Focus on Platforms and Hardware

There are two sides to the technology (apart from the conversion/formatting which we’ve already looked into) and that is the distribution platform and the hardware.

What follows is a personal opinion based on personal experience.  I can guarantee that by this time next year (next month?) the opinion will be out of date but take it while it’s live and see what you think.

If we first look at the distribution platforms available for the ‘indie’ writer as publisher. That’s Kindle Direct Publishing or Kobo Writing Life or Smashwords.

KDP vs KWL vs Smashwords. Are we comparing like with like?

So, for the uninitiated these are three direct distribution paths for the independent epublisher (eyes glazed over yet!) Okay, let me try and turn this into a slightly more amusing/user friendly experience. We’re talking virtually but I do recognise you are REAL people.  Not human resources.

Just think Coke, Pepsi and Irn Bru – or no, let’s call it Moray Cup (because that’s a small local beverage company round my way who need a plug – and – like Smashwords, I’ve never tried it – I don’t drink fizzy pop any more.)

Actually, the drinks analogy is quite apposite (at least personally). Many many years ago (before I was health conscious enough to eschew fizzy drinks on grounds of sugar/carcinogenic product content) I embarked upon an embargo of the mighty Coca Cola organisation. (I’m not sure I adversely affected their profits substantially over the years but I know why I did it!) About the same time I stopped eating anything but Fairtrade chocolate. Knowing mainstream chocolate was (or could be) produced with child slave labour sort of soured the taste for me. Yes it limited my choices but it made me able to eat without gagging – and sleep at night.

Well, in those days, I did still drink fizzy drinks so I drank Pepsi (or Irn Bru for a hangover like all true Scots) as my sweet brown liquid of choice.  (Now of course I don’t drink ANY fizzy pop and precious little alcohol so no need for the restorative powers of Irn Bru – hence why I haven’t tried said Moray Cup – my personal path to spiritual enlightenment has told me that fizzy drinks are NOT part of my ‘way.’ )

And I do like to find a simple analogy where possible, so accepting that we are dealing in the land of simile and metaphor not DIRECT COMPARISON, I shall continue.  When I think about epublishing distribution platforms (as believe me I have to do more than I’d ever like to) I try to equate my feelings to them to my feelings regarding the fizzy drinks industry.  Find your own points of comparison if you prefer.  This is nothing personal about fizzy drinks!

Amazon Kindle is the market leader.  That won’t surprise anyone in the UK at least. I believe it may be different/more sophisticated in US but I’m afraid I don’t know that much about the US except that they are far ahead of us in the epublishing ‘journey’ so I’m sure there’s a lot we can learn from them.  I shall concentrate on our domestic situation for now though. We are at entry level. And for us Amazon UK is the place where most of our ebook transactions take place (like it or not. I don’t.)  I spent 6 months trying to find other ways. It was a fruitless task. I was googling ‘distributor’ and they call themselves ‘content aggregator’s’ for one thing! Eventually I found one, had 6 months of hell with them and realised if I was to sell any ebooks I’d have to find a way to work with Amazon.

What’s good about Amazon? Well, primarily VISIBILITY. If your ebook isn’t visible it might as well not exist (in buying terms) Of course its value is far beyond price but when you’re trying to sell you need to be a) on the bookshelf  b) at the front of the bookshelf and c) it helps if you are shouting loudly, waving flags and wearing tassles and generally being as larey as possible in front of all the ‘competition.’  (I do have a problem with competitiveness in this context.  More on that later perhaps)

Amazon can give you that ‘visibility’ platform.  Especially if you enter the KINDLE SELECT programme they offer you the wonderful ? opportunity to GIVE YOUR  EBOOKS AWAY for free 5 times in 3 months.  Terms and conditions apply (of course and always read the smallest of print) – you can’t have your books available for sale ANYWHERE else during this term. This worked (believe it or not) up till now, but now that Kobo are making a claim in the marketplace, things may well change.

As a reader (apart from liking the FREE EBOOK idea from the position of a consumer) you might wonder why on earth a writer WOULD give away their work.  It’s simple. We have to. To get your attention.  If you give it away on Amazon it stands a chance of getting into the ‘bestsellers’ chart (even though this isn’t actually SELLING in any conventional way since no money changes hands) and at that point people SEE that it exists. There are all kinds of algorithms which can show you that if you give enough away you’ll finally reach the attention of enough people so that other people will BUY your book.  The jury’s out on that one for me.

