Ebook Publishing Gets More Difficult from Here – Here’s How to Succeed

20 November 2014

From Mark Coker via The Smashwords Blog:

First the good news.

For indie authors, there’s never been a better time to self-publish an ebook.  Thanks to an ever-growing global market for your ebooks, your books are couple clicks away from over one billion potential readers on smart phones, tablets and e-readers.

. . . .

Now the bad news. 

Everything gets more difficult from here. You face an uphill battle. With a couple exceptions – namely Scribd and Oyster – most major ebook retailers have suffered anemic or declining sales over the last 12-18 months.

The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over.  Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it.  In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since July Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited (I might write about Kindle Unlimited in a future blog post).  Some authors are considering quitting.  It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either.  When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on.  Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all.

The writer’s life is not an easy one, especially when you’re measuring your success in dollars.  If you’re relying on your earnings to put food on your family’s table, a career as an indie author feels all the more precarious.

. . . .

1.  There’s a glut of high-quality ebooks

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by self-publishing naysayers who criticize the indie ebook movement for causing the release of a “tsunami of drek” (actually, they use a more profane word than “drek”) that makes it difficult for readers to find the good books.  Yes, indie publishing is enabling a tsunami of poor-quality books, but critics who fixate on drek are blinded to the bigger picture. Drek quickly becomes invisible because readers ignore or reject it.  The other, more important side of this story is that self-publishing is unleashing a tsunami of high-quality works.  When you view drek in the broader context, you realize that drek is irrelevant.  In fact, drek is yin to quality’s yang.  You must have one to have the other.  Self-publishing platforms like Smashwords have transferred editorial curation from publishers to readers, and in the process has unleashed a greater quantity and diversity of high-quality content then ever possible before.

The biggest threat to every indie or traditionally-published author is the glut of high-quality low-cost works.  The quality and potency of your competition has increased dramatically thanks to self-publishing, and the competition will grow stiffer from this day forward.

Ten years ago, publishers artificially constrained book supply by publishing a limited number of new titles each year, and by agents and publishers rejecting nearly everything that came in through the slush pile. There was an artificial scarcity of books.  The supply was further constrained by the inability of physical brick and mortar bookstores to stock every title.  Even big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders could only stock a small fraction of the titles published by publishers each year, and as such they were forced to return slow-selling books to make room for new releases.

. . . .

3. The rate of transition from print books to ebooks is slowing

The early adopters for ebooks have adopted.  The exponential growth in ebook sales over the last six years was driven by a number of factors, most notably a rapid transition from print reading to ebook reading, and the success of ebook retailers such as Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble.  Today, ebooks probably account for between 30 to 35% of dollar sales for the US book market, with genre ebook fiction a bit higher and romance quite a bit higher.  Since ebooks are priced lower than print, the 30-35% statistic understates the amount of reading that has moved to screens.  Most likely (especially when you include free ebooks), screen reading in the ebook format probably accounts for around half or more of all book words read.  But the rate of transition from print to ebooks is slowing.  We’ve reached at state that might best be described as a temporary equilibrium.  I think reading will continue to transition to screens, but at a much slower rate of transition than during the last six years.  The slower rate of growth will therefore limit the number of new eyeballs available for the ever-growing supply of ebooks.

Link to the rest at The Smashwords Blog and thanks to Scath for the tip.

“Smashwords Edition”

26 September 2014

From Smashwords:

Over the last few years, a small but vocal minority of authors and publishers objected to placing phrases such as “Smashwords Edition,” “Distributed by Smashwords,” or “Published by [Author or Publisher Name] at Smashwords” in their front matter.

For authors who wrote us and objected, we allowed their books to be distributed because we’ve always considered this more of a recommendation than a firm requirement.

However, AutoVetter (our automated format-checking technology) continued to flag for it, and this would slow down distribution and cause author frustration. We’re here to put smiles on our authors’ faces, not frowns so we decided to change things a bit.

A few weeks back we modified AutoVetter to stop flagging for it so these books could pass through our Premium Catalog approval process faster with less friction.  Today we updated the Style Guide to clarify that it’s recommended but not required to include one of the above text strings.

Since we’ve always considered this as strongly recommended but not required, we wanted to clarify its optionality rather than allow it to remain a source of divisiveness among those who prefer not to include such phrases.

