What’s the best platform for self-publishing?

Guest author and blogger David Lieder is an author and consultant to authors. He teaches self-publishing techniques and is the President of Author Wing. An entrepreneur and businessman, David helps authors apply the business principles that affect self-publishing.

David Lieder of Author Wing has suggested Kindle Direct, the Amazon self-publishing platform, isn’t the best platform for self-published authors, so we queried that. My own experience (it’s Harry Bingham introducing) is that, even in the US, Amazon supplies significantly more than 60% of my self-publishing income, because it’s easier to make self-published books stand out there. Most will make more money from Amazon than they do from any other source.

We put that question to David, and he sent us a reasoned and eloquent answer below. I still believe that Amazon is a great, perhaps essential, platform for self-published authors, but here – from David Lieder – is his counterblast.

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Simplify your thinking: find out what matters, and forget the rest.

Apple versus Amazon by David Lieder

(A disclaimer. This article is an opinion piece, not intended to offer stock market or legal advice.)

Before I begin my diatribe on Amazon, I believe it is important to also talk about the good things about Kindle and Create Space. Let’s take a moment to consider them.

One great thing about Amazon is that every small company underneath that logo was forced at the beginning to be completely independent. For example, Create Space was set up to not allow the sharing of staff with Kindle KDP or the Amazon search platform. They cannot share support staff. They cannot share software, APIs, or management staff, except for the upper echelons of Amazon corporate. Thus, every little company under Amazon has its own personality that can be hugely different from the others. That doesn’t make Amazon an honest company, but it is brilliant for entrepreneurship and start-up management.

Amazon is a great search engine for products, but they have also created many smaller companies that add amazing value to the internet. Tech geeks use AWS – an Amazon company – and services with obscure names (like EC2 and S3). These are Amazon underworlds that authors have usually never heard of, a cyber-universe called AWS that could have its own novels written about it, a microcosm of existence that has little to do with the search engine Amazon, other than hosting it and hosting hundreds of thousands of other companies. This article is not about AWS.

And yes, we can list some other good things about Kindle and Amazon:

  • They are innovators.
  • They created ways that authors could publish text quickly in a format called .mobi which was basically an ePub file mashed up so that authors could only use it on the Amazon platform.
  • They created some neat ways to help authors market books on their platform.
  • Create Space is a great way to publish a print book.
  • Amazon support is generally very good. There are real people who answer support requests within twenty-four hours.
  • You can change the title for free. You can upload a new version for free. You can unlist the book for free.
  • Free ISBNs.

For the above reasons, I advise authors to always publish their first book on Kindle, just so they know what’s up.

Nonetheless, if you allow yourself to drink the Kindle koolaid and if you spend your entire author life on the dashboard of KDP, then you will develop habits and knowledge consistent with that: you will know KDP and not much else.

So I want to argue that authors should avoid Amazon Kindle, ACX and Create Space, and I’ll explain why I recommend that authors use other distributors, except for allowing your books to trickle back onto the Amazon platform after the fact (from another propagator, such as Smashwords, Ingram-Spark, even Book Baby). I want to explain why I teach authors to boycott Amazon ACX (audiobook production) and to replace Create Space with the much better choice of Ingram-Spark (which has print books available to authors at about half the price of Create Space).

Sounds crazy to you? Well, maybe. So far, I’ve talked about the good parts of Amazon. Now let’s talk about the bad. (And, to be clear, I mean the bad for authors. Let’s forget for a moment that Amazon ex-employees say it’s common for employees to break down crying because pressures and attitudes across the board are too oppressive. That’s not what this article is about.)

Most authors say that Kindle has published more ebooks than any other platform. What authors don’t realize is that the first users and early adopters of Kindle were internet marketers, not authors, who taught tens of thousands of other internet marketers to hire writers in the Philippines to throw together ebooks and put them on Kindle. These books tended to be of very low quality, not edited, and without literary merit of any kind. Then a mass of gimmicks and tricks were used by these marketers to bully the books to the top of the Amazon search lists and create sales.

I know, because I was part of an internet marketing community at the birth of Amazon, and I decided to use my writing skills to keep focusing on literary writing. But I watched as hundreds of thousands of ebooks were dumped on Kindle by internet marketers from all over the world.

Many of these Kindle books were “Private Label Rights” (PLR) and were complete copies of other books. As such, there were books that had the same text as other books, and “PLR” was a license to copy text from one book to another. Amazon cracked down and literally removed and banned these PLR books. Still, Kindle customers early on realized that Kindle and quality were not synonymous. Kindle had become a cesspool of ghost-written ebook trash early in its life, and the managers of Kindle were swimming upstream from then onward, desperately trying to contain the damage that “easy publishing” had brought. (I was an internet marketer from 1994 onward, so I’m just preaching to the choir.)

