[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]
Once your book is written and converted into an ePub (and AZW3) you’ll have to actually get it into customers’ hands, and ideally get some money for yourself out of the bargain. To do that you will publish the book with one of a number of self-publishing options, and sell through the following sales channels.
Amazon: a monster in e-books, Amazon produces most of my sales (by a huge margin for print, a respectable one in e-book), and I believe most of the ones for other self-publishers as well. Their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program is huge, and was a pioneer in helping people to self-publish. With all of that experience everything runs quite smoothly now. You can set up a pre-sale period by uploading your final file in advance, and can set prices for different countries easily, with a 70% royalty rate for books in a normal price range1. It’s all so intuitive I don’t feel the slightest need to give you further guidance on the interface. You’ll get a chance to virtually preview your file on a number of Kindle virtual machines, though nothing beats actually trying your friends’ and family’s devices.
They will try to get you to make it exclusive to Amazon with Amazon Select, which is a tough call — on the one hand it will let your book go on sale and have promotional events (the regular KDP price doesn’t budge and doesn’t go into the lending library), but Amazon isn’t quite big enough to make forgoing all the other channels worth it in my opinion — especially if you put DRM on your book so readers will not be able to convert it to use on their Kobos or other devices. I did not go with Select and can’t recommend going exclusive.
If you have a print edition, you can create a special bundle price discount so readers can get the Kindle edition for a few dollars more — this option applies even if you publish the print edition through someone other than Amazon/CreateSpace. Typically the price points are 99 cents/$1.99/$2.99 for this “match book” option. I personally think this is a great option to enable, and have a similar print and digital bundle available through my direct store — think of it not as a discount on your e-book, but as an up-sell on your print book. They can get the file and get a head start on reading, and then finish the book in print when it arrives in the mail, or can read in print and give it away, but have an easy to archive digital file to refer to later.
Amazon will pay out by direct deposit to your bank account when you get over $10 in royalties, usually with a lag of ~60-90 days. Just enter your Canadian bank account information in their system and you’ll be set. They also recently (late 2014) updated their tax information collection so that you can fill out the forms to avoid US withholding tax without having to write to the IRS to get a registration number.
One weird thing about Amazon is that they want a cover image at a 1:1.6 aspect ratio, at a really high resolution (higher than will ever be displayed on most e-book readers). 1:1.5 (6:9) is a more common aspect ratio for covers — that’s the layout of a trade paperback, and also happens to be the screen aspect ratio for most e-readers. So keep in mind you may need to tweak a cover image to suit slightly different sizes, and mention that to your cover artist early on as it can affect what they put in the edges of the image — or they may need to prepare two files for you.
Kobo: fairly popular in Canada, thanks to its incubation and device sales at Indigo, Kobo is a bit player in the US, so you may see other guides to self-publishing downplay its importance. Kobo sells ePubs which are compatible with their own devices as well as Sony e-readers, Nook readers, and tablets/phones/PCs via apps. For a Canadian author I think you really need to include it, and that it may be meaningful enough to make it worthwhile to list your book there directly rather than through something like Smashwords. With Kobo Writing Life you can get set up selling ePubs pretty quickly, and they recently (late 2014) upgraded their payment systems to allow for semi-annual small payments (though I believe their documentation still mentions a $100 threshold, that will be likely changing as the small payment pilot seems to be going well and the payment threshold will move to a more standard $10). Like Amazon, they have a 70% royalty rate for most book prices.
For me, Kobo comes in third to Amazon and my own site for e-book sales. However, Kobo has a Canadian presence so you avoid having to fill out US withholding tax information, and the data collection to get you set up is really easy to use and clean, so it’s not hard to do yourself vs using a distributor.
Smashwords: a distributor and a retailer, Smashwords is a neat time-saver for e-book publishing. Through Smashwords you can get access to Barnes and Noble, the iBookStore (Apple), Scribd, and a few others including Overdrive (it’s the source of e-books for libraries though they tend not to go for self-published stuff, and Overdrive hides2 it from them). They’ll also get you into Kobo if you want, but it’s so easy to do on your own that there’s no point in giving up the royalties. A weird thing — and unfortunate from a Canadian perspective — is that you can’t set prices in CAD or by other regions on Smashwords, only one price in USD for the whole world. Smashwords’ royalties are a little complicated from all the channels they provide access to: their own direct sales channel (sales through Smashwords.com) is ~75%, and most other channels are ~60% — they provide a lower royalty rate for these channels for the service of being a one-stop shop for getting out to all those retailers. You can opt in or out of each channel individually, so you can opt out of Kobo and go direct to Writing Life for instance, and then accept the lower royalty rate for say B&N and iBooks, which is ok because in my experience (and what I’ve read elsewhere) those other channels are orders of magnitude below Amazon in terms of exposure and sales. I have almost 5 times as many sales through Kobo as through all Smashwords portals combined, and Kobo is itself a factor of 4 below Amazon and my own site.
