In the first part of this two-part series, we took a look at some of the ‘basic mechanics’ of indie publishing, in terms of best practices. In this post, we’ll look at the end game for publishers—the best practices for getting your book in front of readers.
Once you have your manuscript edited, laid out nicely, and accompanied by an amazing cover with a brilliant book description, it’s time to face the world.
Distribution can be tricky for indie authors, if only because there are so many options available. And there are questions:
- Should I go wide (target distribution to multiple retailers) or stay exclusive (stick with a single retailer)?
- Should I use an aggregate distributor to reach multiple eBook retailers, or should I go direct to each vendor?
Your answers to those questions can determine everything from the type of audience you can reach to how much time you’ll spend on checking and tracking sales and royalties each month, instead of focusing on writing more books.
Deciding on a path comes down to something deceptively simple: Consider the type of writing career you’re after, and choose the strategy that has the best chance of getting you there.
It’s ‘deceptively simple,’ because the fact is you can do one or the other or, in some cases, all the above.
The key word is ‘strategy.’
Let’s look at all three approaches.
In the indie publishing world, ‘exclusivity’ refers to choosing a single distributor, such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and committing to publishing only with that vendor. There are certain advantages to this, at least for KDP. Amazon has a program called KDP Select that allows authors to place their book in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program—a subscription-based service that lets readers pay a low monthly fee and check out several eBooks at once, at no additional charge. Think of it like Netflix for eBooks.
Authors who participate in KDP Select are committed to a minimum of 90 days exclusivity with Amazon—meaning they cannot publish or sell the book elsewhere, even on their own websites, during that time.
Amazon pays participating authors based on page reads. The rate for each page can fluctuate, usually somewhere between .0045 and .005 cents.
Read that closely … that’s in the thousandth of a cent range.
It doesn’t seem like much, but as more readers discover your “free” book and give it a try, you can benefit from a cumulative effect. Many authors make a very good living from page reads, and don’t mind that their books are only being discovered and read by customers who own Kindles or read from Kindle apps.
The downside to this system doesn’t seem all that alarming at first, but it’s something to consider: Amazon essentially controls the fate of your author career.
Amazon, like any business, is focused on its customers and its bottom line, and they do not necessarily concern themselves with the wants, desires, or needs of their suppliers (in this case, authors like you). So at any time they can change the page read rate (it happens at least once a quarter), they can change their terms of service (it happens frequently), and they can even end or significantly alter programs that were beneficial to authors (yep, this has happened, too).
Exclusivity remains a good way for authors with only one or two books to get a good head start, and build some momentum. New authors can earn money from page reads where they might never see actual book sales. Readers discover these new authors, seek out their next book, and sometimes spread the word about them. It can be a very good way to make money and build a readership from scratch.
Wide distribution means making your book available on multiple distribution channels. Rather than limiting your book to one vendor, such as Amazon, you make it available to others such as Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and more.
Offering your book in these additional storefronts has the advantage of making you available to readers of all stripes. You can reach pockets of readers worldwide that Amazon may not service with their catalog, and your readership will also be actual customers—people who purchase books rather than accessing them for “free” through a subscription. There’s a subtle shift in customer psychology here that can be very important, in terms of how your writing career develops.
Training customers to ‘buy’ instead of ‘rent’ your books can benefit you in terms of long-term growth. It has been shown that customers participating in programs such as Kindle Unlimited, or who download books for free from various services online (legal and illegal alike), often tend to ‘collect’ books rather than read them. So while they may eagerly download your book when they find it, they may keep it sitting unread and unloved on their device.
Customers, on the other hand, have a greater tendency to read what they’ve purchased, because of the investment they’ve made. They want to get their money’s worth. And once they’ve read a book, and if they enjoyed it, they are more likely to recommend it to a friend.
Going wide offers you the advantage of building a platform (your audience, plus your reach) on a broader scale. You’re not limited to just one subset of readers, but can be available to anyone, worldwide, who might discover you. That changes the way you do marketing, the way you communicate with your readers, even the type of books you might write, in the end—with reader feedback influencing the direction of your work.
A disadvantage of wide distribution is that it’s a long game. Money is often slow to materialize, as are faithful readers. The best marketing tool in your arsenal is to write the next book, and the next after that, and it can often feel like you’re pouring effort into a bottomless well. The message then is to take heart, keep at it, and eventually you’ll see the needle start to move.
Cold comfort, and it makes the speed of exclusivity that much more appealing.
