Part of the Indie Authors Series
As we’ve been discussing over the past couple of months, there’s no “one right way” to be successful as an indie author. We have many options to consider as we indie publish, and many of those paths can lead us to success.
So how do we find the right path for us? Like we explored at the beginning of this series, we need to figure out what our goals and priorities are. Then once we’re ready to put our book up for sale, we need to think like a business person and decide on the where, the when, and the how much.
To that end, last time we started analyzing our distribution options and deciding where we’re going to put our books up for sale:
- Option 1: Sell direct on our website.
- Option 2: Sell through a distributor (Draft2Digital, Smashwords, BookBaby, etc.).
- Option 3: Sell direct through a retailer (Amazon KDP, Apple iBooks, Kobo, etc.).
- Option 4: Sell through an exclusive arrangement with a single retailer (Amazon’s KDP Select, etc.).
The first three options can be mixed and matched, but the last option is all-or-nothing. Either we’re exclusive with one retailer or we’re not.
Last month, I covered Option 1 and Option 2, and today we’ll continue with Option 3 and Option 4.
Option 3: Sell Direct through Retailers
Pros to Selling Direct through a Retailer
If we sell our work directly through retailers, that means that we’re putting our book in front of as many customers as possible while also cutting out as many middlemen as possible. By eliminating the cut distributors take, we’ll maximize our income for every sale.
We’ll have direct control over the metadata, price, and file submitted to each retailer. We can tweak the book blurb to appeal to the different markets of each retailer. We can set some retailers to free and then ask Amazon to price match. We can send a custom file to each retailer with different formatting settings or retailer-specific links to our other work in the backmatter.
Some retailers will email their author accounts with offers to participate in marketing or promotion pushes. They might even put our books on sale and absorb the discounted price (so we still get full payment). We can log into our author accounts and get direct reporting on unit sales—unfiltered or delayed through a distributor’s system—to track our marketing or promotional sales efforts.
When we have issues with our listings, files, or accounts, we can go directly to the help desk of the source of the problem. We won’t have a single source of income that we need to worry about if they don’t pay on time. We might also get paid faster, as we’re not waiting for the retailer to process our sales and then wait more for the distributor to process their cut out of our payment.
Cons to Selling Direct through a Retailer
However, that additional control and income comes at the price of convenience. Every time we want to update our files, prices, or book description blurbs, we have to log in and upload the changes at each retailer.
Some retailers react faster to customer service issues that come through a distributor (as the distributor—with all their author accounts—is now their customer) than to issues that come from a single author with a smaller voice. The systems of some retailers are difficult to navigate or require special hardware or software. Certain functions, such as pre-orders or setting a price to free, aren’t available to author accounts and can only be done through a distributor request.
Tracking sales across multiple retailers can be confusing, as they all report information in different formats. An entire industry of web-based and software-based sales tracking (such as BookTrakr, eBookTracker, TrackerBox, etc.) has sprung up around the need to consolidate sales information.
Things to Consider regarding Selling Direct through a Retailer
Once again, Options 1-3 can be mixed and matched. We could sell direct through some retailers and sell through a distributor for other retailers, and most of these choices can be changed later (such as when our sales make it worth it to go direct).
Why might we want to sell direct through a retailer? We might want to…:
- maximize income by avoiding unnecessary distributor fees (especially with retailers with high sales numbers)
- customize our formatting, backmatter links, or metadata by retailer
- retain control over our updates, pricing, payments, and promotions
- take advantage of retailers’ exclusive promotions available only to author accounts
- avoid the poor customer service of a distributor
- maintain direct control over our income (not having to trust a distributor to stay in business and pay their author-customers on time)
Why might we not want to sell direct through a retailer? We might want to…:
- minimize the amount of time we spend setting up our blurbs and files
- save time by not setting up accounts at every retailer for what might be only a few sales
- avoid the hassle of dealing with non-user-friendly retailer sites or special hardware/software requirements
Option 4: Sell through an Exclusive Arrangement to a Single Retailer
For now, this option applies only to Amazon’s KDP Select program. Amazon is currently the only retailer big enough to make the carrot of their vast access to readers outweigh the stick of cutting off potential readers from our books at other retailers. However, if we’ve studied the indie publishing landscape for any length of time, we know that change is constant. *smile*
For many authors, the vast majority of sales come through Amazon, so the lure to go exclusive is strong. Whole blog posts (maybe even blog series) have delved into the question of whether or not Kindle Select is a good choice for authors. Once again, the answer will depend on our goals and our specific situation.
While we can’t mix and match other options for our ebooks if we choose this route, we can change our mind after 90 days, when the exclusivity agreement resets. Also, the KDP Select agreement applies only to digital ebook formats, so we could continue to sell our book in print or audio formats at other retailers. In addition, KDP Select enrollment is on a per-book basis, so we could limit some of our books to KDP Select and offer other books in wide distribution.
