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Archive for distribution

How to use Amazon KDP Select, or skip it

Amazon throws its weight around. They have books to sell that are exclusive. They also sell other ebooks like everybody else does: book distribution can happen simultaneously with other retailers and reading services. Kindle books can be sold only at Amazon when authors use Kindle’s KDP Select. It’s an exclusive sales channel.

Amazon calls it Kindle Unlimited for the readers; the authors know it as KDP Select.

The Kindle books which are not set up for the Select program do not need to be exclusive. It’s a choice that the author-publisher gets to make. And change back and forth, if they want. When an author chooses to use KDP Select, Amazon makes the author commit to a 90-day exclusive term. (Authors are warning each other that the exclusive term rolls over automatically — unless you turn it off.)

Self-publishers make up a big share of these Amazon-exclusive booksellers. I’m not sure why, but if after awhile you haven’t sold many copies by the book, you probably believe your book can do better if you sell by the page.

It often does not.

What KDP Select costs the author

There’s a downside to KDP Select: You’re only paid per page read. Readers only pay $10 a month to Amazon and can read as many Select books as they want.

It’s a sales model that encourages browsing, instead of reading a lot of pages inside one book. When you stand at a buffet, you usually don’t load up your whole plate with roast beef only.

Amazon puts an Unlimited book into a higher rotation when readers are searching for books. An author still has to stand in line, though, behind the books that are advertised on Amazon. If you type “viral pandemic novel” in the Amazon search box, you don’t see my Viral Times. Well, you don’t see it after eight pages of search results.

If an author wants to use Kindle Select, it’s easier as a first move. You launch the book at Amazon. You don’t have to list it anywhere else, because it’s brand-new and exclusive.

If you go Select as your second strategy, it can be hard to pull a book out of distribution at all the other sales outlets. It’s especially hard if you have hired an aggregator to get your book into all those online stores. Aggregators are popular. For a lot of self-published authors, if they’re being sold anywhere else, managing all those other outlets manually can be time-consuming. Leaving the management up to the aggregator can mean it’ll take weeks to get your book off the non-Amazon sites.

Here’s an article on the struggle to get a book off of non-Amazon outets.

You sometimes have to fight to get your book out of a non-Amazon store — which is required if the book will become Amazon-exclusive. Smashwords used to distribute author books to a store in India, Flipkart. Authors learned that Flipkart never pulls books off of its lists. Amazon refused to let those authors get into Select, because their books were locked onto Flipkart.

The only way to fix the Smashwords problem? Smashwords had to quit Flipkart completely.

You can never tell how an online retailer will behave until they have to do something out of the ordinary. That’s the problem with using an aggregator like PublishDrive or Draft2Digital or Smashwords. They are your managers of the relationships with dozens of platforms.

What being Amazon exclusive gets an author

I have an author friend who did well with her romance in Select. She had a publisher and invested in ads. She wrote in a popular genre, one where reading many books cover to cover is a habit.

Kindle’s books can move in and out of Select status, but as I say above, it can be complicated to move them. I have client who’s in the Select program, so his book can be read in Kindle Unlimited. He’s not doing any better being exclusive to Amazon than selling direct. He hasn’t pulled his books out of Unlimited/Select, though.

I never took Viral Times into Select, and I have stayed away from Select for my memoir Stealing Home, too. It’s just that I want control — which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me, a fellow who’s an editor and gatekeeper at heart. My views on listing a book as a Select title might change, but I’ll need better evidence that Select/Unlimited makes a difference.

Sales strategies come and go, after all. Books can return for sale on an online app like Rathe. Maybe that’s after an author has tried the exclusive KDP Select — and learned there’s still no substitute for advertising a book on Amazon.

Whenever you refuse Amazon’s exclusivity in KDP Select, you’re “going wide.” The same thing occurs in audiobooks, where you can publish through (Amazon’s) Audible exclusively. An author makes more per sale at Audible that way. You can’t buy the ebook or the audiobook anywhere else, though.

Just like selling ebooks, Audible commands a much larger share than other audiobook sellers. Amazon’s lead is not as big in the books market, though. Not everybody is reading from Amazon. Amazon certainly doesn’t know a thing about apps compensating authors by the episode consumed in the micro-reading of books.

Libraries and the future

Like everybody, I’m looking over my shoulder at library borrowing. It’s completely free for a reader, and great books are available there. Bestsellers. Also self-published books like Viral Times, or the audiobook for Stealing Home. (There’s a trick to getting those books through most libraries. You must have a free Hoopla account that ties to your library account. You get four borrows per month.)

Hoopla used to be Midwest Tape, a service that made books on tape available to libraries. A library has to purchase a copy of my memoir to offer it in their collection. It’s either got a one-copy-at-a-time license, or it uses a pay-by-the-reader license. Those second licenses are a lot more expensive for a library, so they usually buy a limited number of the single-reader books.

