Step Up or Shut Up

Here’s what Mark Coker wrote,

  • “From the time an author enrolls their book in the program, they cannot distribute or sell their book anywhere else. Not the Apple iBookstore, not Barnes & Noble, not Smashwords, not Kobo, not Sony, not even the author’s own personal blog or web site. The book must be 100% exclusive to Amazon.
  • If the author violates Amazon’s exclusivity terms at any point during the three-month enrollment period, or if the author unpublishes their book to remove it from the program so they can distribute the book elsewhere, the author risks forfeited earnings, delayed payments, a lien on future earnings, or could face termination of their Kindle Direct Publishing account.
  • The author’s enrollment, and thus their liability to Amazon, automatically renews every three months if they fail to opt out in time.

Let’s examine the broader implications of this new program, not only for authors but for the nascent ebook industry as well.”

Okay, let’s.

Let’s take a look at this from the author’s point of view. Most of the people who visit this site are authors, we have a quite few readers (mostly reviewers), and occasionally, a traditional publishing type will drop by. The site is administered by an author among others.

The phrase that leaps out in Mark Coker’s statement, above, is ‘the nascent ebook industry’ - indeed. What does it look like?

“ Apple iBookstore, not Barnes & Noble, not Smashwords, not Kobo, not Sony, not even the author’s own personal blog or web site.”

Apple iBookstore – the only way the vast majority of indie’s can get into the iBookstore is through Smashwords, same for Kobo, who do not reply to emails sent to them at their request through their website. Sony… has any indie, ever, sold a book through Sony?

Cycle back to B&N, cool if you’re in the US, sort of. But if you’re not a US citizen, tough. Most indies run at about a 10o-1 ratio of books sold on Amazon versus on B&N. Please note the ‘most’, there are exceptions. Smashwords runs at about the same ratio to B&N as B&N runs to Amazon, 10o-1. But with all due respect to you Mark, what authors really want is to be able to deal with B&N directly. For international authors that is not an option, and how lame is that? Crippled and pathetic.

And it’s not that we do not appreciate what you have done. We do. More than a few indies are hanging out, not joining the Kindle Select program (despite the fact that quite a few indies are reporting really good sales because of it); not pulling out of Smashwords, and the resultant distribution. Why? Because we agree with you, but please, step up your game and stop whining about what Amazon is doing.

What about a Smashwords Non-exclusive Lending Program? – figure out how to do it…

What about better search algorithms and tags to make it easier for readers to find our books?

How about better ratings algorithms, so that books that have a lot of reviews at 4 star, rank higher than a book with two reviews at 5?

What about figuring out how to make it easier for a kindle,nook, or ipad reader to download our books?

What about getting rid of the awful meatgrinder and letting us upload either an epub or  a file (here’s a clue. KDP converts epubs to their format when you upload. If you went straight epub, you could process more books, and authors would only have to produce one format)?

What about redesigning your site (dude, it looks tired)? Add things like “Movers and Shakers, and lists, (and get rid of the meatgrinder).

How about better support? If that’s out of budget then consider the below and asking for volunteers to support…

What about, um, Smashwords Forums? i.e. community…

Okay, those were a few off the cuff ideas that I’ve heard authors talking about. What do authors like about Smashwords?

- they love the coupon aspect of Smashwords

- they love the promotional knock on effect of setting the book to free on Smashwords (because it sells more books on Amazon. Yep. Truth can be painful.)

- they love the distribution (even though it may only sell less than 1-10% of what Amazon does)

- they love the choice of formats (but it only needs to be DRM Free and Epub)

What do Authors dislike about Smashwords?

- they hate the lags with reporting (but understand you can’t do much about that despite us being in a digital age).

- they hate the lag in readjusting prices, through the channels.

- the meatgrinder. We know to format for it – not a big deal. But in this day and age it is irrelevant. Readers can download a DRM free epub and do what they want with the file, to the specifications of their ereader – end of story. Anything else is just complicated.