Then there were the perks that KDP created to lure and keep good writers: free books and free book days, the awesome KDP dashboard that made it easy to manage author ebooks, and Amazon’s gimmicks to get authors to swear fealty only to Amazon.

Yet Amazon is merely a search engine, one that could be replaced by Alibaba or any number of emerging search-engine-based storefronts.

What the Amazon family looks like

Imagine if your parents were madly in debt and every month survived only because the neighbours loaned them money. In that case, you would not feel comfortable trusting your future to the idea of parental support. You’d want to get a job, or go to college, fast.

Amazon’s business model has been “mad growth” by adding products and new companies underneath its logo. Their success as a brand and on the stock market has been, in my opinion, a bunch of hype. Even the stock price was historically based on the idea that Amazon might be successful one day, because the profit earnings for the first ten years were nothing: no profit, only losses.

If a profit was made, it would be icing on the cake, since most authors have failed miserably by drinking the Kindle koolaid, because the actual Kindle platform is full of trash books, and only the books at the top of the pile sell well.

Now let’s shift gears to a nice, decent home for your books.

What the Apple family looks like

Imagine your parents have billions of dollars in their savings account and they have real jobs, making real products. When your parents tell you that they will pay for your college, your future, and your golf course fees for the rest of your life, it seems believable. That’s Apple.

Apple is literally the most valuable public company in the world with the highest market cap of any existing company out there. This translates into stability, when you consider their pragmatic approach to nearly everything. They make real products. They are also the #1 most liked brand in the world.

As such, Apple is literally the most valuable brand (at the time of writing) in the world.

Apple usually works carefully over time, not rushing, taking ten years to release a product, and nurse it along, like they have iBooks, Apple Watch, and Apple TV. Most of us have not heard of Apple TV even though it has existed since 2006, but when Apple is ready for you to hear about it, you will.

iBooks slowly found its way into iTunes and has become more and more prominent. Apple devices are among the few in the world that embrace the ePub 3.0 standard and are completely ready for the new revolution of publishing.

Kindle, on the other hand, is a reader that most people buy in “paperwhite” version, all the Kindle books are compressed (not the original version) and images are never as nice as the original. Amazon charges authors fifteen cents per megabyte download costs, forcing any real books or beautiful books to have to choose between looking terrible on Kindle or simply boycotting Kindle, since on all other platforms they can keep their original size and not have to pay any download bandwidth charges. Thus, my book with images can be 70 MB on other platforms and look gorgeous, and my fixed width picture book can be 500 MB with no additional charges on all major platforms other than Amazon.

So if Apple are your parents, how would that feel? When your parents tell you they will take care of you, the promise has a lot more credibility. They make their own products, and they have stable platforms to sell digital books, music and apps that run on their products.

Amazon, in my view, is more like a sleazy salesperson that sells other people’s products, never quite having their own, then asking all vendors to be exclusive or face definite penalties.

The biggest defence of Kindle has been authors singing praises about the library program. The authors make money off the library program. So here is yet one more example of an artificial business. Authors usually are not making money from the library. They make money because Amazon artificially funds the library, which is a fake form of propping up, and if Amazon stops doing this, authors will make nothing. That is called fake business. A company that makes no profit. A library that pays per download even though no income is coming in, but rather, the owner of the library – Amazon – wants to keep authors loyal to the program, because otherwise it will fail tomorrow.

I personally like the idea of a publisher platform that has 200 billion in the bank. I like the idea of hardware with Retina colour displays that help book covers look amazing, that make images pop. I like the idea of over 400 million readers (that is, devices using iOS), and of a customer base that largely has significant disposable income.

And so far, this is just me being nice. Let’s get to some real issues. Time to take off the kid gloves.

Amazon: the nitty gritty

In 2010, I was following major thought leaders in ePub development like Anne Marie Concepcion (https://www.senecadesign.com/) who taught about fixed-width ePubs, Adobe InDesign, and the glories of Apple devices and the ePub 2.0 standard. It was white magic compared to what most authors were talking about, pulling the tow of the Amazon Empire propaganda. Most authors had no clue what ePub standards 2.0 and 3.0 were, and so we in the rebellion created secret bases on remote ice planets, and developed secret handshakes to qualify each other before speaking of ePubs in public, and before talking about the future of publishing.

And I realized that, of the few authors who championed colour in books and using the Apple platform, there are some major authors in self-publishing who get more sales on Apple than on Kindle, and Kindle has a lot of drawbacks: they compress the ePub to almost nothing (ruining any decent images), and Kindle charges for bandwidth if your book is larger than a simple text ePub. Thus, the ePub that Kindle delivers (in .mobi format) will never be the ePub that is uploaded, because they always compress it to almost nothing.

Then, there are ridiculously high delivery fees charged to the author. By the time, Amazon subtracts the cost of bandwidth (15 cents per megabyte) from your profit, it is possible to make almost nothing on books. For example, the above is a link to a testimony of shock from one author. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything other than a text-filled book will have faced this same dilemma with Amazon, the obstacle of ePub development in the free world.

