To Smashwords or not to Smashwords: The realities of using an indie eBook distributor
Posted by Bob Mayer
NOTE on 10 February 2010: As of 1 December our comments reference Smashwords are no longer relevant. If you scroll below you’ll see Mark Coker from Smashwords comments and the link to the news that Smashwords now gives author control over pricing. I am extremely impressed that Smashwords adapted its business model and also that Mr. Coker takes the time to go around the Internet and address concerns about his business. We do the same at Who Dares Wins Publishing and can only imagine how time-consuming that can be for Mr. Coker.
Self-publishing has been around for a very long time. It’s not a new concept. However, over the last few years, self-publishing has taken an exciting turn with advent of eReaders. In the past, self-published authors either had to go with a vanity publisher, paying money for the so-called service of “physical distribution”, which wasn’t distribution at all but rather simply an availability of the book via Ingram or other sources. Or, they had to find ways to overcome the lack of distribution with hand sales. As an author who speaks across the country to thousands of people each year, I can tell you how hard it is to hand sell any book, even for a NY Times Best-Selling author.
In the early days of eBooks, self-published authors relied on their own resources, such as putting them on their websites. I tried this when I first got the rights back to my Atlantis series. I offered the eBook as a PDF. I sold a handful of copies despite my website getting thousands of hits a week. Even before I tried, Stephen King tried eBooks through his website with Ride The Bullet. It didn’t work out too well for him either.
Then along came eReaders and companies like Smashwords, which is a distribution site for eBooks. Smashwords sells eBooks, but they also offer conversions and distribution to such sites as Amazon, iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, B&N and Diesel. In order to be included on these sites you must have an ISBN (you can get it through Smashwords for free, but it is also their ISBN, not yours, which is a factor) and you must make it into the Smashwords Premium Catalog. In order to do that, you must format the document to their specification. When WDWPUB printed out this document back in January of this year it was 25 pages long. It’s actually a good guide to follow as it cleans up much of what Word does that the average user doesn’t know, making the code in the copy much cleaner. Smashwords also requires that you include in your title page “Smashwords Edition”.
It seems like a win-win situation for authors and Smashwords, but there are some problems in this system. Problems severe enough that we have pulled our books from the Smashwords website and stopped using them as a distributor.
The first problem we encountered was not showing up on the sites. We uploaded our books in January and February. It took one try to get into the Premium Catalog almost all the time. There was one book that we had a problem. It wasn’t bad language, but problems with putting the WDWPUB logo where we wanted it. The last book we uploaded to the site was in June of this year. During that entire time, our books never made it into the Sony eBook store. We did, however, make it into Kobo and B&N. There is where problem number two happened.
Imagine my excitement when I get an email from Jenni Holbrook-Talty indicating we finally made it into Barnes and Noble as an eBook. That was great. WDWPUB was taking over the world. We were selling really well at Amazon via Kindle, which we did ourselves. No need to use a distributor when you can do it yourself, and we were about to go from 35% to 70% royalty on Amazon. The future looked bright. That was until I checked Amazon statements at the end of the month to find out that we weren’t making 70% royalty and even worse, that we weren’t even making 35% of the 5.99 (fiction) and 7.99 (non-fiction) that we had set as the price. No. We were making 35% of $2.49! We had no say in the price changes, had not been alerted to them, and it cost us quite a bit of money that month.
After researching the problem, we found out, as many other people did, that B&N and Kobo were slashing prices of our eBooks to $2.99. Amazon has a web-crawler, which found this out, and as it states in the contract, they reduce their price to below that of their competition. From a business standpoint, it makes sense for them, but not for me when I’m the one who wants to set the price of MY product. My business was losing money. And frankly, one would think slashing the price would mean increased sales, but there was no discernible increase. (We have pricing NOT to be critical in increasing or decreasing sales, as long as you stay within a reasonable variance.)
This brings me to problem number three. Thus far we had sold only 15 copies TOTAL from January to June via Smashword site. We weren’t on the Sony Site and thus far, there had been no reporting regarding B&N, Apple, Kobo and Diesel, so we had absolutely no idea if we even sold a single copy on those. Now, I know publishing is very slow as I sit and wait for my royalty statement from Random House (still no word on my proposal of reversal of royalties). However, with Kindle and LSI we’ve gotten used to almost instant sales reporting. We made the executive decision to pull our books from Smashwords all together in late July.
It took a while for the prices to go back up on Amazon and for our royalties to go back up to 70% mostly because it took nearly 4 weeks for B&N and Kobo to pull our books even though we deleted them from the Smashwords site.
About a month later, we got a report from Smashwords with an accounting of what we sold on other sites. 11 books in the iBookstore. 69 Books at B&N. 34 books at Kobo. Over the course of 4 months that’s all the books we sold. We’re selling that-plus in a day without Smashwords and now that we’ve taken our books down, we’re back up to making 70% on the price we choose to set for our product.
We are also back in B&N eBooks as they now have their own version of “self-publishing” through Pubit. We’re also back in the iBookstore, which is a little harder to manage. You have to have a Mac and create an ePub file. Not as easy as many think. The free software on the Internet that converts files to ePub doesn’t work. We had to use InDesign from Adobe. It was an expensive investment, but well worth it as we are seeing steady increases in sales on all fronts.
I don’t think Smashwords is bad. The price change wasn’t their fault. I have no idea about the accounting, although we get daily reporting from B&N and the iBookstore, so we’re not sure why they have such a problem getting reporting on a monthly basis. And they still haven’t paid us for all the sales outside of their site. Even Amazon is only two months behind in paying. Same with LSI and the iBookstore is only a month behind.
My business partner wants to consider putting our books on the site again, just not use them for distribution. It’s a possibility, but it’s a lot of work formatting a document just for them when sales are so few comparatively. And yes, you do have to format it just for them. If you use their format on Kindle, it won’t be as readable and well, the same goes for other places as well.
All in all, being forewarned is being forearmed.
Here is an interesting article about the changes in publishing.
Please note that comment #5 is from the founder of Smashwords and he raises some interesting points. We are bringing our books back onto Smashwords as we gain a greater understanding of the system
About Bob MayerBob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.
Posted on October 13, 2010, in Social Media and the Writer, The Publishing Borg, WDWPUB and tagged blog, books, business, Change, eBooks, ePublishing, fiction, Future, POD, Technology, Technology and Publishing, The Espresso Book Machine, The Future of Publishing, WDWPUB, writer, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.