to Mousetrapped.

    From my viewpoint, the key challenge in trying to hit everywhere in addition to figuring out how each site works and what you need to do to setup accounts, etc. is how much reformatting and polishing you’d need to do to not just work on a different platform, but to make it look like a fully professional published work on each platform. I’ve had a number of books I’ve paid for on the Kindle that when I start to read them are not formatted correctly and there are random hard carriage returns, hanging words, or odd gaps. This makes it challenging and certainly less enjoyable to read. One of the other challenges I encounter is guessing how a book is categorized. As someone who enjoys travel related books such as Bryson, McIntyre, Ryan Howard, it is a battle to shlog through tons of Fodor’s and Lonely Planet guides to find good stories like Backpacked. Not all sellers have a sub-section such as Essays and Travelogues under Travel.

    Since I tend to be comfortable with technology, I’d be willing to track down works by authors I like. So, for example, if I heard you published your Travelled someplace other than Amazon, I’d head over there and read it on my iPad or get it on my Kindle by downloading/email, etc. Unfortunately, the average reader probably wouldn’t do that.

    So from my viewpoint as a reader (AKA buyer), for whatever that is worth, I’d definitely encourage you to go the full distribution route for maximum exposure and maximum convenience for your reading/buying public, but only if the reformatting/paperwork/etc. does not greatly interfere with your writing, coffee drinking, and blogging. If you’re ever in the Bucks County, Pennsylvania neck of the woods, the coffee’s on me.

  5. mycookinglifebypatty says:

    I am just now looking at how to publish and e-book and I’ve been following you for a while. I must admit that I am not educated on the basics here and I get lost reading some of what you’re saying. This is not because of your presentation, it’s just that I’m such a newbie. Any chance you’d do a once-a-week or once-a-month post on the Basics (like really basic, oh-everybody-should-already-know-this kind of basic)? Or do a post recommending the best of your past posts for people like me?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      No problem, I totally understand.

      All my self-printing posts are on the Self-Printing page (go to the tab above and then select “posts) and they are there in chronological order, so you can read back to the “basics” posts and catch up. There’s also a list of most popular posts there, and they’re divided up by e-books, paperback, etc. Otherwise Self-Printed, my self-publishing guide, explains everything from the beginning.

  6. Maddie Cochere says:

    Hi Catherine. My books are at Amazon and Smashwords. Through Smashwords, my sales at B&N and Kobo are running neck and neck (one more sale at Kobo). Sales at Apple, then Sony, are not too far behind. My volume isn’t huge because my books all went up in 2012, but I am happy with their distribution and hope this year will be better.

  7. Will Overby (@Will_Overby) says:

    I have 6 books out at present. I am on KDP, B&N, and Smashwords Premium. I have yet to see any sales through anything other than KDP; however, I’m leaving my stuff up at the other sites just because we never know what’s going to happen with Amazon. Plus, once it’s up on the other platforms, it’s there for good and I don’t have to do anything else to it. The hard work is all on the front-end, so I see no reason not to let it ride out and perhaps find an audience somewhere down the road.

  8. David Penny says:

    Interesting post. I publish to both Kindle and through Smashwords with extended distribution. Like you I get the majority of sales through Kindle (80% plus). However, when I started on Smashwords the split was 99/1 in favour of Kindle. Over a couple of years that has changed – primarily through the extended distribution on Smashwords. I have seen a significant increase in sales on Kobo, B&N and, of course, iBooks, all of which get distributed to through Smashwords.

    However, I was intrigued at your comment that each time you re-publish on Smashwords and the book gets sent out again, you end up resetting the counter. Or did I misinterpret this?

    I agree that tablets are going to have a major income on sales – just looking at the figures you linked to, 223 million tablets against 27 million eReaders! Personally I love my Kindle because it’s so natural to read on. I have an iPad as well (yeah, I know, spoiled or what?) and find it far more difficult to read on than the Kindle, but great for keeping on the coffee table for browsing, checking emails and so on.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      To clarify: if I unpublished on Smashwords (say to enroll the book in Amazon KDP) and then came back weeks or months later to re-publish/reactivate it, my sales rank/history would be reset to zero, because in the meantime the listing has disappeared and so this is a new one, like publishing for the first time again on the Nook store, etc. That’s different to merely uploading a new file, i.e. updating an e-book, in which case the sales history would be uninterrupted.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Well Michael I’m not sure we can judge who is selling more books for you based on who has paid you first.