You can either upload your own ePub to Smashwords, or give them a Word document and let them do the conversions. I created an ePub anyway, and I’m highly skeptical of completely automatic file conversions, so of course I went with the upload my own ePub option.
I have not yet figured out how to fill out their paperwork to avoid US withholding taxes without registering for an ITIN with the IRS, but it’s not something I worry about (a 30% withholding tax on a few tens of dollars is only a few dollars). They pay out to PayPal with a $10 threshold, and give Canadians a very clear and easy button to tell them to hold payments until you file your tax information if you want time to sort out your filings to avoid withholding tax, or to send payment ASAP and acknowledge up front that there will be withholdings so no one is surprised.
Google Play: it’s Google, and it has the ability to offer PDFs, which may be a neat feature, depending on the content of your book. However, the royalty rate is lower (52% vs 70%), and they provide at least 20% of your book as a free preview, which some authors have complained is giving away too much. I have not had a single sale through Google Play yet, but they claim to have a monthly $1 threshold to Canadian bank accounts so if sales do come through, getting royalties should be quick.
Google Play mostly works intuitively for getting your title set up, but when it comes to setting prices instead of just going through a list of countries/currencies and putting in the price like with other retailers, you have to use a string, like “Region: CA” to set prices for Canada, and then “WORLD -CA” to set a price for the rest of the world excluding Canada. It’s just a few little things like that that made it a bit tougher to get set up with them, but none of it was devastating.
Direct Sales: it’s fairly easy these days to set up a merchant account with PayPal (or another small business credit card processor) so that you can accept payments and sell books directly to customers without a middleman. You can also set up a shopping cart yourself, which can automatically serve an e-book to customers. The main reason I set up a direct sales site was to keep control over the format: I want customers to be able to get a bundle with every format they could need, including PDF as well as Kindle and Kobo files, so that they’re not tied to any one retailer’s ecosystem or hardware. If it weren’t for that I likely wouldn’t have bothered as it is a lot of work. A side benefit is that you get more than 70% of the gross (93% for me) — and as long as you’re a small supplier your customers can save on the HST. For some people it can make sense to sell directly just for the profit boost. You may be generating most of the leads and interest in the book yourself anyway, though the downside is that you don’t get people leaving reviews for the next customer to see like on Amazon or Kobo, and you don’t get the sales traffic which can help your book move up the ranks and become more visible at the retailer. If you do sest up a direct sales site, I’d recommend listing with regular retailers as well, as there will be people who only find your book through that route.
I’m with DreamHost, and they make it pretty easy to create a subdomain with ZenCart as a direct sales shopping cart program. It’s open-source and works fairly well out of the box, though you will likely want to do some customization. I’ll note that creating downloadable products is not the easiest thing — you’ll have to delve into the admin settings to create a downloadable product.
Another option is to use a PayPal “buy now” link. The advantage to that is that it’s super-fast for your customers: they don’t have to register on your site or go through a three-step cart checkout, just one click and they’re entering their payment information. The downside is that it does not produce an automatic download link: you have to manually follow-up with an email that has the book as an attachment, or with a download link. And no matter how many times you write it out, or include it in the receipt text, or put it in bold face, people will freak out all over you that they paid for something at 2am and your site is broken, and you didn’t get back to them with their digital thingy until nearly noon, which is just unacceptable customer service. I would love it if PayPal could outsource this for us for digital goods delivery, as when I did have the one-click buy now links about two-thirds of my sales were through those — the convenience factor is huge, and you don’t have to worry about people abandoning their cart when your store software forces them to create a password (even if you don’t want it to). But the headaches from getting emails from angry, inpatient people made me stick with the less-convenient store software this time (also, the added complication of having print and e-book options, which would necessitate multiple buy now buttons).
Moving on from retailers, let’s talk about DRM. Most retailers will offer you the option to lock your content down with DRM, Smashwords being the main DRM-free exception. It’s up to you what you choose, but personally I hate DRM. If you become insanely popular, the pirates will break it anyway. If it’s unlocked and a few people share the book, well, it may lead to some buying their own copies, or at least spreading the word. In the meantime you have fewer frustrated readers (and before you go with DRM, it should be mandatory to try to help your Aunt load a locked ePub that she legitimately paid for onto her e-reader — it’s frustrating). Plus it’s a lot easier to offer multiple formats through your own website if you don’t have DRM.
1. Note that they charge a very small amount for data transfer, but if your book is huge with many pictures (i.e. tens or hundreds of MB) these data charges may seriously impact your profits. Normal price range is ~$3-10 for the e-book; cheaper or more expensive and you’ll have to accept a lower royalty rate.
2. Obviously not first-hand, but the explanation I have seen is that Overdrive presents librarians with a default catalogue of “real books” to build their collections, and that self-published works are technically available through Overdrive but the librarians have to specifically enter the self-published side to see them.
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