The Immortal Ebook Fights for Survival

Is KDP Select the right choice for you?You’ve probably heard tales of writers making tons of money and hitting the bestseller lists with indie ebooks, and you’re wondering if you could do the same. But you might have questions about the best place to publish and distribute your ebook. And you should have those questions… In this guest post, Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, raises some important points for aspiring and published authors to consider about the ramifications of using Amazon’s KDP Select program. NA

Print self-publishing has been around for decades, but it never achieved its full potential due to one simple fact:  Traditional publishers maintained a stranglehold on retail store distribution.

New ebook self-publishing tools have broken away the shackles that once restricted authors.  What these authors do with their newfound freedoms will determine the next chapter of the publishing industry.

Back to the dark ages of publishing, say, pre-2008, writers worshipped at the altar of traditional publishers.  Without the backing of a traditional publisher, a writer couldn’t get their book to bookstores.  Without distribution, the book wasn’t available, discoverable or purchasable.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the good intentions of brick and mortar bookstores to connect readers to books they want to read, the traditional brick and mortar bookstore world represents a double-edged sword for authors.

Brick and mortar bookstores have been the greatest enablers of writers’ dreams, but they’ve also been the most effective destroyers of writers’ dreams.  Bookstores are heartlessly efficient at forcing books out of print if they don’t immediately sell well.

Bookstores are consignment warehouses.  They have limited shelf space, and that space costs them money in rent and upkeep.  In order to maximize the yield per square foot of the store, and to open up shelf space for the never-ending flood of promising new releases, bookstores are forced to turn their stock continually.  If a book doesn’t sell well within the first few weeks of launch, stores pack up the books and ship them back to the publisher for a full refund.

It’s not that your local Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore hates books and writers.  Quite the opposite.  If they could cost-effectively stock millions of books in each physical store, they would.  But rent is not free, and it requires significant operating expense to receive, unpack, shelve, store, heat, light and air-condition all those bits of paper, glue and ink.

Fast forward to the post-Dark Ages renaissance of the present, and we see the rise of ebooks addressed the shortcomings of print book distribution from the perspective of retailers and authors, who now enjoy perfectly aligned interests.  Flush with unlimited virtual shelf space, ebook retailers can stock millions of ebooks, and in some future decade, they’ll likely stock billions.  Efficient production, distribution and sales of digital bits benefit the producers, sellers and consumers.

Increasingly, online bookstores are looking to self-published authors to fill their virtual shelves.

Self-published authors now have the tools and knowledge to publish professional-quality ebooks that are as good or better than what’s put out by the large publishers, and the self-publishers are doing it faster and at lower prices to consumers.

Self-published authors are scaling the bestseller lists at all the retailers.  As I write this in early November, multiple Smashwords authors are occupying top-10 store-wide bestseller lists at Apple stores in the US, UK, Canada and Australia.  For each of these authors, their bestseller status is a transformative, life-changing event.  They’re cultivating loyal readership.  The author is the brand, and they’re building their brands quickly.

Because shelf space is unlimited, ebooks need never go out of print.  They’re immortal.  Ebook retailers will stock them forever.  The books are forever discoverable and purchasable by readers.  That is, assuming the author or publisher never pull their books from distribution.  That would never happen, right?

Wrong.  After decades of being denied distribution to bookstores, some authors are making the decision to pull their own books from distribution.  More on that later.

The immortal ebook has profoundly positive implications for authors, retailers and readers.  It means if your book doesn’t find an audience right out of the gate, there’s always tomorrow.  It means even if your book sells poorly at first—as most books do—the retailer won’t stop stocking the book.

The immortal ebook means that books have more time to find an audience.  At Smashwords, we’ve seen hundreds of instances where a book sells poorly at first but then develops an audience and breaks out, sometimes a year after publication.  Or sometimes, it’s after the publication of the authors second, third or tenth book.  Inside  my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, I share several sales charts of bestsellers from the Apple iBookstore that illustrate how each book charts a separate path to bestsellerdom.

