Pronoun Is Dead: The Ebook Retail Universe Redux

by | Nov 15, 2017

By David Kudler

I’m bummed.

On November 6, Macmillan’s Pronoun, the distributor that I had begun to rely on more and more over the past year, announced that it was shutting down its operations. No new books can be uploaded; Pronoun will remove all existing books from distribution on January 15, 2018.

Here’s a helpful set of FAQs that Pronoun has provided about what the shutdown means. Here’s another that details what happens when you remove a title from Pronoun and republish it elsewhere.

There are two small bright points:

  1. You can continue to edit existing titles on Pronoun until they shut down (which is helpful, because I was planning on holding holiday sales on a few).
  2. Draft2Digital announced, the following day, that it will henceforth distribute to Amazon.

This last is great news for D2D users, making it (along with IngramSpark) the only one-stop shop to distribute to the largest English-language ebook retailers.

However, this announcement didn’t quite fill the void in my heart caused by news of Pronoun’s demise for several reasons:

  1. Unlike Pronoun, D2D takes a 10% cut of your royalties.i
  2. Unlike Pronoun, ebooks released through D2D will earn only 35% royalty if priced outside the $2.99–$9.99 range.
  3. Like Pronoun, ebooks released through D2D can’t take advantage of Amazon Marketing Services advertising.

So where does that leave indie publishers looking to release new ebooks?

Well, Amazon is by far the largest slice of most independent publisher’s ebook-sales pie. Having to give up 10% of that revenue is hard; losing the ability to leverage AMS ads hurts as well. Getting a full 70% on all ebook sales, no matter the price, was one of the many things I loved about Pronoun.

Rest in peace, Pronoun. We hardly knew you, but we will remember you fondly.

Here’s what I’m recommending:

That being said, I thought it would be helpful to update my list of retailers and distributors from two years ago:

Cut Out the Middle Man: Top Ebook Retailers

What retails and distributors do you want to consider selling your ebooks through?

Okay. I’m assuming that you’re in the US — which isn’t a given, I know. (Most of this information is true for non-US publishers as well.)

That being the case, these are the major retailers you will probably be looking at (listed in alphabetical order):

  • Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
  • Apple’s iTunes Connect (iBooks Store)
  • Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press
  • Google Play
  • Rakuten’s Writing Life (Kobo)

These are the five largest ebook retailers in the US; most of them sell throughout the world, either directly from their own websites (Amazon, Apple, Google), or both directly as well as indirectly through affiliates (Rakuten). At this point, Barnes and Noble only sells in the US.

These are the sites with which I usually have clients sign up for accounts. Here is a basic rundown of each:

Amazon


Publishing site: https://kdp.amazon.com
File formats accepted: ePub, HTML, mobi, Word doc/docx
Royalty:

  1. 70% of sales priceiv if between $2.99 and $9.99. $0.15/megabyte “transport fee” deducted from each download. Available on some international sites other than Amazon.com only for KindleSelect/KindleUnlimited titles.v
  2. 35% for any ebook between $10.00 and $199.99.vi No transport fee.

Term: Payable monthly, sixty days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Conversion fee: None

Amazon is the center of the self-publishing universe right now, so the Kindle Direct Publishing program is a must for ebook publishing. Depending on whom you ask, a typical publisher gets between 60% and 85% of its ebook revenue through sales on the Kindle Store.

Among the perks of selling directly through Amazon:

  • Taking advantage of the Amazon Marketing Service ads.
  • Taking advantage (or possibly being taken advantage by) the KindleSelect/Kindle Unlimited subscription service (which requires a 90-day period of exclusivity).

Apple


Publishing site: https://itunesconnect.apple.com
File formats accepted: ePub, iBooks Author
Royalty: 70% of retail price. No transport fee.
Term: Payable monthly, forty-five days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Conversion fee: None

According to most analysts, Apple is the second most important retail source. Sales typically make up 5% to 15% of an ebook publisher’s revenue. The downside: You can only upload to Apple’s iTunes Connect using one of two Mac-only pieces of software: iTunes Producer or iBooks Author. So if you’re not in the Apple ecosystem already, you probably want to use a distributor to get your ebooks up there.

Barnes and Noble


Publishing site: https://nookpress.com
File formats accepted: ePub, Word doc/docx, HTML, RTF (rich text file), TXT (plain text)
Royalty: 65% of retail price between $0.99 and $9.99; 40% over $9.99. No transport fee.
Term: Payable monthly, sixty days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Conversion fee: None

Barnes and Noble sales typically make up 5% to 10% of an ebook publisher’s revenue. News of the Nook’s death is, if not greatly exaggerated, at least not going to happen before the end of the year.