Why do we recommend the inclusion of one of the above text strings?  A couple reasons:

1.  It helps retailers and authors know who created and distributed the file, which helps Smashwords be the single throat to choke if a customer ever reports a problem with a file.  I’ve lost track of the number of times and the many many hours wasted by our support and engineering teams over the last few years as we tried to help customers determine why their ebook file wasn’t working only to discover that the faulty file wasn’t a Smashwords file.

2.  A book doesn’t get distributed by Smashwords unless it meets the requirements of the Smashwords Style Guide.  Although we can’t vouch for the quality of writing, we can vouch for the quality of the formatting.  We don’t distribute a book unless the formatting is high-quality.  Our formatting requirements are stricter than many retailers and distributors, and as a result we think the average Smashwords-delivered book offers the reader better formatting quality than the average other book.

Link to the rest at Smashwords and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

Leaving Smashwords!

24 July 2014

From author and TPV regular M. C. A. Hogarth:

The bad news: in one month I’ll be shutting down my Smashwords account. If you’ve bought something from me there, now’s the time to make a back-up!

The good news: If you have wanted to buy my work from Kobo or the Apple store, my work is shipping there in big clumps. I think most of my work’s already made it to Kobo, in fact.

But Jaguar, Why? Several of you have asked this question. The answer, in brief: I hate the Smashwords interface. I hate that they are fussy about uploaded documents and have mysterious/inexplicable delays shipping my work to retailers. I hate their quarterly payment schedule. I despise their customer service. Or lack of thereof. And I dislike that they have this quasi-retailer face (more about that later).

Some people have had good experiences with Smashwords. My experience with them, from the moment I started using them, has been a struggle. I have never thought ‘oh, right, I’ll just get this to Smashwords, no problem.’ It’s always ‘Oh, LORD, not the Smashwords part of this process. Why can’t it be as easy as NookPress or the Kindle dashboard??’

. . . .

Some people have asked why I want to leave at all? Can’t I just keep the account open and stop uploading things there? And the answer to that is ‘sure, I could,’ but it creates far too much accounting overhead. As long as I have a Smashwords account, I need to continue keeping tabs on whether they’re paying me on time, whether I’ve gotten a W-4, what’s there that’s not somewhere else, etc. Not to mention baseline computer stuff like ‘has anyone hacked my password,’ ‘has Smashwords changed their terms of service,’ etc. They also have this habit of automatically opting you into new distribution channels, so I’d have to keep track of that.

Finally, I like to update/tidy up my older books as I have the time. Keeping them on Smashwords gives me one more place I have to upload to. I just don’t have the time anymore. I probably never did, I was just better at ignoring my overtaxed schedule’s cries for mercy.

Link to the rest at M. C. A. Hogarth and thanks to Liana for the tip.

Here’s a link to M.C.A. Hogarth’s books

PG has to admit that he long ago gave up on Smashwords because of many of the reasons mentioned. Policy questions like quarterly payments can be a judgement call, but the thing he disliked the most was the crude author interface and the Meatgrinder. It just never seemed very technically sophisticated to him.

It’s really tough to compete against Amazon, but priority one should be to come close to Amazon’s sophistication on the screen.

Smashwords CEO on Why He as an Indie Author Supports Hachette Against Amazon

10 July 2014

From Digital Book World:

Mark Coker, the CEO of self-publishing distribution business Smashwords and an indie author himself, is rooting for Hachette in its current business dispute with Amazon.

Unlike many indie authors, Coker is rooting for Hachette to prevail against Amazon because he believes that a Hachette loss now would make it harder for big publishers to eventually switch to the old “agency” model of selling ebooks (where the publisher sets the price and takes 70% of the proceeds) and that the agency model is good for indie authors.

. . . .

Coker believes that the agency model:

1. Has allowed indie authors to price ebooks lower to consumers, creating a favorable price comparison with traditionally published ebooks, while still earning a large royalty.

. . . .

3. Benefits authors (giving them more sales channels to pursue), publishers (same as authors) and readers (who get more choice when it comes to how and where they purchase ebooks).

Link to the rest at Digital Book World and thanks to Loretta for the tip.

2014 Smashwords Survey Reveals New Opportunties for Indie Authors

7 July 2014

From The Smashwords Blog:

[W]e examined aggregated retail and library sales data of Smashwords books and then crunched the numbers based on various quantifiable characteristics of the book. 