Unlike print books, where the book is a static object and rarely changes after publication, ebooks are dynamic, living creatures.  After you publish an ebook, you can iterate it.

Imagine dozens of dials and levers attached to your book that you can twist, turn and tweak to make your book more available, more discoverable, and more enjoyable to readers.  I refer to these dials and levers as Viral Catalysts.

If you get the formula just right, your book will take flight on the wings of reader word of mouth. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky theory.  It’s happening today all around us.

In late June and early July of 2012, indie author R.L. Mathewson turned her moderately-selling novel into an overnight New York Times bestseller simply by updating her cover image (read the story and view the chart here).  The improved cover image sparked improved discoverability, and then readers’ great reviews and passionate word-of-mouth propelled her book to bestseller status.  That success helped her cultivate an enormous readership at the Apple iBookstore.  When she published her latest novel, Checkmate, a few weeks ago, it went straight to #1 within two days at Apple iBookstores in the US, Australia, UK, and Canada (read more here).

These stories rarely happened in the dark ages of print publishing. If the first book cover didn’t resonate with readers, the book was forced out of print.

The immortal ebook has the potential to usher in a new golden era in authorship, publishing and book retailing.  Authors and publishers can now maintain their entire backlists in virtual print forever, forever harvesting income from their hard work, and forever cultivating a growing platform supported by readers eagerly awaiting their next title.

Ebooks break out at different retailers at different times.  Each ebook retailer represents its own micro-market, and each retailer’s separate international stores (Apple operates 50 iBookstores in 50 countries, for example, each with its own local audience and merchandising) represent isolated micro-markets as well.

If you’re only focusing your distribution and marketing attention at one or two retailers, you’re missing out on the larger long term opportunity to cultivate these myriad micro-communities of readers.

The implications for retailers are equally positive and profound.  Immortal ebooks could lead to more online bookstores around the world, staffed by passionate booksellers who are expert at connecting readers with books worth reading.  If you’re an author, publisher or reader, the more booksellers promoting books and a culture of reading, the better off you are.

In this new era of online bookselling, the booksellers that do the best job of connecting readers with books are the retailers that will achieve the greatest long term success.  For authors, those who create the largest platforms the fastest will become the big-name bestsellers of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, forces are at play to hobble or destroy what could become a thriving global ecosystem of multiple ebook retailers.

If you agree that authors are the future of publishing, then you’ll understand why the fate of ebook retailers rests in the hands of authors.  An author’s short term decisions today will have implications that reverberate for many years to come.

To understand why, it’s helpful to recognize where the publishing industry is going.  Thanks to the simultaneous rise of ebooks, ebook self-publishing, democratized ebook distribution enabled by Smashwords and the retailers, the power center in the publishing industry is shifting from publishers to authors.  Ebook authors don’t need a publisher to reach readers.  Because multiple retailers are competing for the authors’ books, the authors need not fall under the thumb of a single dominant retailer.

Amazon, one of the smartest and most innovative players in the ebook retailing business, is renowned for positioning its business today for a future that arrives in five years.  This is how Amazon has managed to run circles around its doubters over the last 15 years.  Amazon sees a future where publishers become optional and authors become essential.  I see the same.

Much like the land-grabs of American western expansion in the 1800s, or the virtual land grabs of the dot com race, we’re now witnessing Amazon making a similar land grab when it comes to authors’ books.  Amazon knows that retailers with the greatest selection of books have the greatest advantage.

In December 2011, Amazon launched their KDP Select service, which offered authors tasty carrots in exchange for making their books exclusive to Amazon.  Amazon’s move represented a direct assault against its biggest retail competitors.  Amazon is trying to lock authors in to the Amazon retail platform.

The day Amazon announced the program, I blogged why I thought KDP Select was a bad idea for authors.  It was a direct attack on Smashwords retailers, and anything that harms them harms our authors.  I believed—and continue to believe—that readers deserve greater accessibility to books, not less.