Google


Publishing site: https://play.google.com/books/publish
File formats accepted: ePub, PDF (which can be created from Word docs on both Mac and PC by using the Print command)
Royalty: 52% of retail price (though they will always discount the retail price—if calculated from the discounted price, I believe they pay out ~60%). No transport fee.
Term: Payable monthly, forty-five days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Conversion fee: None

As mentioned above, Google has not accepted new publishers for a while. If you already have an account — great. If not, use one of the distributors listed below to sell there.

Of the five retailers listed, most publishers would list Google Play as #5, providing between 2% and 10% of total revenue. However, don’t ever count Google out. Also, the bookstore’s reach is truly global, and your books will show up on Google Books, linked to any print edition. vii

Kobo


Publishing site: https://writinglife.kobobooks.com
File formats accepted: ePub, PDF (which can be created from Word docs on both Mac and PC by using the Print command)
Royalty: 70% of retail price. No transport fee.
Term: Payable monthly, forty-five days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Conversion fee: None

Although Kobo’s presence in the US market is small, it’s a global giant, selling both directly (through its own ebook stores in many countries) and distributed through affiliates like the UK’s Waterstones, France’s FNAC, Japan’s Rakuten, and many others.

I’ll Get It for You Wholesale: Ebook Distributors and Aggregators

Although there are many other companies (ScribD, Overdrive, Gardners, etc.) that you probably want to make your ebook available through, most of them are either difficult or impossible to create vendor accounts with, and so it is important to use a distributor/aggregator to get your ebooks up on these other sites.

Most of these sites will provide you with a free ISBN for your ebook. This may or may not be a good thing. That will make the distributor the publisher of record (as in, their name will show up in the publisher slot on most retail sites); also, you’re not supposed to use the ISBN except on sites to which the aggregator distributes.

These companies will also distribute to some or all of the Big Five retailers listed above.

Here are some of the distributors you want to look at (you’ll probably only work with one or at most two):

  • BookBaby
  • Draft2Digital
  • EbookIt
  • IngramSpark!
  • PublishDrive
  • Smashwords

There are others; these are the ones with which I have had direct experience, and which are most widely used. If you’ve had experience with other distributors, please share your experience in the comments!

These companies make their money in some combination of three ways:

  1. Cut: Frequently, they take a percentage of gross revenue (that is, they calculate the percentage based on the total sale amount and take a set percentage of that amount).
  2. Conversion/setup fee: Sometimes they charge a fee to convert your file or to “set up” the title for distribution.
  3. Membership: occasionally, they charge an annual listing or membership fee.

Here’s a rundown (again, in alphabetical order):

BookBaby


Publishing site: https://bookbaby.com
File formats accepted: ePub, Word doc/docx, PDF, “other popular digital document” formats
Cut: 0%
Term: Payable monthly, forty-five days after the end of the month in which Bookbaby receives payment.
Distribution: Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Baker & Tayor (Blio/libraries), Overdrive (US libraries)/Vearsa (overseas libraries), Copia, Gardners, eSentral, Scribd, Ciando, Hoopla, Playster
Conversion/membership fee: $299 conversion fee. No membership.

BookBaby is an almost-full-service publishing services provider — they’ll take your manuscript and, for a fee, produce it as a print book (with a professionally designed cover) and/or as an ebook. (They don’t provide editorial services in-house, however.)

What’s the difference between this kind of setup and the so-called vanity presses that prey on the unknowing? A legitimate publishing services provider offers a service for a price; they don’t purport to act as a publisher, which would imply they’ll make money by selling your books. Vanity presses will charge for services (usually top dollar) and then take a major cut of all sales revenue as well. A publisher is a publisher; a service provider is a service provider. If a company offers to do both, watch out.

BookBaby will charge $299 (if you’re going the ebook-only route), viii but won’t take a percentage of the royalty.

They are also the only distributor set up to allow you to use the KindleSelect/Kindle Unlimited exclusive subscription plan. Why would you do this? Not sure. But hey, it’s available.

Draft2Digital (D2D)


Publishing site: https://draft2digital.com
File formats accepted: ePub, Word doc/docx, RTF — “anything Word can read” ix
Cut: 10%
Term: Payable monthly, sixty days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Distribution: Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Inktera (Page Foundry), Scribd, Tolino, CreateSpace (Amazon print on demand)
Conversion/membership fee: $0

I’ve only published one book with Draft2Digital (I mostly use Smashwords as a distributor — see below — and have used and recommend all of the other providers on this list), but I have had friends and clients who have loved them and the service they provide. They won’t distribute directly to Google Play.