My ebook for Stealing Home is in these libraries. A library catalog called WorldCat has it listed at libraries in Dallas, North Dakota, and Alaska. Because Kobo distributes my memoir, it goes to OverDrive. And so my memoir can be checked out. You can also get it from your library by using Hoopla, another app that ties to your library account.

Viral Times has got a very special place at Rathe, an app that lets you read books 650 words at a time. The platform is the only other place besides Amazon where you can buy my book. I’m not in the Kindle Select program. At Amazon, I sell by the book, and I can sell elsewhere, too. The paperback hasn’t sold in a very long time. Maybe that will change — I just got my first Amazon order for a paperback sale in more than five years.

There’s a catch, of course, when you sell a paperback like I chose to do with Viral Times.

Viral Times isn’t print on demand. I have a couple of boxes here at the house that I got printed in 2012. There was no print on demand in 2012. I wrap a book and send it through FedEx Ground to get it to an Amazon warehouse. Amazon pays me $4 for this book. You can guess how much it costs to send it through FedEx, or even USPS. It’s more than $4. You need a tracking number, or Amazon can claim they’ve lost it.

Distribution — which amounts to outlets for sales, and sometimes the selling, too — is the trickiest part of the publishing adventure. Listing a book on a website is only wholesaling; there’s little effort to drive sales to the site, unless your email practices are strong.

Discovery by a reader while they’re already at Amazon is different today. Amazon has tilted the tables toward vendors and authors who advertise. Amazon used to let authors believe in organic discovery. Then Amazon started to sell ads, then made up Unlimited, and now there’s no substitute for buying ads for a book that’s in Unlimited at Amazon. Even that doesn’t work so well. Ad purchases can amount to big fees for clicks onto a book’s listing, but few sales.

The options to make ebook sales have their limits. It’s better if you know them coming in. A good article on the website Just Publishing Advice lays out the pros and cons of Select versus regular sales of Kindle books.

Let’s get real about self-publishing

I used to be an ardent fan of self publishing. I thought that the extra money you’d get out of making your own business choices, along with bigger royalties, would offset the extra work of publishing yourself. You could be rewarded with sales because no one cares as often about your book (every day) or as much as you do.

Then I self-published nonfiction. Books like my Stealing Home can be easier to sell than fiction, especially since mine’s about Little League baseball and fatherhood. But mine also has an art component. Out of all of the nonfiction created, memoirs have the greatest amount of art. My nonfiction book has plenty of dramatic scenes. Good memoirs can get away with that level of entertainment.

Self-publishing meant more than just hiring good editors and coaches, or getting a great cover on the front of a book that has no typos inside. It meant getting good reviews, then finding a way to get publicity for the book. Making choices about contests to enter (not free) and the shows to exhibit at (ditto). It meant discovering that bookstores are a lot less likely to stock your book for sale if you have only yourself and your plans to market it. They want customers coming into the store who have heard about your book before they discover it on the shelves. Two kinds of bookstore customers: those who come to discover and those seeking a particular book. The latter will buy more often, so long as the book is for sale on the shelves.

Bookstores might only represent one-third of all books sold by now. When was the last time you bought a book inside a store? Bookstore sales have prestige, but that prestige will not get your books sold. Once you’re for sale in a store, your results are tracked by Bookscan. That’s a grade card, the kind of measure that will keep publishers from investing extra money after your release as well as following through on promises to market more. It can prevent booksellers from re-ordering, too, or hanging on to your books for months instead of weeks.

Now when authors ask me about self-publishing, I reply, “How much do you like marketing and publicity?” By publishing yourself, you sign up for all of that work. If you’re a good writer but have not done marketing before, you need to polish a new voice.

I advise the authors to have a publicist lined up for their book release. It’s a major cost with a questionable return. That’s earned media. Paid media is advertising. The ads for Amazon are a huge gamble. You bid for a keyword and Amazon charges you Per Click. Not Per Sale. You only win the bid with a higher figure. Facebook can drive readers to your website, or to the Amazon page. The latter destination offers the readers 8-20 other things to buy at the same time they’re judging your product.

There are no perfect answers out there for the dilemma of getting a book noticed, discovered, read, and recommended. The publishers do their best, but they often approach the task with too few resources to well-support every author in their list. Us writers and teachers approach our work as communicators and storytellers. The extra layer we hope to reach is commercial success. It’s a different and difficult victory to win the sale. We keep creating and invest in professional help, just like the publishers do.

Mike Shatzkin, who’s a genius at understanding publishing, wrote a column about how most publishing these days is produced by freelancers. If you know what you’re doing, you can hire these pros, too. Right down the line, until you make your way to the distribution (sales) gateway. If your pros have done the needed work, you’ll pass through. At that point, you’re more traditionally published than self-published. Self-publishing gives you more control — and puts the commercial risks in your hands, too.