      Smashwords has a $10 threshold last time I checked and Amazon has a $100 one. You could be selling the same amount of books on both but Smashwords would pay you nine times before Amazon would.

  9. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel says:

    I have my new release on Kindle and at Smashwords, using SW’s distribution to the other vendors. Waiting, for my book to reach the other vendors, I mean. But, since I have one digital book, I can’t afford to limit it to one place right now, and I won’t be doing Select for only one book. I’m playing it out to see what happens. So far, Smash sales suck, but KDP is moving right along. I think it might be time for a coupon at SW. Glad to hear you’re expanding, Catherine.

  10. anne gallagher says:

    I started out publishing with Amazon, then on to Smashwords. I’ve been in the Premium catalog since I started, but no major shakes. I was doing well with Amazon, until this past November. Then the bottom fell out. So I took my books from Smashwords and uploaded to B&N direct and my sales have shot up, so much more than amazon ever did. I like the new model that’s unfolding in my bottom line, so I’m thinking Amazon is losing customers and writers alike. With all their kvetching about reviews and other ranking nonsense, it feels like other vendors are going to have a boom year.

  11. India Drummond says:

    Like you, I’ve been on Select until recently. I’ve made a nice packet, actually, through boosts from freebie giveaways and through the KOLL. But, now that my fantasy series is growing (I’ll be putting out #5 this spring), I’ve decided to pull the first one from Select and put it on Smashwords and price it at free.

    If I’m honest, I really detest the Smashwords interface, and I find their support people generally unhelpful and slow to respond, which is why I was so intrigued to hear about eBook Partnership. It looks like they distribute to everyone Smashwords does. Do you use them for everything or only for selling via your website? I’m definitely interested in hearing more about it. I’ve just had the first in my series accepted to the Smashwords Premium Catalogue. I’d planned to have it up for free for a couple of months. If it did well and boosted my Amazon sales enough to make up for the lack of KOLL income and the 5 days of freebie promotion income, then I planned to take my other books out of Select as well and move them to all the other platforms too. But… if there’s something better out there, I’d switch over in a heartbeat to avoid the mess that is Smashwords.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I’m totally with you on the Smashwords interface—I can’t look at badly designed/organized blogs, let alone deal with their site for trying to publish books and keep track of their sales. I’d actually rather they fix that over finding new distribution partners or even maybe accepting ePub files; I think they underestimate how many people are turned off by it, especially when we’re so used to KDP.

      I actually just went with eBook Partnership for distribution with Self-Printed this past week. They indeed distribute to everyone Smashwords does, but also Waterstones and WH Smith which I think is a real bonus for Irish/UK authors. There’s a set-up fee and a small annual fee, but you keep all of your royalties. I think you can also give them ePubs you’ve made yourself; they don’t have to convert the file for you. They’re great to deal with and their website is lovely! ;-D

      This year I’ll use Smashwords for Mousetrapped and Backpacked and any other “straightforward” books I bring out because when you just have simple text, it works fine from the MS Word document. But for Self-Printed with its images, bullet points, numbered lists, etc. Smashwords just won’t do. So I’ve gone to EBP for that. I might also use them for MT and BP to distribute them to Waterstones, etc. (leaving Amazon and Smashwords to cover the rest) but we’ll see. I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to you at this stage, though.

  12. Judy Millar says:

    I’m only with KDP at present, but I have heard other authors on the Kindle Forum saying that their sales following free days on KDP Select aren’t getting anywhere near the bump that they used to, so exploring the alternatives seems sensible. Catherine, re your comment about needing a U.S. bank account and SSN, it is possible for a non-American to open a U.S. bank account (at least it was for me as a Canadian). Also while you can’t get a Soc. Ins. No., it is possible to get an EIN (employer identification number) that serves the same function as an ITIN (international tax identification number).