They can also help you publish your print-on-demand book through Amazon’s CreateSpace.

EbookIt


Publishing site: https://ebookit.com
File formats accepted: Word
Cut: 15% (depending on the retailer)
Term: Payable monthly, sixty days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Distribution: Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Ingram (over 60 other retailers), Google Play, Kobo, Baker & Tayor (Blio), Scribd
Conversion/membership fee: $49 setup fee; updates at $49/hour

This is a premium distribution service. They’ll handle the full conversion (at a price). The 15% cut is high (though not as high as IngramSpark). Note that they distribute to Ingram’s full list, including Amazon and Google, which not many distributors do.

They’ll also help you create a print book and will provide (again, at a price) publishing services like editing and cover design and even audiobook production. x

IngramSpark!


Publishing site: https://ingramspark.com
File formats accepted: PDF, ePub
Cut: 20-30% (depending on the retailer)
Term: Payable monthly, sixty days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred.
Distribution: Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Baker & Tayor (Blio), Oyster, Scribd, and over sixty other retailers (but NOT Google Play)
Conversion/membership fee: $25 setup fee (for ebook-only distribution); $0.60/page (for PDF to ePub) xi

Bet you didn’t see this one coming.

IngramSpark! is one of the largest print-on-demand providers in the world — the main competitor to Amazon’s CreateSpace. But in addition to printing and distributing hardcover and paperback books, they provide ePub distribution as well.

Upside: They have (almost certainly) the largest distribution list of any aggregator. (Ingram is a pre-eminent print distributor/wholesaler, and so has direct relationships with just about every book retailer on the planet.)

Downside: They take by far the largest cut of any aggregator; they also charge to set each title up, and to convert from PDF (but not if you’ve got an ePub file ready).

PublishDrive


Publishing site: https://publishdrive.com
File formats accepted: ePub, Word doc
Cut: 10%
Distribution: Amazon, 24symbols.com, Barnes & Noble, Bookline.hu, Bookmate.com, BookShout!, casadellibro.com, ciando.com, CNPeReading, e-letoltes, E-sentral.com, Ekonyv.hu, Elefant.ro, Gardners.com, Google Play Books, iBookstore (iTunes), ipubs.hu, Kobo, Libri.hu, Lira.hu, Multimediaplaza.com, Odilo.es, overdrive.com, playster.com, redshelf.com, rockstand.in, Scribd, Tolino, tookbook.com, tradebit.com
Term: Payable monthly, forty-five days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred. $75 threshold.
File download: ePub
Edit online: None
Conversion fee: Upload to receive quote.

Another distribution service I’ve been trying out recently is Hungary’s PublishDrive. The interface isn’t quite as intuitive as some. However, they do distribute more broadly than many other fee-less distributors, which is an advantage.

Their distribution list is extensive, and includes not only our favorite five retailers, but a number of international outlets, including retailers in Europe (especially Central and Eastern Europe) and Asia. Most of interest is the fact that they offer titles for distribution to library services including Overdrive, Odilo, and more. xii

In point of fact, the distributor PublishDrive most closely resembles is one of my favorites, Smashwords. There are a few differences:

  • PublishDrive doesn’t have its own retail site.
  • PublishDrive distributes directly to Amazon.xiii
  • Smashwords doesn’t have quite as broad a distribution list.xiv
  • PublishDrive is in Hungary, and if you need help, it’s likely to take a bit longer.

Honestly, the differences are mostly a matter of preference.

Smashwords


Publishing site: https://smashwords.com
File formats accepted: ePub, Word doc (not docx)
Cut: 10%
Term: Payable forty-five to sixty days after the end of the month in which the sale occurred. $75 threshold.
Distribution: Amazon, xv Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Baker & Taylor (Blio), txtr, Axis360 (libraries), Overdrive (libraries), Flipkart, Oyster, Scribd, Gardners retail, Gardners Library, Yuzu, Tolino, Odilo
Conversion/membership fee: $0

This is the distributor I’ve used the most — for a number of reasons. First of all, for a no-charge aggregator, their distribution list is more than acceptable. Overdrive and Gardners Library (the largest library ebook distributors in North America and the UK) are particularly nice additions. Second, the service is great — when I’ve had a problem, they’ve been incredibly helpful. Third, they are also a retailer themselves — a small retailer, but hey, any outlet that buys you lunch once or twice a month is nice!