The ‘game’ is different for genre fiction and niche fiction (as it always is).  I’ve played around with this system and worked with others to analyse it the best I can but it does all end up feeling like standing in front of a ‘puggie’ (that’s a fruit machine to you non Scots) trying to work out how many more coins you have to put in to get three oranges lined up.  It’s a system that works for Amazon because they are selling PRODUCT and they don’t care whose ebook is selling as long as someone’s is. And they do have millions to choose from (as do you the reader) so they are happy to ‘offer’ the publisher the choice of visibility. They give something in return which is that they tend to gloss over the reality of the sales thing. If, for example you GIVE AWAY 1000 ebooks (which will put you up on the bestseller list of most FREE categories in the virtual store for at least an hour or so) and then you SELL an actual 100 (this would be a very good return by the way if my statistical analysis is accurate) in the following month – which is probably earning you a return of £100 off a ‘loss leader’ position of GIVING AWAY £2000 of ‘product’  – then what Amazon will do is sort of forget that it’s not 1100 SALES and basically count them all in together so that you have now SOLD 1100 and thus you might hit the PAID bestseller list for your chosen category. (You’ve still only made £100 in REAL money remember). I mention this because indeed it becomes very easy and very seductive to talk about one’s ebook ‘sales’ on Amazon, irrespective of whether these are paid for or not. Amazon (I think) have invented the concept of the ‘free sale.’  The benefit is not financial for you as writer/publisher BUT the more people see you the more people might choose to buy and it can spiral nicely especially if you hit ‘critical mass’ or have many titles to sell. But equally likely, you sink back into obscurity until your next give away. It’s a very very big bookstore out there. A very big pond. With sharks.

As previously observed the rules are somewhat flexible depending on the ‘mass market’ appeal of your ebook.  Don’t get me wrong. Some writers are making nice little livings off their ebooks (partly because writers have been so poorly paid by traditional publishing all their lives!)  And a few writers are making themselves ebook millionaires.  But whether the content of the ebook is good or bad is of less significance in this equation at this point than you might care to think.  We are talking BUSINESS here where MONEY is the important thing (not just for writers of course, primarily for Amazon) not the quality of the work.  This is why people can get on their high horse and say that all indie publishing is s**t.  But it’s a bogus argument.  There is no necessary or logical relationship between PRICE and QUALITY or between PUBLISHER and QUALITY or between PLATFORM and QUALITY.  The only people who try to convince you of this are the ones who have a financial stake in the failure of the ‘indie’ market position. Consequently the issues are all totally muddied at the moment (there’s a lot of comment/invective in other places at the festival which will help you gain a more informed position on these matters) Let’s just say it’s not a place to be wandering around in with your eyes closed unless you want a serious bump on the head. For the moment let’s go back to the Coke/Pepsi debate.

It may come as a surprise to you to learn that in some countries in the world you still don’t actually have the choice between Coke/Pepsi and it’s the same with ebook distribution platforms. Amazon and Kindle are King in the UK.  So they can dictate terms. And the small print of their terms and conditions is a) non transparent b) eye watering and c) if you have certain principles, sticks in your craw. Did you know for example that as a UK indie publisher, you have to sign up with the IRS for tax purposes so that you can be exempt from paying 30% on all your earnings?  Okay. They are exempting you. BUT you have to have a US TAX number to get your money back. You have to REGISTER with the IRS. It’s a bit of a faff to achieve and maybe you don’t want to be part of the US Tax system? If you don’t drink Coke on principle then believe me, it’s fizzy bubbles up your nose (and not in a good way.) You might think it doesn’t matter – but what’s behind this?  Well, the reason you pay (or don’t) your tax through US is because Amazon’s tax dealings are all US oriented. In other words, it’s so that THEY don’t pay tax in the UK.  (I’ll leave you to think about that one!) It doesn’t stack up to me. It’s not child slave labour and chocolate but it’s not something I think in any way ‘right’ or ‘fair’ even given economic expediency! It’s not my understanding of a globalised marketplace.

So what are the alternatives? Apart from don’t try to sell ebooks if you are an indie writer/publisher! That is the temptation of course.  But personally, I don’t give up on something just because they (whoever they are) make it difficult for me to engage. As I said earlier, I tried the go through a distributor route. For 6 months. It didn’t work. Because the ‘market’ is not set up that way. You can (and I did) have a contract with a ‘distributor’ where THEY deal with Amazon and the other retailers for you but the terms are equally stupid and difficult to manage in person. They work to more traditional % splits and you either have to set your price more in line with the mainstream ebook prices (over £6) which no one is going to pay for an ‘indie’ or take a cut in ‘profit’ (can you hear my hollow laugh – writer – profit – ha ha).  I’ve talked about this elsewhere (in Focus on Formatting) so I won’t bang on about it again. Go there for the argument.  Just believe me. It didn’t work. For me. I had to ‘dance with the devil.’

