By Lee Foster
Editor's Note: Since this article was originally published in November 2019, Draft2Digital has acquired Smashwords. For more information on that merger / acquisition, check out the article from SelfPublishing.com. The original press release is here.
This is a third and final perspective in my publishing strategy trilogy, a drama festival with three events, Amazon and Ingram being the earlier performances. There have been five-week breaks between these theatrics as I proceed in the Joel Friedlander modern publishing ecosystem.
If you want to distribute your ebook through Amazon directly and then also to “every ebook vendor beyond Amazon,” how should you do it? Smashwords is my recommended choice.
Non-exclusive is my chosen publishing survival mantra in book/ebook publishing. I work with Amazon directly, but am non-exclusive. I also think this is the healthiest approach for all citizens who control “knowledge products” in our society, meaning books/ebooks. We need as much diversity in the marketplace of ideas as we can arrange. Diversity in the marketplace is a socially desirable goal.
I have always wondered what percentage of ebooks sold in America are sold on Amazon. I have heard a lot of folks say 60% for several years. But recently a couple of knowledgeable people said the figure is higher. If you have credible info on this, please share it with us.
I wanted a way to distribute my ebook with Amazon and beyond Amazon. My targets would be Apple Books (formerly called iBooks), B&N ebooks, Kobo, and all the other vendors. How would I do this?
From Bookbaby to Smashwords
Each of us has a publishing history. We have had partners over the years. We and our partners have likely worked hard to achieve success. But maybe we have moved on to new partners.
I decided years ago, in my first ebooks, to proceed with BookBaby for two ebooks. They did and still do a good job. But revisions of my ebooks with BookBaby will require a substantial new cost, as I understand it. In Amazon Kindle and in Smashwords, I can simply write over the file at no cost. So I switched to Amazon direct and to Smashwords for “everyone else,” which is what I recommend now for ebook distribution.
Smashwords now distributes about 523,000 ebooks. They must be doing something right.
Companies are composed of people. The main people at Smashwords are Mark Coker and Jim Azevedo. I first met Mark about 2009, when he was getting started and we asked him to talk at our local independent-publishing org, called BAIPA.org. Later I met Jim when we both gave talks at Mike Larsen’s annual SF Writers Conference. Both men seem dedicated to author empowerment as well as their own success.
Like all participants in modern publishing, Smashwords has evolved. It has become a major educational ecosystem for the do-it-yourself ebook author. My own practices are a variation on do-it-yourself. I believe in do-it-yourself as much as I can, but I also favor get-an-expert-to-check-it. For my latest ebook, I had Tracy Atkins check things out after I took it as far as I could.
For one earlier ebook, when looking for some expert assistance, I turned to a feature of Smashwords, called Mark’s List. This is a vetted list of suppliers of ebook-formatting and cover design services. Through Mark’s List, I chose a guy in Vancouver to check out my ebook formatting of two years ago. He did a good job.
Uploading to Smashwords
So my plan was settled for ebooks: Smashwords would be my distribution point for the ebook to “everyone beyond Amazon.” This meant Apple Books, B&N, Kobo, and others.
The “interior” and “cover” files were a little tricky to get organized.
Again, as is to be expected, there are a lot of little nuances in file preparation.
For this new book, Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips, the file finally went through okay, partly because, once again, I engaged a file expert (Tracy Atkins, [email protected]) to massage my best do-it-yourself efforts.
I had used a Joel Friedlander 2-Way Word Template to set up the book in a brutal manner before asking Tracy to massage it. Tracy ultimately gave me an epub format version that went through well.
Before I engaged Tracy, my Word template format had challenges on Smashwords. The long and modern Word file got saved with a modern Word docx and was slightly under the 15 megs maximum size allowed for Smashwords. However, the Smashwords system seemed to need an earlier doc file format rather than docx.
When I tried to convert the docx to doc the file emerged as too large. Therefore, I had Tracy change the file to the alternative epub format, and it went through fine.
Ebook authors need to show a bit of resilience to be successful. In all the publishing systems, expect a few glitches rather than instant success, and puzzle forward.
Details of Financial Return to the Author in Kindle, Ingram, and Smashwords
Authors need to keep track of exactly the cash returned to them in sales from their participation in each of these publishing ecosystems.
With my $4.99 ebook, how much do I earn today in the various structures?
In Amazon Kindle, the formula appears to be 70% of retail, but after a delivery fee, which depends on ebook size.
Your ebook on Amazon must be in the recommended $2.99-$9.99 range to get the 70%. The return appears to drop to 35% when you are out of compliance regarding the recommended ebook prices.
No one can explain Amazon better than Amazon itself, so review the nuanced details here.
Amazon is not shy about suggesting you go exclusive with them. I prefer non-exclusive, but the exclusive benefits are presented at here.
In IngramSpark the formula for ebooks appears to be 40% or 45% return of retail price and there is no restriction on price parameters.
IngramSpark explains here
In Smashwords, the situation is both simple and more complicated.
When Smashwords sells one of my ebooks in Apple Books, as an example, it appears that I earn 60% of list. For Libraries, the return is 45% of list.
However, Smashwords also has its own internal selling ecosystem, so my book in that structure appears to net for me 56% to 85% of list. The details are granular. Mark Coker recently wrote me about this as follows:
“For sales through the Smashwords Store, the percentage is based on the total amount of the shopping cart. The author earns 85% net where net = the purchase price minus the PayPal fee. So, for some common price points it would be 56% for a 99 cent ebook, 74% for a $2.99 book, 76% for $3.99 and 80% for books or shopping cart totals over $7.99. The easiest way for you to get the exact percentage at different price points is to log into your account, click publish, then enter sample prices into the pricing calculator. It’ll display a dynamic pie chart that shows how much is earned at each price for each channel.”
There is one endearing humor item in the Smashwords’ presentation of their program if you look at their publishing page.
The humor item, if you missed it, is that the threshold of monthly payment to authors, if you receive your money from Smashwords on Paypal, is one cent. For an author with extremely modest sales, this is about as good as it gets.
Smashwords does not appear to offer phone support, so communicating via email or their forms on their website is best.
Smashwords, as well as IngramSpark, does not appear to penalize authors who want to price their ebooks above $9.99. Two of my travel journalism colleagues, experts in their niches, like this set-your-own-price approach. They have their niche markets and are able to command higher than $9.99 for their ebook products. On Amazon their return would drop to 35%. These talented and successful self-publishers, models to all of us who seek indie success, are Sandy Friend and Candy Harrington.
The situation on ebook pricing and financial return to authors does change. I may even be in error in some of my reporting comments above. There are nuances in all these pricing schemes to be aware of. Do not hesitate to correct my possible errors regarding any of these vendors.
Looking to the Future of Ebook Publishing
Attentive ebook authors will want to watch, with each passing year, the evolving payment and author-learning ecosystems available through Amazon Kindle, IngramSpark, Smashwords, and others.
All these major systems will evolve, with innovation and disruption as the norm.
In our device-driven world, it will also be interesting to watch consumer behavior and how consumer choices affect the mix of print books versus ebooks sold.
Some folks will say: I just want to curl up with a printed book in bed or, in my travel world, take that guidebook in my backpack in the field.
Others will say: Why would I ever buy a printed book again, since I can carry around a hundred ebooks on my device?
The wise author, in my view, will remain agnostic as these theological debates proceed and will give the consumer whatever form of communion and salvation he or she desires. The forms in which content can be presented to the consumer are slippery.
Beyond even print books and ebooks, I am a fan of a form I would call the “website book,” but that is another discussion for another time.