For this year’s survey, we examined over $25 million in customer purchases  aggregated across Smashwords retailers including Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, the store, Sony (now closed), Diesel (closed), Oyster, Scribd, Kobo, public libraries and others.

. . . .

The goal of the survey is to identify Viral Catalysts. 

. . . .

The underlying premise of my Viral Catalyst concept is that Viral Catalysts help drive reader word of mouth because they increase reader satisfaction.  Although every author would love to learn the single secret fast track magic bullet to bestsellerdom, there is no such single secret.  Ebook bestsellers become bestsellers based on multiple Viral Catalyst factors starting with book quality but also influenced by cover design, breath of distribution, pricing, marketing, luck and myriad other factors.  In the Smashwords Survey, we seek to identify potential Viral Catalysts that are quantifiable and therefore measurable.  

. . . .

The ebook sales power curve is extremely steep – This isn’t a surprise, but for the first time we share some numbers along the curve (see the slides in the Series section).  A few titles sell fabulously well and most sell poorly.  An incremental increase is sales rank is usually matched by an exponential increase is sales.  Despite the steep sales curve, a lot of Smashwords authors are earning good income from their books.  Your opportunity as a Smashwords author or publisher is to do those things that give you an incremental advantage so you can climb in sales rank.

Readers prefer longer ebooks – We observed this in the prior surveys.  Longer books sell better, and when you view the data through the prism of the power curve, it becomes clear why longer books give authors such a huge sales advantage.
Pricing – The highest earning indie authors are utilizing lower average prices than the authors who earn less, but this doesn’t mean that ultra-low prices such as $.99 are the path to riches.  $2.99 and $3.99 are the sweet spots for most of the bestsellers.

. . . .

Series yield sales advantage – For the first time, we examine the performance of series books.  This new analysis is enabled by the fact that in September we launched Smashwords Series Manager which allows us to capture enhanced metadata on series.  The results are interesting!  Series books outsell standalone books.  

Link to the rest at Smashwords and thanks to Deb for the tip.

Amazon’s Hachette Dispute Foreshadows What’s Next for Indie Authors

27 May 2014

From the Smashwords Blog:

Amazon and Hachette Book Group are locked in an epic battle over the future of ebook publishing.

The outcome of this dispute will have permanent ramifications for publishers and indie authors alike.

On one side you have Hachette, the fourth largest trade book publisher. Hachette earns over 1/3 of its US sales from ebooks. Hachette wants agency terms for its books. Hachette wants to control the list price of its books and earn 70% list from each sale. Smashwords announced agency terms with our retail partners in 2010.

On the other side is Amazon, a fierce opponent to agency pricing. Amazon wants the ability to discount books, and to enable greater discounting Amazon wants a larger percentage of the publisher’s pie. A story out Friday by Jeffrey Trachtenburg of the Wall Street Journal confirms Amazon is seeking to reduce the percentage paid to publishers. Amazon is seeking to weaken or abolish the agency model.

. . . .

In an attempt to force Hachette to capitulate, Amazon is employing a shock and awe campaign of scorched earth retribution against Hachette. According to multiple press reports, Amazon has increased Hachette’s book prices to its customers then turned its automated merchandising algorithms into attack dogs that encourage customers to consider “similar items at a lower price”; Amazon is telling customers Hachette print books are out of stock; and is denying Hachette the ability to list preorders. For a company that prides itself in customer service, these are all customer-unfriendly moves. These actions also punish Hachette authors, who through no fault of their own will suffer reduced sales at Amazon.

For the last four years, indie ebook authors have endured similar iron-fisted policy enforcement and lost earnings with Amazon’s KDP price-matching, even when Amazon knew the out-of-sync ebook prices were not the author’s intention or fault. Amazon plays business like war. Overwhelming force pushes weak hands to surrender and comply.

. . . .

Amazon is playing a game of divide and conquer. Amazon knows if they weaken or cancel their agency agreement with Hachette that the other publishers will have less leverage to hold the line on agency. And whatever concessions Amazon gets, other retailers will want the same, further undermining the ability of publishers to control their prices or maintain their profits.

. . . .

In 2014, publishers are more disposable to Amazon than they once were, thanks in part to the rise of indie authorship, and thanks also to better business diversification. Amazon’s business is no longer as dependent upon books as it once was. They sell everything under the sun, from diapers to shoes to cloud services to groceries to media devices.