Now, I should confess. I don’t own a Kindle. Once again it’s on grounds of personal choice/principle. I’m not judging you if you do. But I bought a Kobo. Why? Because they were a Canadian company not an American one (though they were instantly bought out by a Japanese company – I expect just deliberately to thwart me and my principles!)  And however cool I might think they are, I’ve never been able to afford an Apple product (other than an ipod).  So early on in the game I was interested in publishing via Kobo. It was pretty complex and remember my ‘distributor’ was handling it.  But I learned the lesson that if you are an ‘indie’ publisher, you have to DO IT ALL YOURSELF if you want it to work to your satisfaction.   In practical terms if you want a daily update on your sales (and believe me you do, not to count the money so much as to work out how and where to try and achieve visibility this week!) you have to engage in the direct approach. And finally Kobo have got it together and set up a ‘rival’ to KDP. It’s called Kindle Writing Life (lame I admit in comparison to Direct Publishing) and it’s too new to do a real practical comparison. I have put up 5 ebooks since the launch in July. (Two are still under kindle select contract so I can’t publish them elsewhere) The first one went up no bother. Then I got smart and scheduled the other 4 to be ‘published’ on August 1st. One of the things that p****d me off most about KDP was that you can’t have a publishing ‘date’ with any degree of certainty. Like price they play around with it. You set a price of 99p and find it’s selling for £2.03  – you forgot to add the odd pennies they put in for reasons I’ve never managed to work out in their gargantuan terms and conditions. Okay you can go in and count on your fingers and amend it, but I like to know if I set a price THAT’S the price the consumer will get. Forget it. Life’s much more complex than that in Amazon world.  With KWL this doesn’t happen. Their whole financial reckoning is much more simple and transparent. Which I like. You don’t have to engage with US Tax system. They will pay you directly into your bank in the currency of your own country with minimum if any fuss! Unlike Amazon.  One up for KWL.  Financial simplicity/transparency.

And while in one sense of course it’s all about money, for the writer/publisher it’s more about visibility and how the reader finds your ebook.   I’ve talked through Amazon’s ways. I omitted all the stuff about Kindle forums and the like which are probably extremely good ways to build up a ‘reader platform’ but I’m too busy writing at the moment to take much advantage of these – they do need dedicated engagement – because they are (however ‘friendly’ they try to set themselves up as) primarily marketing opportunities. I do not WANT or NEED 1000 friends. I understand the concept of 1000 true ‘fans’ but it unsettles me a bit.  It seems just like a bigger version of strong arming real friends and family to buy your work.  I want people to read my work because they like IT not because of any implied or real relation to myself.  Now sadly this is where KWL are not (yet) delivering in anything like the same slick way as Amazon.  Amazon about 5, Kobo 1 in this regard.

KWL offer an ‘open’ platform (as do Smashwords) whereas if you buy into Amazon you buy RIGHT into it. Like the Apple model, you buy the dream.  There are many times in my life I’ve thought I’d ‘defect’ from PC to Mac but I always come up against not just the price of the hardware switch, but the fact that all my software (a considerable investment over the years) is PC oriented. I’m not buying it all over again.  I’m not chucking away my vinyl/tapes/DVD’s because bluray is the next best thing just to discover you can stream it all anyway – if you get my drift!  I’m not that good a consumer. I would fit right into the make do and mend mentality of the 1930’s and 40’s and I’m not ashamed to say it. Reduce, reuse and recycle is more than just a glib phrase for me. It’s a way of life. I could teach those Superskrimpers a thing or two, believe me. It’s an inevitable by-product of NOT playing the award winninng, mainstream, puggy/lottery version of ‘being a writer’. I’m not complaining. I’m happy with my moral incentive perspective. I don’t care whether material incentive is COOL or ‘the only way to go’. I have my ‘way’ and it’s my way. I’m not trying to make it your way. Acceptance is part of the deal.  We are all different and work to different patterns. I’m just telling you mine. And I accept the consequences of mine, but I’m trying to give you a broad picture of a complex marketplace.

So while Kobo’s strength is in their more ‘open’ almost homespun approach it does have practical drawbacks.  They don’t (yet) do all the bells and whistles of the Amazon ‘in yer face’ FREE bestsellers concept (contradictions in terms don’t worry Amazon) and so it’s pretty hard to find an indie book in their ‘store’ (if you can find their store) Unless you use Cally Phillips you won’t find me that easily. If you try cally phillips you’ll be asked if you want Carly Phillips (and maybe you do!)  And because of my oversmart attempt to schedule my 4 publications for 1st August (remember earlier, silly me) I managed to get them held up in a queue for 4 days. Of course I understand this is because everyone and their cousin got their ‘product’ ready for Kobo within 2 weeks of their launch. I hate to think what the workload is over there right now. I’m sure it will settle down. And now you CAN get my ebooks there if you want. Not that anyone seems to be brave enough to be buying from Kobo yet.  But then, they’ve all got Kindle’s right, so they CAN’T buy from Kobo.  Or Smashwords. Who have not got a decent look in from me. Mainly because I can’t talk authoritatively about it.  I’ll tell you all I think I know about Smashwords. It won’t take long.

