(Editor’s note: Thanks to excellent feedback from our readers, I have clarified several points in this story about Amazon We strive for accuracy and welcome your comments. This updated article refers mainly to self-published authors using the Amazon KDP platform to distribute their ebooks.)
The thriving market for ebooks has prompted many authors to turn to Amazon Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP) for book distribution. But with great sales opportunities come great pitfalls.
First, let’s examine just how lucrative the ebook publishing market may be today.
“…64-80% of all ebook consumer dollars flowed through Amazon sales channels…
An early 2017 five-country, 15-retailer report from Author Earnings (now available as BookStat but available only to companies of $10 million or more in revenues) shows that Amazon.com owned a startling 65% of all ebook unit sales in those English-speaking countries including the USA (by now more than 70%). What’s more 64-80% of all ebook consumer dollars flowed through Amazon sales channels. These sales included titles sourced from the Big Five publishers, small presses, and indie authors. More than half of the indie authors in the study were enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited Full-Read Equivalent program (Kindle Select), which pays authors from a royalty pool based on how much of a book is read. Opting into the Select program automatically gives Amazon exclusive distribution rights. (Update: according to Statista, Amazon owns 50 percent of the entire e-commerce retail market for merchandise (gross merchandise volume or GMV).
Self-published authors, according to Author Earnings, are verifiably capturing at least 24%-34% of all ebook sales in each of the five English-language markets, including the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. When including un-categorized authors, the vast majority of whom are self-published, the true indie share in each market lies somewhere between 30%-40%, the study shows.
A later Author Earnings update of these data shows that taken all together, Amazon accounts for more than 80% of English-language ebook purchases. Since Author Earnings (as BookStat) is no longer publishing information for the general public, it is difficult for the little guys to get access to the information.
Amazon has one goal when you publish through Kindle Direct. This worldwide monopoly doesn’t want you to go anywhere else for anything else related to publishing (or any other product for that matter), whether it is designing a book cover or interior layout or producing the programming code necessary to have a book published in digital form.
As an indie author, obviously, you can’t do without publishing your book on Amazon but should you go exclusive rather than marketwide?
You don’t necessarily have to stick with them for everything in their production and distribution process. There are smart ways to work around features that aren’t as productive for you.
Let’s look at three major Kindle Direct Publishing claims on the KDP home page to determine what’s behind the slick sales pitch:
- get to market within 24-48 hours
- earn up to 70% royalty on sales
- keep control of author rights.
What does each of these claims really mean?
Getting to market fast
True, not true or partially true?
Let’s start with preparing and uploading the file to Amazon KDP.
PREPARATION: Amazon recommends you use its proprietary Kindle Create tool to prepare your ebook file. Trouble is, it doesn’t work for everything. If you have a novel containing straight text all the way through the document, the tool may work well. However, if you are after anything fancy, forget it. The Kindle Create tool creates a .kpf file that you can upload to Amazon. But if your file contains any images, non-standard fonts, tables, lists or hyperlinks you may not be happy with the outcome. The tool is simply not sophisticated enough to handle elegant layouts. If you need to make any changes after creating the file, you will have to start all over again. Rather than changing the uploaded file in real-time on Amazon, you will need to make your changes in the original source file and upload it all over again. You could use Kindle Textbook Creator for a more complex layout but bear in mind that both Kindle Create and Kindle Textbook Creator are both proprietary to Amazon. If you use these tools you won’t be able to share those files with any other sales channel. All the work you have invested will be lost if you decide to sell somewhere else.
Kindle Create and Kindle Textbook Creator are both proprietary to Amazon. If you use these tools you won’t be able to share those files with any other sales channel.
When these cookie-cutter conversion tools encounter an element in your book that they can’t handle, you will see garbage when you preview the file, and it may not be clear what you did wrong. By the way, the Kindle Previewer isn’t an exact replica of your book. It’s a close approximation of the end product.
Another pitfall. Let’s say you uploaded your masterpiece and put it on sale for a month before you discover a dreadful typographical error. And while the book was on sale you had 100 sales. When you deactivate that book from displaying on Amazon, any sales ranking you have accumulated will be lost and to accumulate ratings and reviews you’ll have to start over from zero. That means it is important to get it right on the very first try. We have known authors who spent weeks trying to replace faulty files in the Amazon upload system.
When you work with an independent conversion house such as Authorlink Publishing Services, rather than relying on Amazon tools, errors can be minimized, and the process can prove less stressful.
With the growing demand for enhanced ebooks which include features such as narration, embedded media, and interactivity, it’s important to consider how many of these elements you want in your book.
FORMATS: With the growing demand for enhanced ebooks which include features such as narration, embedded media, and interactivity, it’s important to consider how many of these elements you want in your book. Knowing this will determine which sales channels and devices you target. Amazon devices have limited support for such rich media. Its KF8 device supports text or region magnification and that’s about all. Ebook Architects has a good chart for helping you decide whether to distribute through Apple or Barnes and Noble, Kobo or Google, all of which have better support for enhanced media. (Update: After August 1, 2021, Amazon will no longer support MOBI files when publishing new or updating previously published reflowable eBooks. Instead, use EPUB, DOCX or KPF. Mobi is still OK for fixed formats.)
