Thursday, October 01, 2015

Indie Publishing Paths: What’s Your Distribution Plan? Part Two

By Jami Gold, @JamiGold

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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After escaping Area 51 armed only with a ukulele, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in causing her to sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.

Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

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  1. Ha, I'm quite undecided again. Selling direct through retailers does have its appeal, especially with the exclusive deals you could participate in. Kindle Select with the Kindle Countdown and other offers are pretty cool, but I still wouldn't want to be in Kindle Unlimited because some readers see books in KU as inferior, as I mentioned to you before in a previous comment. :/

    So far, I think I will still just use a distributor for the convenience and wide distribution, especially as some retailers are only reachable via distributors.

    Who knows, maybe I'll change my mind when I come to publish again, lol.

    1. Hi Serena,

      LOL! Yes, and like I said, it's important to know our plans because our distribution method can affect our choices on pricing or release schedules, BUT we can also change our mind later too. :)

      We can treat these choices as an experiment, and if they don't work for us, we can try something different. :) Thanks for the comment!

  2. Goals: Make my money back, earn enough to pay my kids' tuition next year, earn enough to donate to a local ministry that reaches out to human trafficking victims, raise awareness for local human trafficking, reach a significant number of readers. I care nothing about becoming rich and famous. I'd also like to offer a downloadable short story collection free with purchase of my ebook.

    Createspace is option 2, correct? Can you direct me to more info about Option 3? Which option(s) fits me best, do you think?

    1. Hi Melissa,

      These options mostly refer to the publishing of ebooks, just because for the vast majority of genres, that's where 90%+ of our sales will be. Many self-pub authors don't bother with a print version at all because there aren't many sales there (usually) and it requires a second cover (different aspect ratio from ebooks and adds a spine and back cover).

      Those who have ebook and print versions usually want to capture all the readers they can and/or simply want to appear more professional. Personally, I went the route to have both. :) (As a bonus, if we have both, the higher print price can also make our ebook price look discounted on Amazon.)

      Createspace is Amazon's print-on-demand arm. For listings at Amazon, using Createspace is essentially an Option 3--going direct with the retailer.

      Createspace can also be set up for Expanded Distribution, where the book is in catalogs and can technically be ordered by other retailers. In that case, Createspace/Amazon is acting as a distributor, an Option 2.

      Note, however, that competition--both between retailers (not wanting to buy a product from Amazon to sell in their store) and for limited physical shelf space--means that our books won't usually be available in bookstores or libraries unless we jump through oodles of hoops (such as begging each individual store or library). Some retailers will list Createspace Expanded Distribution books in their online stores, but that's not a given.

      So in terms of reaching readers, for most genres, the biggest bang for the buck will be going Option 3 direct with KDP (Amazon's ebook arm). That will get us access to the biggest buying population for the least amount of work and the most amount of money.

      (Going with Option 4 KDP Select is also possible at this level, but it's impossible to say which will result in more readers or money. It's best to make this choice by looking at our own perspective of wide distribution vs. exclusive and our thoughts about the pros and cons listed in the post above.)

      The next biggest bang would usually be adding our ebook to other retailers, such as Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc. Those can be added either by using an Option 2 distributor, like Draft2Digital or by going Option 3 direct to each of those retailers. That would add the next biggest chunk of the buying public.

      The last options, as far as reaching numbers of readers, would be the Option 1 of selling direct ebooks or print from our website (we're just not likely to get much traffic there) or using Createspace for Option 2/3 or IngramSpark for Option 2 (another print-on-demand distributor/wholesaler). (BookBaby and other companies offer Option 2 print distribution along with other services as well.) Print on demand books generally have to be priced higher than say, mass-market paperbacks, so it's hard to make traction with sales, and for most genres, print sales will be measured in handfuls.

      As I said, this is all going by what's typical for most genres. Some genres, such as children's books, still have a strong print component, even for self-published authors, but for most, the focus from a sheer number-of-readers perspective would be on ebooks.

      This isn't a perfect or all-inclusive listing, but this post has links to several of the biggest Option 2 and Option 3 service providers:

      That listing doesn't make it clear which are direct and which are distributors, so I decided against including that link in the post. Also, it's missing some of the big players, like Apple's iBooks, for example. (Maybe because their software requirements make it hard to go direct? I use Draft2Digital to get into iBooks. :) ) Another big ebook player not mentioned is GooglePlay, but they're currently closed to new authors.

      I hope that helps! :)

  3. Thank you Janice, and Jami for providing again exceptional material on publishing. Added it to my Evernote file. :-)