Think of it like the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force. One is quicker, faster, results come more easily. The other is slower, like cooking a roast—you may be hungry the whole time, but the payoff is worth the wait. We won’t touch on which of these may or may not be “evil.” That’s up to you to decide. But let’s just say Vader probably published with KDP Select. (Could. Not. Resist.)
Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t have your cake and eat it too. And with ice cream, even.
This is a hybridized approach, but it comes with the benefits of both choices and very few of the downsides. But if you are a new author, in particular, you may consider going exclusive for a minimum of 90 days, and then go wide when it’s strategically advantageous to do so.
Here’s the general plan:
- Publish your first book and go exclusive to KDP Select.
- Promote your book to everyone, not just Amazon readers (we call this “marketing wide”). You’ll get a few complaints from readers on other platforms, saying they can’t get your book and don’t want/like/need Amazon. Politely apologize to them with the message that “it’s coming for other platforms soon. Would you get on my mailing list so you’ll know as soon as it’s available?” Having people complaining that they can’t get your book is a good thing! And building a mailing list (with services such as MailChimp) will be a huge benefit to you later.
- During the 90 days of exclusivity, write at least one more book. Publish this book to KDP Select as well.
- During that 90 days, write another book, and publish it to KDP Select.
- Once you have at least three books out (in less than a year!), unenroll the first book from KDP Select and make it available for 30-day pre-order on other platforms. You can do this using an aggregator service such as Draft2Digital, or in some cases you can do it with the vendor directly.
- Repeat that step with each of the three books, setting up a 30-day pre-order as each book finishes its 90-day commitment with KDP.
- Remember all those people who asked about your book on other platforms? If you got them on a mailing list, now’s the time to start emailing them to let them know about your pre-orders.
- Continue to enroll books in KDP Select and benefit from page reads, then move them out into pre-orders, until eventually you are making enough income from direct book sales that you don’t have to bother with exclusivity anymore.
- Always work to grow and maintain your mailing list, because these are your loyal readers and customers.
It’s a basic strategy, but it has worked for hundreds of authors.
It’s also flexible. If you find that you’re not getting enough momentum with your promotions to justify moving your book out of exclusivity, then focus on that part of your business for a time and leave the book where it is. Keep building a mailing list, keep promoting your book far and wide, and keep generating as much buzz and excitement for it as you can. Eventually you can start moving your books to other platforms without worrying about losing a revenue stream.
Best practice: Think strategically about which distribution methods work best for your goals as an author.
It’s a bit different than the best practices we outlined in the previous post, but it’s worth putting in your time and energy to create a plan and work that plan.
Aggregate vs. Direct
You have a few choices when it comes to going wide. An aggregate service, such as Draft2Digital, allows you to upload your manuscript once, enter all its metadata (information such as the book description, the title, the author name, the categories and genres it fits into, etc.), and then publish your book to all the major eBook retailers online. You also gain the benefit of having all of your sales and royalties presented in one dashboard. You can set prices, take books out of distribution (for whatever reason), and update any covers or information all from one place.
The downside of an aggregate is that you usually pay a percentage of your royalties in exchange for the distribution. This is typically low—for Draft2Digital it’s 10%. And most authors consider it a fair trade for the convenience of having to deal with only one interface.
Going direct, on the other hand, means that you take your manuscript to individual distributors. You have the advantage of keeping more of your royalty (typically you make 35% to 70%, depending on the vendor). But the tradeoff is that you have multiple sales dashboards, multiple sets of formatting rules, and multiple customer support teams to deal with if things go wrong.
Again, you could also hybridize these two strategies, using an aggregate to cover several distributors while going direct to a select few. There are a lot of reasons why you might choose to do this, and a complete list is beyond the scope of this post. But as one example, you might find yourself distributing directly to Kobo, if you live in Canada, but using Draft2Digital to reach other markets worldwide that might be unavailable to you otherwise.
Best practice: Really … use an aggregate. The upsides far outweigh the downsides, and it saves you a ton of time and hassle. More time for writing.
Either way, it’s Indie
At this point you have a series of strategies that can help you take your book out to the masses. The best practices listed here should be taken as suggestions, not law. You should always dig around a bit to find the strategy that works best for you.
The important part is that being an indie author gives you a level of control over your work and your career that you could never find elsewhere. Go out there, be bold, and know that even if you make a mistake it’s easily corrected. You can always back up and take the alternate path. That’s the power of indie. It’s your power now.