Traditional deals mean genuine distribution

Debut authors have many choices to make, from selecting an agent if needed, to choosing self publishing versus small press or hybrid publishers. That last category can differ quite a bit between providers. One marker to watch is distribution: the channel that gets sales for a book.

Many hybrid publishers—who by definition require authors to pay for services in exchange for a greater royalty share—have slim distribution options. No traditional distribution is a common situation for a hybrid. They can make a book wholesale distributed using IngramSpark. This wholesaling doesn’t drive placement in bookstores. Wholesaling makes your book orderable. It doesn’t drive sales without your personal investment in marketing.

More importantly, the lack of distribution can keep a book out of consideration for reviews and publicity coverage. It’s not an automatic exclusion, but library and trade book resources like Booklist and Library Journal do not make many coverage slots available for books without distribution. The feeling, perhaps rightly so from the trade’s perspective, is that a review of a book without a sales force sacrifices a spot Booklist could give to a better-distributed book.

Distribution is crucial for the brick and mortar selling that goes beyond consignment sales. Booksellers tend to order from their regular sources: direct from some select presses, then through distributors like IPG. It’s much harder to get a direct order from a bookseller if you only have print on demand (POD) wholesale distribution. Consignment sales can get your POD book into shops, but usually only for a limited run. If the book is selling, the shop will restock.

Return capability, when a book stops selling, is another crucial piece in getting your book into stores. POD through Ingram Spark does offer a return capability similar to regular distribution.

Generating that initial bookseller order is the biggest hurdle. It’s very hard to sell a book onto a bookseller’s shelves without the ability to return it unsold. The window on those returns is usually in excess of eight months by now. This is why publishers withhold royalties for six months or more. They’re waiting on their distributors to accept copies returned as unsold.

A traditional publishing deal can be worth more than selling your book yourself in some way. Either direct to a press, or via an agent to a larger press, you can move more books to the register and earn royalties.

You could start your own press. With enough money.

Last year, an entity called Skin Horse Press grew up in my office here in Austin. I chose the name of this independent imprint based on a favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit, as well as a nod toward my spot in a writing career. I’m 40 years in on my professional writing and editing, so that means I’m past 60. In the book, the Skin Horse is old and wise and tells the Rabbit that you become Real when you’re old.

I’d like to believe I’m becoming Real at my age. Skin Horse Press, though, is not a real press yet. It takes a lot more than 40 years of publishing experience and unbridled ambition to start a press. It takes the talent and drive of other pros, as well as money.

The more of these you have, the better chance your ambition grows into a press. You only have to self-publish a book professionally to see how a press gives a book a wider audience.

Distribution and wholesaling are the steepest parts of the publishing ladder. A publisher trusts other companies to sell the books that are published. Not list them, like Amazon and a raft of other places do. Not stock them, like a bookstore may do if you get a consignment space. Distributors sell your book by getting book buyers in retail stores to pay attention to the book’s goodness.

The buyers look for a press, a catalog, and finally a familiar voice that assures them they won’t be wasting their shelf space. The need for retailing space is being debated now, but even Amazon prefers books from real presses. The presses get real with advertising and marketing plans, plus budget to back them up.

There’s a need for more presses. This month a Big Book got in trouble because an Anglo author wrote the experience of a Latina in a novel. The Latino community, amplified by other hovering social media readers, cried foul. That Big Book, Dirt, got a big advance for its author. The big advances come from the big presses, known as the Big Five. They’re all headquartered in New York and they’re not much good at taking chances on under-represented authors.

They try, but then an Anglo author gets a big advance for a Latino story in Mexico and people cry foul. To be accurate, the author of Dirt is part Latina, and so it gets more complicated from there.

So why not start a press to help correct this? This morning I read a letter from a Midwest publisher, far outside the New York orbit.  She said, “Want to have more diverse voices included in books, and tilt publishing away from NYC, which is too expensive to live in anyway? You could… start your own press! To amplify overlooked voices! It’s been done ;)”

Yes, indeed, presses have been started for such noble and needed reasons. Just be aware, if you have such a dream, what goes into creating a press. It’s an entity that has several masters to serve at once. The authors, who create the magic. The readers, who supply the revenue. The founders, who need to be paid, and to pay their talent at the press.

The best list of what goes into a fine press — although it’s a long study, with too much detail — is the latest book from Microcosm Press. Joe Biel founded that indie press and has written The People’s Guide to Publishing. From Title Development to Money, the 14 sections of the book cover everything a publisher must consider. There’s much more under the surface of book publishing than might be apparent to an author. Some editors know how much, and every agent knows the pieces, too.

A press is a business. Nobody has to explain that businesses require talent and money to succeed. The drive and mission is important, too. Those first two very real elements determine which press is going to sell books, and which ones will only create them.