Mark, I am pretty sure that most authors want you to succeed. We want Amazon to have strong competitors. We want more places to sell, and showcase our work.

Ultimately authors want readers who buy and read our books. At the moment, the nascent ebook industry (from most  indie’s points of view) is 95% Amazon. That’s where readers find and buy our books. Whining is not competing.

Frida over at Adarna SF also blogged on this topic, lots of interesting comments.

7 Responses to Step Up or Shut Up

  1. My warning about the dangers of KDP Select’s exclusivity requirement is not whining. If people choose to disregard the warning, that’s up to them.

    I agree there’s much room for improvement at Smashwords. We’re always improving. We focus our development dollars where we think we’ll yield the greatest number of authors the greatest overall sales benefit.

    We are a distributor, so most our sales are through distribution. 2011 was a big distribution year for us on the development side. A lot of your suggestions (many of which I agree with) are focused on our retail operation, Smashwords.com. It’s not our primary focus. That said, you’ll see many improvements there in 2012.

    Amazon has the dominant market share, but they don’t have 95% of the market. It’s probably closer to 65%, and might even be less. Results vary. We know from our experience that different books break out at different retailers at different times. Authors who have been fully distributed with us for the last two years are seeing their sales across the Smashwords network steadily increase. It takes time, so I suspect most of those 95 percenters are either not fully distributed, or they should give their books more time to plant roots at each retailer.

    Meatgrinder produces high quality books if our Smashwords Style Guide is followed. We announced about a month ago that we will start accepting direct file uploads in 2012, probably the last half of 2012. We suspect that when given the choice, most authors will still prefer Meatgrinder.

  2. I have a list of things I would love to see Smashwords do. I’m not saying this to be critical. I’m a huge Smashwords fan, and would love to see them do better. I can understand if some of the stuff (like retail) is not a priority, but would suggest that some things here (like direct uploads and expanding international distribution) should be.

    1. Start allowing direct uploads for approved suppliers. The approval process could involve a manual check like the current method for getting in the Premium Catalogue. Once you have uploaded one, three, five, whatever “approved” e-book files (i.e. properly formatted and not just a word doc saved as a HTML file then converted), then you get fast-tracked. I know he has plans for 2012 for some kind of direct upload service, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if this gets offered to publishers/agents first/only. It’s also not a priority for Smashwords – Mark Coker has previously said as much. This is a huge mistake and many people won’t use their service because of it. I hand code the HTML for all my e-books and it pains me to see what the Meatgrinder does. With a little tinkering, I can produce a plain, clean document, but it doesn’t look half as good as a hand-coded document.

    2. Start working on international distribution (aside from Apple). There are e-bookstores in Ireland (Easons), England (Waterstones, Tescos), Australia, New Zealand, China etc. as well as people like Overdrive that would be natural partners for Smashwords. Uploading to all these new sites is going to be a real pain, but I’m going to do it anyway. Most won’t bother (and maybe it won’t be worth it for me), because of the time required and the ISBNs, and having to set up publisher accounts by email with this stores that are wary of self-publishers. This is what an aggregator/distributor is for. I would love to see Smashwords working on easy(ish) stuff like this that should work, rather than stuff like ScrollMotion or distributing to Amazon which does not work (and people don’t need anyway)

    3. Fix the awful spreadsheets. Get some kind of regularity to reporting and payments – at the moment, nobody is sure when sales will be reported and when they will be paid.

    4. Fix the store. The only sales I get from Smashwords.com are sales I bring their directly. The customer side is pretty poor. The only titles “promoted” are the newest uploads. Wrong for all kinds of reasons. Plus, once I launch my own store, I’m going to stop bringing those sales to Smashwords – and I know plenty of self-publishers in the same boat. The search is pretty poor on Smashwords.com too. I’ve heard reports of international customers having trouble buying books – I think you ask for a zip code or something else that is US-only. This should be easy to fix. But there needs to be a better customer focus in general. Look at your store like a customer (and compare it to the best, Amazon). What’s missing? What can you add? A lot of work needs to be done here.

