Alternative eBook stores

When it comes to eBook sales in the UK there’s really only one player: Amazon’s Kindle Direct (KDP; https://kdp.amazon.com). Data is hard to come by but major publisher Hachette Livre reported that Amazon accounted for 78% of its eBook sales in the UK across 2013, compared to around 60% in the US (see http://goo.gl/Rl8drq). Based on my experience selling eBooks over the last five years, Hachette’s data is spot on.

Yet Amazon’s arguably been trying the patience of its authors recently with its somewhat mean-spirited switch to the Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP) page rate. This only affects lending at the moment but authors are concerned the swingeing sword will slice elsewhere.

What other choices are there for self-publishing authors? After all, Kindle might be king today but tomorrow’s reign is never guaranteed in the world of technology. Below I assess three of Amazon’s most likely contenders. These were discussed briefly in the third instalment of my eBook creation guide – see issue 158 – and that’s a good starting place before reading below.

Apple

Apple has its fingers in a number of (Apple?) pies and one of these is eBooks, via its iBooks software and online store. Hachette reckons iBooks has around a 12% share and my own data as well as anecdotal evidence suggests this is perhaps generous but otherwise correct.

To tune into iBooks your readers will require some kind of Apple hardware, such as an iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or Mac computer. Apple doesn’t make iBooks software for your Android phone or tablet, or Windows computer.

ibooks

Royalties are similar to Kindle’s higher rate: as publisher/author you’ll get a basic 70% of whatever price you set for the eBook, minus whatever is deducted for local taxes (and that’s 20% VAT for eBooks sold to UK readers because eBooks are not VAT-exempt, like their dead tree ancestors). There are no electronic delivery fees to worry about, as with Kindle, and this is true of all the services discussed here.

Alas, there’s a second worm in this particular apple. eBooks have to be uploaded to Apple via the iTunes Connect service (https://itunesconnect.apple.com), but the iTunes Producer software required to do so is only available for Mac computers.

In other words, you need a Mac to publish iBooks. There’s no way around this, other than bothering a friend who owns a Mac, or perhaps finding a library or local media lab where you can hire a Mac for a few hours. Some online busineses will upload it for a fee but then you have the issue of updates when you spot the inevitable typos. It could get expensive.

Publication is dead easy once you’ve access to a Mac. You can create an ePub file via an app like Calibre (again, see issue 158), or use the free-of-charge iBooks Author software that lets you design a completely new book from scratch. iBooks Author can be found via the Mac App Store and is arguably best for textbooks or illustrated titles like comics, while a simple ePub file is best for novels.

iBooks isn’t too hot on promotional tools, an area where Amazon’s Kindle still leads with its ability to create time-limited price reductions or free offers in order to garner vital reader reviews. Aside from simply dropping the price temporarily, and then manually reverting it later, iBooks’ only concessions in this area is to let you create promo codes in order to pass the book on to reviewers free of charge, and to allow preorders in order to build interest early in a forthcoming title.

Kobo

Kobo derives its name from a clumsy anagram of book but its business model is far from clumsy. It manufactures its own range of eReader devices along with apps for most phones, tablets and computers. It has a partnership with WH Smith here in the UK that sees its hardware sold on the high street, and it has similar partnerships with many independent bookshops worldwide. Additionally, it gained significant market penetration when Sony and the huge US chain Borders pulled out of eBook retail and redirected their customers to Kobo.

Unfortunately, none of this means a great deal. Hachette reckons Kobo has a 5% eBook market share in the UK, and that share is so insignificant in the US that Hachette throws it into an “Others” category holding 8% market share.

kobo

In fact, Kobo shows what is clearly a familiar yet depressing picture in the eBook marketplace: how accessible a product is – its market penetration – doesn’t necessarily equate to market share. Just about anybody can access Kobo eBooks via the apps they produce for every phone and tablet – just check the App Store or Google Play on your device. It’s just that only a small percentage are choosing to do so.

Kobo’s Writing Life (https://writinglife.kobobooks.com) provides access to publishing on Kobo for just about any level of writer, and you can upload your Word doc as with Kindle Direct or upload a readymade ePub file. You can even type direct into the Writing Life page if you fancy composing a novel online. Royalties are a little complicated but for £1.99 and above you’ll get 70% of the asking price, minus taxes. Any less and you’re looking at 45%, which is still better than Amazon’s 35% rate at that level.

To help promote your book and gain reviews you can set a promo price for a limited period.

Google Play

Once upon a time Microsoft was sure to follow wherever Apple went. Nowadays Google fulfils this role and in the wake of Apple iBooks offers a Google Books branch of its Google Play empire that already provides users of Android phones and tablet computers with music, movies, apps and more. Google Books comes ready installed on virtually every Android device worldwide, giving unrivalled market penetration, and you’ve even get apps for Apple devices. However, as mentioned, this doesn’t equate to market share.

In fact, if we revisit Hachette’s data once again we find that Google is lumped into a 5% “Others” market share category in the UK, and the similar 8% “Others” category in the US. This might leave you wondering who will topple Amazon’s dominance if even Google falls short.

Google Play Books royalty rates and retail prices are muddier than a five-a-side football field. Authors have experimented and found they receive 52% of the retail price they set for the book. A RRP of £10 provides £5.20. That’s only in theory, however, because Google always sells your book at a discount, and does so without asking or telling you. You might set a book’s price at £10 but Google might sell it at £7.99. Crucially, and this is very important, Google stills pay 52% of your £10 RRP even if they choose to sell it for less. In other words, the effective royalty rate can be higher than the typical 70% offered by Amazon et al – if an author receives £5.20 for a book sold at £7.99 then the royalty rate is effectively 75%.

Sound good? If you only sell your novel via Google Play Books it’s terrific. The trouble is that Amazon price matches against other retailers. If Amazon spots Google’s cheaper price then it will automatically drop its price of your eBook to £7.99 – and Amazon will then give you royalties based on £7.99, regardless of whatever retail price you set originally.

There’s even been situations where Google has subsequently responded by lowering the price again – which Amazon again follows – and at least one instance where Google dropped the price to zero without an author’s permission and Amazon again followed, meaning the author lost thousands of dollars of income.

It’s very messy and many authors simply avoid Google Play Books.

Uploading your book to Google Play isn’t very problematic – you’ll again need to create an ePub file, and can upload and enter the details of your title at https://goo.gl/yqwgrw. However, many find the website interface clumsy, and certainly not as user-friendly as Amazon.

Summary

It should be clear that the eBook marketplace is shark-infested water. Each service hopes to become dominant by using authors as a means to this end, and authors’ rights and remuneration is often little more than lip service.

Use this article as a starting point but hit Google to learn more about the intricacies of each service, with particular reference to blogs where authors type-up their experiences and forums where authors gather to moan across a virtual pint (KBoards is a good example – www.kboards.com).

There are even more providers not mentioned here for reasons of space, such as Smashwords (www.smashwords.com). If you plan to offer your work for £0.00/$0.00 then Free-Ebooks.net (www.free-ebooks.net) should also be examined.

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