The self-publisher’s perspective of the ebook market

The writer Rosen Trevithick said this here thing:

For goodness sake Kobo, I took a risk publishing some of my titles with a relatively small eBook vendor. It took days to jump through your formatting hoops and I lost my bonuses for being exclusive to Amazon. I did this because I wanted to support an alternative to the market leader. You reward me by stabbing small publishing companies in the back. I’ll think twice about publishing with you in the future because you clearly aren’t ready to earn a larger share of the market.

Everything she says is true. But… I’d like to use this current crisis and her point about Kobo shafting small publishers as an excuse to look at what the ebook market looks like for a self- or small publisher.

  • Kobo’s search has always sucked (discoverability is non-existent) and they clearly have some sort of infrastructure problem (otherwise they’d have done the ‘purge’ the same way Amazon did, by flipping all suspect titles to Draft and forcing people to submit via a tighter process). They’re also clearly willing to completely shaft everybody using their self-serve publishing platform Writing Life whenever it suits them, PR-wise.
  • WH Smith. Non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love. And now their site is shuttered.
  • Waterstones. Again, non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love.
  • Foyles. Ditto.
  • Insert random bookstore’s Adobe DRM-based ebook platform. Ditto.
  • Feedbooks. Love the people behind Feedbooks but most self-publishers won’t even have heard about them, and you can only offer your stuff for free.
  • B&N Nook. Volatile as hell. Seems to be in terminal decline. Also unavailable to non-US self-publishers.
  • iBooks. A major hassle to use and submit. And, for most people I’ve spoken to, near non-existent sales.
  • Smashwords. Only really useful as a way to get into the above stores. Otherwise, meh.
  • Kindle. Stagnant platform. Almost all of the new features (series, Kindle Shorts, etc.) belong to Amazon Publishing and aren’t self-serve (and after the WH Smith porno brouhaha, two guesses as to why that is). But, it is where all of the sales are. And exclusivity offers several features that are likely to increase reach, visibility, and sales.

For those of us interested in a more open and varied ebook market, there is a singular harsh truth we must accept:

Amazon is playing the game better than the rest. That’s why they have the biggest share of the market.

I’d bet that even if Amazon abandoned discounts across the board, they’d still have their current marketshare simply because they seem to be doing a better job. Even their Kindle for iOS app has improved into borderline tolerability after the latest update.

So, if the EPUB crowd wants to compete, they need to up their game.

But, no. Instead they are either in a tailspin (B&N, WH Smith’s ecommerce side) or seem to be perpetually operating with all weapons set to ‘bland’ (Kobo, iBooks).

And, which is the fun bit, whenever something goes wrong, they don’t seem to hesitate to shaft the self-publisher.

So, I find it hard to blame any self-publisher who decides to go exclusive with Amazon. Nor do I blame any consumer who decides to buy a Kindle device or sticks to Kindle ebooks only. You don’t win customers by appealing to their charity. You have to give suppliers a reason to work with you, and buyers a reason to buy from you.


ETA: At the moment, the most sensible strategy for consumers is to buy from Amazon (and make DeDRMed backups if they are computer literate enough to Google and then use a drag and drop app). KF8 files convert nicely to EPUBs is you plan on moving to an EPUB-based platform in the future. At the same time the most sensible strategy for a small publisher is ‘it depends’.

Caught between madmen and mercenaries

This is not a comment on the recent court ruling on Apple, agency contracts, and price fixing.

But a cursory glance at the history of ebook retail makes one conclusion crystal clear:

Ebook retail is a horrible horrible business to be in.

On one side you have self-destructive madmen like the big publishers who have done the following lovely things to their ebook retail partners:

  • Abruptly changing all ebook distribution contracts to agency. Which would be fine if delays on their part hadn’t meant that smaller ebook retailers in many cases spent months without any inventory from the big publishers.
  • Complete refusal to even consider tactics that would level the playing field for the retailer, such as going DRM-free or adopting a wholesaling strategy that would let ebook retailers implement in-app purchases on iOS devices.
  • Near nonexistent quality control of ebook formatting, shipping titles with errors ranging from extensive spelling errors not in any other format, to garish formatting errors, even to the point of text being missing from the ebook edition.
  • Next to zero participation in developing ebook format and ebook-related standards, mostly letting tech-oriented companies run rampant with no consideration to production or distribution costs.

This is without even considering the things publishers could be doing to specifically help ebook sales such as creating ebook-optimised covers.

On the other side you have the cutthroat mercenaries. Amazon seems willing to run its entire Kindle business at break-even, which would be fine if it didn’t also make massive development investments in hardware and software. Investments that it seems content with never recouping. Apple seems willing to butcher lucrative product categories because of its inability to let any buck pass by an iOS device without demanding a thirty cent cut.

Anybody planning to start a new ebook retail store would be stabbed in the back by publishers or cut to ribbons by ruthless competitors before the first year is out.

Your suppliers have no concern for the viability of your business and are quite willing to ruin it for little to no personal gain. Your competitors have corporate parents who are willing to run the ebook retail unit either at a loss or break-even (and that’s without taking their substantial R&D investments into account, most of which are focused on developing or protecting vertically integrated silos, not innovations that actually benefit the customer).

In short, it’s a sector that desperately needs new, competent, and innovative entrants but is too irrational to sustain any sane business development or investment.

A question only you can answer

Knights and Necromancers three and four are finally out on Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes, Below is a full list of links to where you can find them. But first…

I have a question only you can answer. Which isn’t saying much, since every question I can’t answer is one only you can answer, ‘you’ being the quintessential ‘not me’.

The question is this:

What reviewers do you think might be interested in reviewing the Knights and Necromancers series?

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