In contrast, Apple and all the other platforms have no charge to authors for bandwidth, and the non-Amazon platforms do not compress the ePubs. (I’ve talked mostly about Apple in this piece, but Google and loads of other non-Amazon, non-Kindle platforms are heading the same way.)

And what of the future? Kindle cannot handle ePub standard 3 and can barely handle 2. At this time of writing, KDP will not allow authors to upload books with any media files (which is a normal feature of the 2.0 standard). Everyone else uses the ePub format but Amazon has to force us to use Mobi.

Because Kindle is terrible with graphics, most Kindle owners have black-and-white devices, and nobody expects ePubs on Kindle to be pretty. Contrast that with the high-quality screens of most Android tablets, and the Retina display of Apple devices and the fact that our ePubs on Apple can be large file size and beautiful, retaining all the graphic quality. Everyone else is embracing the technology and empowering it, while Amazon has effectively hindered any progress in ePub evolution, at Amazon’s own peril.

In a spat of Multiple Personality Disorder, Amazon released the higher quality Kindle Fire, after hindering ePub evolution for years.

I am also keeping in mind a long history of what I view as Amazon manipulating and abusing authors, and there are also issues like Audible ACX promising authors 90% royalty and then dropping it to 25% later. Here is a sentiment from a well-known self-published author:

“In a disturbing move that caused an eruption among self-published authors, Amazon’s ACX division has announced a reduction and simplification of royalty rates. Rates that previously started at 50% and escalated to 90% have been reduced to a flat 40%.”

And actually, the rate was dropped to 25%. ACX audiobooks distributed non-exclusively have dropped to a non-escalating rate of 25% for authors if your audiobook appears anywhere else in the world other than Amazon’s Audible service.

Self-Published authors selling the most are probably doing it cross-platform, by using Ingram-Spark or Smashwords, Create Space, Book Baby, etc.

I’ve also promoted a lot of authors using Kindle “free book days” and have seen the whole Amazon free book platform evolve in a really bad direction. In addition, KDP Select and KDP library royalty payments to authors started dropping dramatically since the middle of 2015 (see chart). I’m sure it will have its ups and downs, but what gets me is that authors will get ten “borrows” and about $20 or $30 bucks a month for it, and that’s enough for them to swear fealty to Amazon and boycott all other platforms.

At that point, the same authors are learning nothing other than continuing the same processes on Amazon. Meanwhile, I’m going to be learning skills on other platforms and I will celebrate the business principle that where there are fewer competitors, there are usually greater numbers of sales. If some authors insist on burying their heads in the Amazon sands, I guess that just means the rest of us will have more share of the pie as we move out into the publishing future.

And of course the most important issue of all: coupons!

I know you stay up nights thinking about coupons, so here is a sentiment from a fellow sympathizer:
“Apple provides coupons to give out to customers, bloggers, reviewers. It’s a nice touch and easy to use. Amazon does not.”

From the same article:

“According to iBooks Store Director Keith Moerer, addressing publishers at Digital Book World 2015, Apple’s ebook business is gaining 1 million new customers every week.”

I like life, having moved into a home built around Apple, Ingram-Spark, and adding real images to my books. I like that Mom-and-Dad-Apple will be around after any kind of economic collapse imaginable. And that haunting sound of crashed author careers that line the KDP morgues, authors that had put their entire trust in Amazon exclusivity, keeping their books only on Kindle, only to blame themselves when it didn’t work out, quitting their author careers.

Perhaps their final silence speaks loudest of all.

A postscript by Harry Bingham

We generally take the view that self-published authors should aim to get across all major platforms. That means Apple, and Google, and Kobo, and everything else.

Our reasoning is simple. The US is by far the largest market for ebooks, and will, even for British authors, almost certainly represent the largest slice of their income. And whereas in the UK, Amazon is utterly dominant in ebooks with an approximately 90% market share, in the US Amazon boasts “only” about a 60% share. So, because 100% is better than 60%, we’ve always taken the view that self-published authors should seek to ensure that their books are available everywhere they could possibly be.

What’s more, in its defence, Amazon is unbelievably simple to use. If you have all the material to hand, you can upload a book very easily. Partly for that reason, nearly all self-published authors will distribute their work via an outfit like Smashwords or Draft2Digital or IngramSpark, or anyone who can distribute files to all non-Amazon retailers.

So: Amazon is simple to use, it makes a ton of money for self-published authors, it’s the dominant platform in every market, and wildly dominant here in the UK. So why isn’t it, from the self-published author’s perspective, necessarily (or indisputably) the best platform?

That’s what David thinks, but what about you? What has been your experience?

These questions are only going to evolve as Apple and Google (finally!) start to turn their attention to overturning Amazon’s dominance.

The seven stats all indies need to know

Simplify your thinking: find out what matters, and forget the rest.