SOLUTION: The solution to smooth file preparation is to bypass Amazon’s proprietary tools and use a professional conversion house to produce error-free files and provide help with the upload process. If unexpected anomalies occur (and they sometimes do) a professional can solve the issues quickly.
Yes, you possibly can see your book on Amazon within 48 hours, provided you have already correctly formatted the book and uploaded it to the publishing platform without a hitch. That’s a big if.
TIME TO MARKET: Yes, you possibly can see your book on Amazon within 48 hours, provided you have already correctly formatted the book and uploaded it to the publishing platform without a hitch. That’s a big if. When the book goes through quality control, Amazon can flag it for formatting errors and send your file back to square one. The issues may not be clear as to how to make the correction. Even when you have corrected the errors you must start the whole upload process over again. You can’t simply overwrite the file. You must delete the bad file before you upload the corrected version, a time-consuming task. If the cover is embedded in your file and you don’t check a little box that tells Amazon that’s the case, you may wind up displaying two images of the same cover when you only intended one. And if you have questions, it may take you a day or two to get an answer from Amazon’s support team.
So, the claim of being quicker to market when you use Amazon tools is only partly true.
Amazon’s next claim: earn up to 70% royalty on sales.
EARNINGS: Amazon tries to coerce you into believing that you will earn far more money if you choose its 70% royalty plan instead of its 35% plan. This is not necessarily true, and the risks may outweigh the advantages.
First, if you sign up for the 70% plan, avoid clicking on the button that opts you into the Kindle Select program. If you choose “Select,” this means you are giving up your right to sell the book anywhere else except Amazon. You forfeit the chance to sell to another 20%-40% of the English-speaking market.
In some cases that might not matter, but in others it will. It is important to know where your target market lies and how many potential readers you are giving up.
In the USA alone, signing an exclusive agreement (Kindle Select) with Amazon cuts out about 65 million potential ebook buyers (including Apple iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble Nook sales channels). If your book appeals to the Canadian market, for example, you may be giving up about 10 million ebook buyers via Apple iBooks and Kobo. Collectively Apple and Kobo have almost two-thirds of Canadian ebook buyers as does Amazon, with its’ approximate 15 million ebook sales. The Author Earnings site once had an interesting chart and statistics to help in your decision-making.
VAGUE ADD-ON COSTS: When calculating how much you will earn from the sale of an ebook at Amazon, consider that under the 70% plan, you may be charged delivery costs if your book’s file size exceeds a certain size. Also, if your book is sold in certain areas outside of an Amazon 70% territory, you won’t earn 70% of that sale; you will earn 35%, though you opted for the larger royalty. So look at the territories where your book may be sold to assess the impact of this policy.
Amazon Claim: Keep control of author rights.
Technically, this claim is true. You don’t lose your copyright per se. The work is still yours. But in practice, the claim is a bit misleading
Technically, this claim is true. You don’t lose your copyright per se. The work is still yours. But in practice, the claim is a bit misleading. If Amazon is the only entity that can sell your book (under the exclusive 70% plan) then, in effect you have given away all your “rights” to do as you please with your work for as long as you are under contract with the retailer. And if you have a payment dispute, you can only sue for the amount of monies payable for the accounting period in question.
In addition, you don’t control the pricing of your book. Amazon dictates the minimum and maximum list price, based both on the size of your book and the royalty plan you select. See Amazon List Price Requirements. The retailer, too, can choose to sell your book at a price below your list price, minus delivery costs and any applicable Value Added Tax. Add-on costs can eat away at your earnings. And royalties will be based on the discounted price.
For more about pricing, see Amazon’s Pricing Guide.
Solution: Think carefully about instead choosing the 35% royalty plan, which has fewer restrictions, is non-exclusive, and gives you the freedom to sell wherever you like. At the very least, if you decide on the 70% plan, stay non-exclusive. Don’t choose to opt into the Select plan.
- With an overall increase in ebook sales across all major English-speaking markets, consider going non-exclusive with Amazon and adding all major sales channels to your distribution mix.
- Think about how you as a self-published author achieve more international sales.
- Look for production tools that don’t hem you into one vendor.
- Consider an independent conversion house to prepare your files.
- Lastly, read Amazon’s fine print (and there is a lot of it). Knowing exactly what you are signing on for can go a long way toward helping you achieve success.
We welcome your comments and feedback.
Note: This article was originally written on November 22, 2019. Some statistics have been updated where available.
For more information read:
Unlocking the Secrets of E-Book Publishing, Get your books into effective sales channels (with or without Amazon).
Need help getting your book published? We offer consultation services, book conversions, and assistance with getting your book distributed. Visit our Book Publishing Help page.