Downside? The user interface isn’t as slick as some others, and the ebook conversion engine (their famous Meatgrinderxvi) isn’t my favorite. But then, I don’t love any of them

Do you know of any other ebook distributors/aggregators that I should have listed? Let me know!


i I don’t begrudge them this — it keeps their doors open. I wasn’t sure how Macmillan was staying alive without taking a cut. It seems they weren’t.
ii In order to sell directly on the iBooks Store, you need to be using a Mac. No Windows, no Linux. Sorry.
iii Google is no longer allowing new ebook publishing accounts, and there are a limited number of distributors that sell through Google Play. See the listings below.
iv In other words, if you put the book on sale — unless through a KindleSelect promotion — or Amazon lowers the price (i.e., to match another retailer’s sales price), they pay you not based on the full price, but on the actual transaction price. That? That’s NOT AGENCY PRICING. That’s what the big publishers have been screaming about for years. Amazon lowers your book’s price; you get paid on the discounted price, not on the price you set.
v KindleSelect is the 90-day program that makes your title available through KindleUnlimited and the Kindle Owners Lender Library. To participate, the title must be available only through Amazon during the 90-day period.
vi I’ve said this before, but just to repeat: unless yours is a very image-heavy ebook that makes the transport-fee-less 35% royalty more attractive, it never makes sense for a KDP publisher to price an ebook between $10.00 and $199.99 — you’re literally losing money on each transaction as well as pricing yourself out of sales — over $9.99 is generally a premium price for ebooks.
vii Whether or not you think that’s a good thing is up to you. It does improve discoverability, however.
viii And will charge this fee every time you wish to revise your book.
ix This includes all sorts of weird formats, like Excel spreadsheets and HTML web pages. So have a blast.
x I haven’t used EbookIt myself. The price seems high and I don’t need their services. However, when I published the previous list, a reader recommended it.
xi There are a large number of ways to get this fee waved. Joining IBPA, for example!
xii Just because PublishDrive offers them doesn’t necessarily mean the library service will pick them up. My luck so far has been pretty good, but obviously your mileage may vary.
xiii Though as I’ve said, I would recommend you upload to KDP yourself.
xiv Though an English-language ebook is unlikely to have huge sales in many of those smaller bookseller sites. And both Smashwords and PublishDrive offer broader distribution than does, for example, Draft2Digital.
xv Okay, not really — Amazon has only taken a couple of hundred of Smashwords’s offerings; it makes sense to distribute to Amazon directly anyway.
xvi Which is, as nearly as I can tell, a customized version of the open-source ebook conversion/library app Calibre. (Pronoun’s converter seems to have used the same software.)

Photo: BigStockPhoto

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12 Comments

  1. Lawrence Hastings

    What about ebooks.com?. They are selling a lot of ebooks…

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      I guess. I am fairly sure that it’s not in the top five retailers — and I’d guess it’s not even as popular as ScribD, Smashwords, or several of the other smaller markets.

      I’ve been on there many, many times, and I’ve never found a way for an indie publisher to sell there, and I don’t know of any aggregators (other than IngramSpark/LSI, which takes a twice-the-standard cut of 20%) that distributes to them.

      However I could very well be wrong. Does anyone else have better information?

      Reply
  2. Alexis

    iBookstore is my #2 ebook retailer after Amazon and I sell a decent volume of books there each month. With Pronoun closing I’ll loose my book rank and accumulated reviews. I know people love distributors but the loss of rank and reviews is why I’m done. Yes it’s a hassle to go direct and maintain all the different accounts, but I work hard for those reviews and have no intention of putting myself in a position where they can just disappear because XYZ is shutting their doors, has been acquired, etc.

    Reply
  3. W. M. Raebeck

    David, thanks for pooling all this info. I’m releasing my 4th ebook (all in print, as well), and not sure where to submit it. I’ll definitely do StreetLib again, who sells more of my books than other aggregators. Presently, I have 2 with BookBaby (great customer service and efficiency), but in addition to their set-up fees, they also charge $19/year per title (not sure you mentioned that), and I don’t see high sales there. I also have 1 ebook with Ingram Spark, but their cut is really too high. So, I’ll keep all my books with StreetLib for sure, but maybe set up this new one with D2D (though I’m interested in Amazon Marketing, so maybe not). It’s complicated!