    5. Add granularity. Come up with a system where I can push a different blurb to Barnes & Noble than I do to Kobo, and different prices for different territories. Make it all optional. Some people don’t care about “micro managing”, others crave it. Also try and figure out why things like new blurbs are so slow to update sometimes.

    6. Visibility. There have been numerous reports that uploading direct with a retailer (for some reason) results in greater visibilty than going through Smashwords. I’ve specifically heard this on numerous times regarding PubIt. Authors who have switched back and forth between using Smashwords and using PubIt report far greater visibility going direct. Identify what’s causing this, and, if possible, resolve it.

    Dave

    • All great suggestions, Dave.

    • @Simon: Thanks for linking and your thoughts (on this blog post and with your comments over at Adarna SF)! For folks who haven’t seen it yet, the discussion at Adarna SF has gotten to 27 comments, but it’s all worth reading to see the different dimensions to the issue.

      @David: I like your detailed suggestions, especially #1 and #5. If Smashwords focuses on the distributor end rather than the retail end, then at least provide the authors more quality control over their product and the marketing of the product when Smashwords distributes it to different retailers. I’m sure it’s a logistical nightmare to sort out at first, but it’ll add so much value to Smashwords as a distributor and better stand up against the looming Amazon monopoly.

  3. These days any criticism of Mark Coker and Smashwords is met with, “I’m not whining; I’m right.”

    If Smashwords, B&n or iApple did a quarter, heck if they did a tenth, of what Amazon does, most of my novels wouldn’t now be exclusive (and getting many more sales) over there. The review system and the search system at Smashwords actively sucks. Big time. That isn’t a priority? Then neither is my listing my novels there.

    I hope that Amazon Select gives other retailers a strong kick in the @ss so they realize that they have to give us some decent tools if we’re going to stick around. I would prefer selling on as many platforms as possible, but I’m not stupid. The others give me no advantages; Amazon gives me tools I can use. It’s a pretty easy business decision where I’ll place my novels for sale.

  4. I’m a big fan of Amazon and have been for years, but if I were an Indie author I’d be nervous. Not because they haven’t done great things for you in the past and (I expect) will do so in the future, but because as many are saying here and elsewhere, that’s the basket where most of their eggs come from. That means when Amazon makes a move, that is what everyone is talking about.

    As a reader, this worries me too. Through pure coincidence I had a blog post set to publish the morning KDP Select was announced encouraging readers to consider alternatives, primarily Smashwords (another company I’m also a fan of, although for reasons much different than I am of Amazon). As Mark says, Smashwords is primarily a distributor. I get that and think this gives Indies a practical and efficient way to make their books available on a variety of platforms.

    I’d give my opinion from the standpoint of a reader who pays attention and roots for Indie authors as to what would make Smashwords better for both, but as usual, David G. has already hit the nail on the head with his suggestions.

  5. I use Smashwords to distribute my ebooks to all but Amazon. I recently distributed an ebook free through Smashwords and used Amazon’s price matching to have it sell free on KDP. Not only did I get a nice bump in sales on Amazon as a result, but it also gave me a bump on B&N that was about 1/2 the size of Amazon’s bump. While I don’t get the same control as I would through KDP select, I feel it’s a good compromise. I also like participate in Operation eBook Drop, where I discount my ebooks on Smashwords 100% for our participating troops. However, I do agree that Smashwords has to step up its game to be an effective distributor. I think David Gaughran made some excellent suggestions that I hope Mark Coker takes seriously.

    One recent Smashwords development that I particularly liked is that they are now distributing to Baker and Taylor. While not too many libraries are currently getting ebooks from B&T, I can see that changing in the future.

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