Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks for Amazon and Smashwords

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Author Series

Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and Smashwords both rolled out their author-to-reader distributor/aggregator services in 2008, lighting the fuse on the digital self-publishing revolution. Because of them, a book you publish today in Peoria can be bought and read tomorrow by someone in Pretoria, Mumbai, or Vladivostok.

The way I look at the digital publishing world, there’s Amazon—and there’s everyone else. Although I’m experimenting again with KDP Select for a couple of titles, giving Amazon exclusivity, I do currently have most of my press’s titles available across all platforms and outlets, including some of the newer subscription services like Scribd and Oyster.

I use Smashwords as a distributor for all my non-Amazon digital sales. The reason for this is simple: it’s more than worth the 10% they charge (or ~15% of net, if you prefer) in terms of the savings to my time and sanity to have them deal with the many (and growing) digital retailers besides Amazon.

A year or so ago I did try working directly with some retailers for my new novel, Sutherland’s Rules. Setting up an account with Kobo was fairly easy; B&N rather less so; but when I discovered that iTunes won’t even accept an ebook upload from a non-Mac device, I threw in the towel and decided to just have Smashwords do it all.

In my direct experience—about 6,500 digital sales of my own titles—the sales from all the other channels combined are negligible compared to my sales on Amazon—less than 5%. It’s therefore absolutely not worth my while to deal with ten or a dozen ePub retailers and subscription services direct.

For one thing it’s an accounting nightmare, as they all report differently. But more importantly, if I want to update a book, change something in the backmatter, etc., I’d have to re-upload separately to each retailer, keeping track along the way. The more books you have, the more of a headache this becomes. Time is money, and there are many things I’d rather do with it than bang my head against some poorly designed interface.

If any one of the other retailers accounted for more than perhaps 20% of my sales, I might consider opting out of Smashwords distribution for that retailer and work directly with them. But as things stand, it’s absolutely not worth it. In fact, I’ve just taken two of my books off Smashwords and put them on KDP Select because I think I can do better with the tools that enrolment in Select offers.

I know it’s fashionable to bash Amazon (like Microsoft before them, with whom I also have no axe to grind), but in my opinion they fully deserve their success, and—provided you remember they’re in it to make money, and watch their every move—are the indie author’s best friend. For a start, not only does Amazon’s search engine put everyone else’s to shame, they also don’t promote books published by the Big Five over indie or self-published books, which both Kobo and B&N do: Amazon is a truly level playing field, a disruptive meritocracy, unlike the feudal model of the others who want to keep trad publishing happy. Secondly, the KDP dashboard (and, for that matter, the Smashwords one), allows the indie publisher complete control over just about everything to do with their titles. Finally, Amazon are reactive, and generally deal with queries and issues within hours or a day at most.

There’s also a new distribution service now called Draft2Digital (, which I’ve heard good things about. Their fees appear identical to Smashwords and their file formatting requirements seem less onerous and more user-friendly, especially in terms of ToC creation—anyone who’s had to tinker with a doc and re-upload to Smashwords four or five times because of problems with the NCX navigation or their ToC will know just how maddening this can be. So if you want your book available in ePub across many channels, D2D may be worth a look.

To conclude, then, the choice of whether to use an aggregator or deal directly with all the non-Amazon ebook retailers really depends on your own patience and how much you value your time, as well as what proportions of your sales come from which retailer. This does seem to differ from author to author and book to book. I get so few sales from non-Amazon channels that it’s barely worth it even working with Smashwords. But one of the other authors I publish, a Fantasy writer, gets at least 20% or so of her sales from B&N; are Fantasy readers more likely to prefer B&N? I have no idea.

What’s your experience in this matter? Do you work with individual channels or use an aggregator service? And why?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for novella submissions.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 


  1. I also attempted to work directly with Kobo and B&N when I first started self-publishing. But as you said, the accounting was a nightmare. I avoided Smashwords, originally, b/c the formatting and meat grinder requirements seemed overwhelming to my new-to-formattng self. So I tried D2D for distribution to everyone except Amazon. My experience with them has been positive. My only issue has to do with the fact the only place I seem to sell any books at all is Amazon. That's a belly ache for another occassion :-)

    1. Hi Angela! Always nice to read your comments :)

      Isn't that accounting a horror? LOL. Why can't everyone report at the same times in the same format? And when you have several authors, it becomes especially ugly. As for not selling outside Amazon...TBH, it does't worry me much. The only concern of course is that if they at some point change their terms and become less author-friendly, most of us are so dependent on them that we're in trouble. I find it very strange--and reprehensible--that nobody else has really worked to develop equally good search functions and user-friendly interfaces, and give indies the same exposure as the majors. Apples are perhaps the only ones with the brains and power to do so, but they're more interested in maintaining proprietary formats and their weird exclusivity; for instance, you can't find a book on the iTunes bookstore without actually downloading iTunes and registering--this is *insane*. And Amazon wins again.

  2. In my experience, Fantasy readers are more prevalent at B&N, at least more than Apple.

    1. Hi Carla ~

      That's interesting--thanks for the confirmation. I also notice that our core Science Fiction seems to sell a little more at iTunes, but I don't have enough data points to be sure. I wonder if others can suplly data on this genre disparity?

    2. ooo, I find that interesting too. Wouldn't that make for an interesting survey? Devices/readers and genres?

  3. Excellent article, Dario! I agree with you 100% on all of it, having gone the very same route as you with trying to do individual retailers, then using Smashwords, and finally Draft2Digital. In my opinion, D2D is the better of the two aggregators, again for the same reasons you stated: ease of upload and formatting and, maybe more importantly, the fact that they pay EVERY month - not quarterly. I currently am experimenting with KDP Select, but don't have any firm feeling for it yet.
    Thanks for a great read. :)

    1. Thanks so much, Toni! Funny we should have followed the exact same trajectory, a Pilgrim's Progress of Publishing. LOL. But it makes sense :) I may have to try to D2D myself, then.


  4. I'm agreeing with you too! :) I use Amazon. They are so easy, I might even say stupid easy and the majority of sales come from them for me to.

    I also stayed away from Smashwords due to the meatgrinder. Then they added epubs to there uploads.So the more complicated books I upload the epubs and the simple ones I generate a doc. I did find that after the first couple of books the process was easy to get right the first time.

    I like that you can give out coupons for books at Smashwords too. Good for giveaways. I also love the annual surveys Smashwords puts out.

    1. Southpaw, that's a great point about the coupon codes that Smashwords offers -- I've used them more than once, and people really take them up. I essentially format two separate Word docs, one for Amazon and one for smashwords, each with the ToC set up as they like it. Also, Smashwords does require a different publication credit line (i.e., "Published by so-and-so at Smashwords", so you have to use a separate file anyway. I never found it much effort, but if using Word it *is* very important to nuke MS Word's dreaded field codes for the Smashwords version -- ctrl-shift-f9 does the trick after saving as a separate file.

      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Smashwords just eliminated that requirement (that is was published at Smashwords) ! The autovetter doesn't look for it anymore. Yeah!

  5. Loading your books on KDP is so easy that it's not worth losing the 10-15% IMHO, plus having direct access to their keyboard gives you maximum flexibility for pricing, promotions, etc. I struggled with Kobo (though their support is very responsive) and had just finished uploading when I heard Draft to Digital on the Creative Penn podcast. I used them for all the other sites and have found them great to work with, though formatting remains s nightmare. Since I had already done the Kobo work, I'm keeping it up seperately for now. It's certainly not worth the effort to master the technical intricacies of all the sites for a mere handful of sales.