Books represent only one of hundreds of layers of icing on the cake of Amazon. Amazon can lose money on books while still operating a profitable business.

Pure-play book retailers – Kobo and Barnes & Noble for example, must earn money from book sales. Unlike Amazon, they don’t have the financial resources to sell books at a loss forever. Publishers must also earn money from book sales, otherwise they can’t keep the lights on.

Link to the rest at Smashwords Blog and thanks to Bill for the tip.

OverDrive and Smashwords Ink Deal to Distribute Indie Author Ebooks to Libraries

21 May 2014

From a Smashwords press release via Digital Book World:

Smashwords and OverDrive in Worldwide eBook Distribution Agreement

200,000 eBooks from 80,000 indie authors and small independent presses
to be available through OverDrive’s global library network

OverDrive, the world’s largest library eBook platform, and Smashwords, the world’s largest distributor of self-published eBooks, today announced that 200,000 self-published titles will be available for public libraries in OverDrive’s global network.

. . . .

To streamline collection development, OverDrive and Smashwords are creating curated lists of Smashwords bestsellers and popular genres. Libraries will soon have the option, for example, to purchase the complete catalog of the top 100, 500 or 1,000 bestselling Smashwords authors. Smashwords will also produce curated buy-lists by genre, such
as the top 1,000 bestselling Smashwords romance titles, or the top 1,000 bestselling mysteries and thrillers.

Under this agreement, readers may borrow each eBook an unlimited number of times on a one copy/one user model on a perpetual basis. Alternately, patrons can purchase the eBook from the library website and support their local libraries through OverDrive’s “Buy It Now” feature.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World and thanks to Caro and others for the tip.

Female Authors Dominating Smashwords Ebook Bestseller Lists

14 April 2014

From the Smashwords blog:

Each month, Publishers Weekly publishes the Smashwords Self-Published Ebook Bestseller List.  We report our bestsellers based on dollar sales aggregated across the Smashwords distribution network which includes retailers such as iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the Smashwords store and others.

The other day I was browsing our February 2014 Smashwords bestseller list at Publishers Weekly and realized that all the top 25 bestsellers were written by women.  Cool beans.

Wondering if this was a fluke, I looked at our December 2013 Smashwords bestseller list at PWand bingo, same thing.  All 25 books were written by women.

Then I looked at the bestseller list for November 2013.   Same thing again.  100% women.

Our ebook bestsellers for October 2013?  You guessed it, 100% women.

. . . .

Why are women dominating the Smashwords bestseller lists, other than the fact that these women are all super-awesome writers?  One likely factor is that romance is the #1 bestselling genre at Smashwords, and romance is overwhelmingly written by women.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  I’m constantly blown away the smarts, savvy and sophistication of romance authors.  These ladies have pioneered many of the ebook publishing and distribution best practices that so many indies take for granted today.

Link to the rest at Smashwords

10 Reasons Self Published Authors Will Capture 50 Percent of the Ebook Market by 2020

8 March 2014

From Mark Coker via The Huffington Post:

There’s a debate raging about the impact self-published ebooks will have on the book publishing business.

By my estimates, self-published ebooks will account for 50 percent of ebook sales by 2020.

. . . .

On one side of the debate, you have people such as myself who believe all signs point toward indie ebook authors capturing an ever-greater percentage of the book market.

On the other side you have folks who think self publishing represents an insignificant portion of the book market. The naysayers think we indie optimists are delusional.

. . . .

1. Print will decline as a book-reading format — More readers will continue transitioning from print to screens. The transition to screens will be driven by the low prices, selection, exceptional discoverability and instant reading pleasure delivered by ebooks.

. . . .

3. The perceived value of publishers will decline in the eyes of writers — As the importance of print distribution declines, the importance of publishers will decline. Prior to the rise of ebooks, publishing was a print-centric game. Publishers controlled the printing press and the all-important access to retail stores. Print distribution remains an important glue that holds many writers to their traditional publishers. When publisher stickiness decreases, writers will be tempted to explore the indie author camp.

. . . .