  1. They use a thing called MEATGRINDER to convert your ebook into their format for sale. I don’t like that idea. I like to know that I’M in control (as far as possible) about how the ebook will look on a variety of reader platforms.  I’m prepared to use formatting software myself and I don’t want it MINCED by Smashwords thanks.
  2. I think they are like Amazon in so far as they want you to buy into the US Tax thing and do things in dollars and the like. I don’t know for sure. I lost the will to live reading the small print.
  3. There was some big stooshie where they decided they would ban certain types of ebooks.  Not the kind I want to read or write as far as I know, but I’m not sure I like the idea of a distributor acting as censor. We have censorship laws on pornography and the like (as far as I’m aware) and I’m not keen that a distributor will make their own choices on this.  It seems far too much like the ‘parental’ controls on websites etc that mean that even if you use a load of innocuous words like ‘sex’ in a perfectly acceptable manner, you get banned because you may be corrupting the young.
  4. For the above reasons I’ve just never bothered to ‘get to know’ Smashwords.  Like I’ve never drunk Moray Cup. They may be good.  I don’t know. They are not to my personal taste at the moment.

When I have more time to research I may change my opinion. Although the more time I leave it the more things change anyway so you are always playing catch-up with epublishing and it seems wise NOT to do too much research into things until you are READY to actually do something, because all the rules/goalposts etc will have change in the meantime.

But what of the hardware, I hear you cry. Tell us about the hardware. The cool stuff we hold in our hands and buy in the shops and read on. That’s what we want to know about.

Well, as I already told you. I don’t own a Kindle. I’ve only seen them close up a couple of times and they seemed okay. I’m not a fan of the tiny keyboard but now they have touch versions like the Kobo Touch that I own.  Remember it was my personal choice not to buy into the whole Amazon Kindle world that sort of backfired on me because I’m not sure I want to be a fan of Japan either. But then, there isn’t a FairTrade alternative is there? Not yet.  One thing I found out recently when trying to engage in some research to find out what the relevant differences are between Kindle and Kobo (and the others like Nook and Sony – not really players in the UK yet) is that they fundamentally all have the SAME SCREEN.  Indeed that was the point where I gave up on an idea of offering you a serious research piece on hardware.  It’s soap powder folks.  Does Daz really do something different to Ariel or Persil – I think not. They are competing in a consumer ‘fashion’ show and the name and its branding is what you are buying. Clothes get washed pretty much the same by them all.  So, I’m not saying there aren’t any differences between the e-readers on sale, I’m just saying that I don’t think there are any serious differences in the hardware that makes it worth my time delving into. People who like Kindles like Kindles. Kobo works fine for me. Page turning and clicking and interfacing with wifi and the computer are all things that one ‘has to do’ to get one’s reading experience.

The more important distinction (I think) is between ereader and tablet. And there’s masses written on that so I don’t need to add to it. Especially since I’ve seen less of ipads than Kindles. Every time I look at them in a shop I just think – it’s too small. I’ll stand on it some day when I’m not looking where I’m going.

But the differences are important for the future of epublishing. What I like about ereaders is the fact that you can read them outside and they are like a book page (albeit it takes you time to get used to reading on such a tiny screen) What I like about ‘the idea’ of ipads and tablets (if/when I get one I’ll go for the Acer Transformer or its like because I NEED a proper keyboard as well as a touch screen and the idea that you can detach it appeals to me. The price tag at the moment doesn’t. I have a netbook. Till it dies that’ll have to do) what I like, is that they have COLOUR and INTERACTIVITY built in. Which means that I could publish an ebook of a stageplay AND give the reader video clips from performance (or indeed a whole rehearsal) as part of the deal.  Ereaders struggle beyond the black and white. So for me, the big issue is when they’ll  come up with a screen that can do what ereaders do WELL and do what tablets do well as well. And then I’ll be a happy bunny (except who is ever going to be able to afford that?) But one thing that’s sure about the way that hardware goes, the ebook is here  to stay and both distribution platforms and hardware will keep getting ‘newer’ and more ‘improved’ with every month.  Exponential growth is here to stay. Get used to it.

Okay. I appreciate that this is not a dispassionate, market driven analysis of the delivery distribution options of the varied epublishing platforms, but I’m guessing that if you wanted that you already know the answers to your own satisfaction AND can find lots of this kind of article on the internet.  I’m a real writer. I assume you are a real reader. I wanted to try and communicate with you directly. Make you think. Challenge some assumptions and hopefully offer some entertainment throughout the process.  Though ‘entertainment’ was not that high on the list. Nor was ‘marketing potential’ or I’d be plugging my ebooks.  But then remember I’m motivated by the moral not the material incentive.  That’s who I am.

Cally Phillips (Festival Director) Visit my Festival Page