After decades of precedent where authors were forced to bow subservient to the whims of publishers so they could receive print distribution, who would have imagined Amazon could convince so many authors to willingly pull their own books from distribution right before Christmas?

For the record, I am not an Amazon hater.  Their store is second-to none in reach, customer experience and discoverability.  Amazon’s innovations encourage their competitors to do better, and that’s good for everyone.  KDP Select is innovative, and I would be a big supporter of it were it not for the exclusivity requirement.

Defenders of KDP Select argue that there’s nothing wrong with exclusivity if the author receives benefits that outweigh the loss of retail sales from the other retailers.

To be fair, some KDP Select authors have received enormous benefit from the program, and it’s difficult to argue they made a poor decision if Amazon is putting bread on the table or paying off a mortgage.  Not all authors have done well with KDP Select, however.

I don’t envy authors who are torn between this Faustian bargain or independence.  It’s not my intention to criticize those who enroll.  My intention is to help authors understand the potential long term implications of exclusivity.

The challenge for authors is that it’s near-impossible to accurately weigh the harm to one’s career against the benefits of the program.  Just because their book didn’t sell well in the past doesn’t mean it won’t sell well in the future.  Just because they sold well under KDP Select doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have sold well elsewhere if given more time.  Just because some authors are doing better at retailers other than at Amazon doesn’t mean that every author’s experience will be the same.  How does one measure foregone opportunities when the future is always unknown until we put ourselves out there and let it hit us in the face?

Some KDP Select supporters argue that the exclusivity period is “only” 90 days, so they cycle books in and out of distribution.  Yet the action of removing books from distribution undermines platform-building at the non-Amazon retailers.  If your entire catalog of books isn’t available at the other retailers, millions of customers will find other authors to love instead, and then the author’s future dependence upon Amazon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Platform building is like riding an escalator.  The higher you go, the higher you go.  Success leads to more success.  If you jump off, you often start again at the bottom.  Authors enrolled in KDP Select for the last year have missed out on tremendous growth at Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others.  They’re at a platform-building disadvantage to fully-distributed authors when they leave KDP Select to enter these other retailers.

In the case of R.L. Mathewson above, it took almost 18 months of non-stop patience and presence.  It wasn’t until she released her eighth book at Apple that she became a huge hit and landed on the New York Times bestseller list, and it wasn’t until her ninth book that she reaped what to the uninformed might appear as “overnight success” but to the informed is a clear case study example of the benefits of consistent platform building.

Amazon is fighting a long term battle of attrition, and authors are caught in the middle.  Amazon’s perceived adversary is its retail competitors, and also the potentially dozens or hundreds of future ebook retailing startups around the globe that haven’t even launched yet.

Amazon realizes if they can empty competitors’ shelves of even a fraction of their books, and lay waste to the fertile soil upon which future competitors might sprout, that more customers will eventually migrate to Amazon Kindle devices and to the Amazon Kindle store.  If that happens, and Amazon comes to dominate the market, authors will lose their independence.

It’s a scenario where authors become tenant farmers, tilling Amazon soil, and must accept compensation on terms dictated by Amazon.  It’s a scenario where authors have no other options, just like four years ago when authors had no option but to work with a traditional publisher.

Such a scenario is not without precedent. It wouldn’t be the first time Amazon leveraged its dominance to tighten the screws on publishers.  Or, look at the royalty rates offered at Audible, the world’s dominant audiobook publisher (owned by Amazon), where the royalty starts at 25% of list for authors who sell under 500 units.  It wasn’t until the eve of Apple’s iBookstore launch with its groundbreaking 70% royalty option that Amazon announced its own 70% option.  Previously, Amazon paid 35% list.

A competitive ebook retailing ecosystem with multiple players is what will keep indie authors in the driver’s seat.

If Amazon succeeds at diminishing its current and future retail competitors, writers may find the tools of their empowerment transformed into the tools of their captivity.

It’s unfortunate Amazon placed authors in this position, especially at a time of unprecedented growth in the global ebook market.  It’s not too late for authors to say “no.”

About the Author

Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks.

Photo Source: Free Digital

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