  13. Sharon says:

    Hi there,
    Smashwords lets you upload your own EPUB now, which is awesome. I didn’t know that until, like, last week (and I think it’s a very recent development) so I uploaded my own at Barnes & Noble’s, the iBookstore, Kobo and Lulu. To my surprise, Kobo and Lulu were incredibly easy to work with – the user interface is just wonderful. And when I got my first sale on Kobo (a moment I’ll remember forever) they showed it on a map of the world as a big blue circle in Australia.

    Now I’m wondering about other online retailers that we don’t know about – who’s big in South Africa and India? And what about other countries where a portion of the population speaks English as a second language – Latin America, the Nordic countries, the Germanic – who are the big online bookstores there? I remember reading a few years ago that Europe was five years behind the United States in the development of an e-book market, and if so then perhaps there really isn’t a market for ebooks yet in these other regions. It may be that there really aren’t other big ones out there waiting to be discovered. But I do wonder.

  14. PD Singer says:

    Amazon is the biggie, true, but I also see a substantial proportion of sales at All Romance eBooks, which sells any format you care to upload. I have PDF, EPUB, and mobi there, and the PDF outsells EPUB plus mobi. Not everyone has a Kindle, and not everyone has a tablet either.

    I will have data on B&N, Kobo, and Apple here presently, as I’ve only recently gone to these venues, but I did it without going through Smashwords. Real time reporting and monthly payout beat one stop uploading.

    Good on you for diversifying.

  15. Blair Erotica says:

    I am with KDP and Smashwords. All my books went up in 2012 and sales are slowly building through both platforms. It can be slow for books to get out through the Smashwords distribution, but once they get there, they seem to do better for me than Amazon. Apple and Kobo are doing well with the books that have shown up. Smashwords is committed to fixing that interface, according to Mark Coker’s blog and so far I have found they do what they say. I agree that the current one is a pain, but the sales have been worth it for me, and the trend suggests that it will be even more so. I note that here, and in other places, people mention that selling direct through B&N is better than through Smashwords and I am trying to understand how that can be. Once the books are there, what is the difference? Anyway, although it isn’t perfect, SW has been a great asset to me and I refuse to give exclusive distribution to anyone who won’t make it available for all readers, regardless of the reader they use.

  16. Max's Little Book (@maxslittletweet) says:

    Thanks Catherine. Good post. I’m really keen to see how this works out for you.

    MarkM’s comments resonated strongly with me. I’m a couple of months away from publishing a short illustrated rhyming story, so unlike you I have a minimal amount of text formatting to worry about, yet I’ve still decided to drop the iBook version even though it’s ready, and concentrate on the fixed-layout Kindle version instead.

    A big reason for my decision is that, as someone who is not planning to outsource any of the work, I have concerns about the amount of time that will be soaked up trying to maintain multiple formats, managing multiple accounts and then doing everything else related to the book (marketing etc). Then there’s the next book to think about …

    As a programmer, I’ve had a lot of experience trying to maintain projects which run on multiple platforms, and of course every bug needs to be fixed for each platform then every fix must be tested too. Although I wouldn’t expect the maintenance of books to be anywhere near as high, I could still envision it being problematic in terms of scaling, as your catalogue grows.

    Because of Amazon’s decision to make their books available across multiple platforms I don’t have any immediate concerns about sudden changes coming out of the blue, and so I’m trying to work out whether it would be more profitable to maintain versions of my books on multiple platforms, or use that time to write more books and/or further promote existing books instead.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this when you’ve had time to put Operation Full Distribution in to effect!

    • kareninglis says:

      Hi – I think that the whole point is that Smashwords manages a whole range of outlets for you, taking away the problem you mention? So you just have your Amazon account and the Smashwords one to worry about.

      BTW does anyone here know of children’s authors who publish via Smashwords and what level of sales they get? It didn’t feel like an obvious home for children’s book to me, but that may just have been first impressions.

      • kareninglis says:

        By the way a great article, Catherine – and I’m in exactly the same boat as you just now – thinking of spreading my self around a bit on the e-book distribution front!

  17. gracebranniganauthor says:

    I use Kindle and Smashwords, but I also upload myself to Kobo and Barnes and Noble. My Kindle sales beat out all other sales by about 80%. I have 9 books, not on KDP Select. Unfortunately, I don’t sell much right now through Smashwords, but I’m keeping it there just to see what happens.

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