Pros to Selling through an Exclusive Arrangement to a Single Retailer
If we sign up with KDP Select, we’ll have access to a couple of special promotional programs. We can set up Kindle Countdown deals, which might increase the visibility of our book on the Paid bestseller lists. Or we can set our book to free for 5 days every 90-day period.
(Authors who publish non-exclusively through Amazon’s plain KDP program have the ability to request a “price match” when they have a book set to free at other retailers. However, this “permafree” setting is somewhat permanent—and a pain to set up or change later. KDP Select’s free days allows for easy promotions on books without permanently accepting a no-royalty situation.)
One aspect of KDP Select that’s been all the buzz for the past year is Kindle Unlimited (KU), a subscription program that gives readers access to thousands of books at one subscription price per month. KU has gone through several changes over the past year as authors and Amazon experiment for what works best. Currently KU pays authors for each page read by a subscriber.
A similar program, the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL), allows Amazon Prime members to borrow KDP Select books with no expiration date. KDP Select authors also benefit from better royalties in some international Amazon stores, earning 70% instead of 35% on sales in Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico.
Some authors see better visibility for their books in the KDP Select program, but the jury is still out (and will probably remain out) on whether Amazon’s algorithms favor KDP Select books. Some analysts say the better visibility is simply a function of the additional clicks and exposure for KU and KOLL customers. Others claim that Amazon ranks KDP Select books higher in their system as a reward. Even if anyone figured out the answer, the details would probably change the next time Amazon tweaked their systems. *smile*
Cons to Selling through an Exclusive Arrangement to a Single Retailer
As noted above, this is the only option that’s an all-or-nothing. If we choose to make our book exclusive with a single retailer, we can’t take advantage of any of the other options. At least, not for that book.
Some readers dislike Amazon and try to avoid them. Others want to support their local bookstores. Some live in a country where Amazon isn’t the strongest market. Or still others have a non-Kindle ereader and want their ebooks in a non-Amazon format. All of those types of readers might be upset if our books aren’t available at their preferred retailer. If they really want our book, they might suck it up, but most of these readers are probably lost to KDP Select authors.
The amount paid per page read for KU and KOLL is not guaranteed or consistent, so a set number of pages read won’t result in the same income from quarter to quarter. Therefore, it’s difficult to tell how our books are doing for sales until long after the fact. The payment amount changes as the KDP Select Global Fund (the fund Amazon sets aside to pay out for pages read) is divided among the varying numbers of pages and eligible authors.
If we enroll in KDP Select, our books are automatically included in KU and KOLL, so we can’t choose to participate in KDP Select just for the free days and avoid all the other aspects. KDP Select is an all-in program.
Most worryingly to some authors, KDP Select means that all of our writing income for those books comes from one source. If our rankings fall at Amazon, our account is frozen for some reason, or a pricing screw-up erodes our royalties, we have no other writing income to fall back on. Although we can leave the program during the reenrollment period, gaining visibility at other retailers typically takes a long time to build, so we won’t make up for the lost KU and KOLL borrows with sales at other retailers for a long while.
Things to Consider regarding Selling through an Exclusive Arrangement to a Single Retailer
Why might we want to sell through an exclusive arrangement to a single retailer? We might want to…:
- publish with the least hassle possible (worry about only one retailer)
- gain the KDP Select benefits, as we don’t have strong sales from other retailers anyway
- focus on the biggest market
- participate in KU or KOLL
- benefit from short-term freebie days or Kindle Countdown promotions
- take advantage of higher KDP Select royalties in countries where we have strong sales
- get a strong start in KDP Select and switch to wide distribution later
- offer translations in countries where Amazon is the only retailer we have access to
Why might we not want to sell direct through a retailer? We might want to…:
- offer our books wherever readers might discover them
- avoid relying on a single source of income
- sell our books in countries without a strong Amazon presence
- start building our presence on other retailers avoid being locked into a limiting agreement or forced to participate in KU or KOLL
- set up a permafree introduction to our writing and don’t want to be limited to only 5 days a quarter
We shouldn’t make our choice based on specific expectations of how Amazon will reward or punish our listing in their algorithms. First, because no one can predict results based on that strategy because no one knows all the aspects Amazon takes into account. Second, Amazon is constantly tweaking and changing their programming, so what worked last month might not work next month.
We have to make the choice that fits best with our goals and for the type of author we want to be. And sometimes those priorities won’t be obvious until we stop and think about our situation.
For some authors, KDP Select’s ability to have free days occasionally to rev up interest in our books will work great. Other authors might not want to train potential readers to wait until it’s free. So our worldview deep inside us might influence our decisions in surprising ways.
That’s why it’s important that we don’t just blindly follow what the successful author X, Y, or Z did. We have to find the best fit for us. Luckily, if we try an approach and we discover it’s not a good fit, we can change our mind for the future. *smile*
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