8. Writers are discovering the joy of self publishing — If publishers are from Mars, authors are from Venus. They speak different languages and hold different values. The rewards of self publishing transcend the conventional and myopic commercial-metric value systems of publishers. Indie authors are enjoying total creative control, faster time to market, ownership over their publishing future, and the flexibility to innovate and evolve their immortal ebooks which will never go out of print. Indie authors enjoy the freedom to serve their fans as they want to serve them. Icing on the indie author’s cake: Indie ebook authors earn royalty rates four to five times higher than they’d earn from traditional publishers.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post

Hugh Howey and the Indie Author Revolt

20 February 2014

From Mark Coker via Publishers Weekly:

With a debate brewing about how much indie authors can, and do, earn from their writing–much of it sparked by a blog post from author Hugh Howey–PW asked Mark Coker, founder of indie publishing platform Smashwords, to offer his two cents. Here is Coker’s take:

The rift between authors and publishers grew more pronounced last week with the release and ensuing controversy surrounding Hugh Howey’s Authorearnings Web site. Critics have accused Howey and his anonymous Data Magician of perpetuating horrible crimes against statistics. Supporters–most of them indie authors and indie author sympathizers – hailed Howey’s conclusions as further evidence that authors no longer need publishers.

The critics of Howey’s data and methodology are missing the point. The thrust of Howey’s conclusions is that indie authors are taking e-book market share from traditional publishers. Whether the indie percentage today is 10% or 50% of the overall e-book market or a particular genre doesn’t matter. It’s not worth arguing. What matters is the directional trend, and the strong social, cultural and economic forces that will propel the trend forward in a direction unfavorable to publishers.

The indie author insurrection has become a revolution that will strip publishers of power they once took for granted.

By every measure of great historical or contemporary revolutions, the indie author revolution is real and gaining strength every day. At the heart of every revolution is growing disparity between haves and have-nots, abuse of power, and the innate human desire for greater self-determination, freedom, fairness and respect.

. . . .

I’m in the moderate camp. I think the business of Big Publishing is broken, but the people of Big Publishing are not. Although it would be beneficial to my business for big publishers to collapse, it’s not the outcome I desire. I think the world is better served with more publishing options. I want to see more publishers, more self-published authors, more books, more retailers, and more book-loving people earning a living contributing their talent to books and book culture.

For decades, aspiring authors were taught to bow before the altar of Big Publishing. Writers were taught that publishers alone possessed the wisdom to determine if a writer deserved passage through the pearly gates of author heaven. Writers were taught that publishers had an inalienable right to this power, and that this power was for the common good of readers. They were taught rejection made them stronger. They were taught that without a publisher’s blessing, they were a failed writer.

. . . .

As more and more indies achieve commercial success on their own terms, the stigma of self-publishing is evaporating. Indie authors have become the cool kids club. It’s a movement where its members self-identify as indie. It’s a worldwide cultural movement among writers. Indies are regularly hitting all of the most prestigious retailers and news media bestseller lists. Many indies have turned their backs on traditional publishers.

. . . .

One of my favorite moments since launching Smashwords in 2008 was a conversation I had with Donald Maass two years ago at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I told Donald I thought he was underestimating the impact self-publishing would have on the publishing industry, and he responded, “and I think you’re delusional.”

Today, the myth of traditional publishing is unraveling. The stigma of traditional publishing is on the rise.

. . . .

Authors are also disappointed by Big Publishing’s misguided foray into vanity publishing with Pearson/Penguin’s 2012 acquisition of Author Solutions, a company known for selling over-priced publishing packages to unsuspecting writers. Multiple publishers have formed sock puppet imprints powered by ASI: Simon & Schuster’s Archway, Penguin Random House’s Partridge Publishing in India, HarperCollins’ Westbow, Hay House’s Balboa Press, Writer’s Digests’ Abbott Press, and Harlequin’s Dellarte Press. These deals with the devil confirmed the worst fears held by indie authors who already questioned if publishers viewed writers as partners or as chattel.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly and thanks to Paul for the tip.

PG thinks Mark has hit on an explanation for why Big Publishing and its associates have reacted so vehemently over the Author Earnings information. In a former era, they would have blown it off, but this time, it hit a nerve.

All along, they’ve believed they were the cool kids. Tradpub authors swallowed declining advances and dodgy royalty reports from their publishers because they were the cool kids. Underpaid workers in Big Publishing accepted the low wages because when they mentioned they worked for Random House at parties, everybody thought they were cool kids.

Now indie authors, a bunch of losers if there ever was one, are taking away the cool kids brand from traditional publishing. Of course, tradpub is going to give them the mean girls treatment, but it’s not sticking any more.

The geeks have taken over and traditional publishing is looking like the Losers Club.

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