    Reply
    • Steven Spatz

      Hi W.M.,
      I just saw your comment about the BookBaby charge/year and wanted to let you in on the inside scoop.
      That was in our very early years when we thought about charging it.
      The fact was – I decided to waive it after year one. And then decided to scrap it all together.
      End result – we’ve never charged that fee to any author.
      Please look in your author earnings to make sure you haven’t been charged by mistake. If so – we’ll refund you tomorrow!
      Thanks for the nice comment about our customer service!
      Steven Spatz, BookBaby

      Reply
  4. Zsofia

    Hi David,

    Thank you for the mention :) This is a very thorough article. Just to confirm: we have a 50 EUR (around 58 USD) threshold to the USA. I’d love to know where you found the outdated information regarding $75, so I can correct it. We also have a London office (still not USA but closer than Hungary): this is where I work from :)

    And as AC has mentioned, we indeed have a Pronoun importer :) It imports Pronoun export ZIPs straight into the system.

    Reply
  5. Harald Johnson

    Been wondering when the Pronoun shoe would drop; the business model was puzzling. But great run-down on the ebook universe options! One little correction on KDP Royalty: bullet #2 should be: “35% for any ebook between $10.00 and $199.99 AND $0.99 and $2.98. No transport fee.”

    Reply
  6. Steven Spatz

    David – this is a really useful write up for writers looking for the self publishing solution that best fits their needs. All of the companies mentioned – including mine, BookBaby — offer tremendous service and great value.

    If I could I’d like to clarify a few things about BookBaby’s offerings:

    • We’ve been distributing directly to Amazon-Kindle from day one.
    • Our payment terms are weekly. When we receive checks from Amazon, B&N, et. al. we put the money into authors’ accounts within seven days.
    • We distribute to Google Play.
    • BookBaby does offer in-house editing services, both copy and line editing.
    • We give authors a free ecommerce page called BookShop where authors make 85% royalties on eBook sales and 50% royalties on POD books shipped direct.
    • And finally – people love our new KDP Select services for eBooks. Why? It’s like getting best of both worlds – utilizing all of Amazon’s great free eBook promotion offers for the first 90 days and then enjoying all the other distribution through B&N, iBooks, et. al. all without lifting a finger!

    Thanks for spreading the gospel of self publishing!

    Steven Spatz, President
    BookBaby

    Reply
  7. Frances Caballo

    David – Draft2Digital is easy to use and the staff is extremely helpful I highly recommend them. I use them for my books and my clients’ books. Love the post you wrote for Joel here; it’s so comprehensive. Thanks for pulling all this great information together.

    Reply
  8. Anne Hagan

    Another Aggregator is Streetlib, based in Italy. They now have a U.S. office/division as well. They do distribute to all the big players including GooglePlay and to dozens of Western European sites and some Asian ones you can’t reach through most other aggregators. The take a 10% cut. They were paying quarterly to an American bank account or via PayPal, but a monthly option, 60 days behind the retailer submitting final numbers is coming. You do have to file a tax form with them but this is a simple process and not much different from the one you have to file with Amazon to sell there.

    I’ve been dealing with them since before they had their U.S. ‘portal’ all set up in order to reach GooglePlay and those markets in Europe. I’ve had a couple of issues with ePub uploads that were no fault of theirs. I found their service to be fast and friendly and their English to be very good to near perfect. I’ve been paid on time, every time.

    Reply
    • AC de Fombelle

      Hello Anne,

      and thank you so much for your review it’s much appreciated! I’m AC, from StreetLib, and am happy you found what you needed with us.
      I’d add that we actually already pay monthly to users affiliated with our American company (my colleague will contact you directly to see with you if all is running smoothly with your account), and that we developped an importer dedicated to Pronoun users so that the transfer from there would be as easy as possible (I believe Publish Drive also announced one, a few hours after ours)

      Reply
      • Ellen Hanley

        Many thanks to David for this comprehensive round-up, & thanks to Anne & AC for the StreetLib info. Boom-Books has been advising authors not to rush to migrate books until Pronoun’s competitors (inevitably) offer GooglePlay along with KDP, iBooks, Kobo, B&N, et al. For more on Pronoun’s history & demise, check out our Boom-Books Facebook page & author CJ Verburg’s Who Killed Pronoun? http://ow.ly/R0jE30gBxXR

        Reply

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  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 11-23-2017 | The Author Chronicles - […] you self-publish, David Kudler has an overview of ebook retailers now that Pronoun has closed its doors, and Laure…
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