Susan Kaye Quinn’s Self-Pub Basics (Part One of Four): Where to Publish

Let’s give a big ol’ WG2E Welcome to Guest Susan Kaye Quinn who’s treating us to a four-part series on Self-Pub Basics!!!

Take it away, Susan…

Self-Pub Basics (1 of 4): Where to Publish
by Susan Kaye Quinn

Thank you D.D. for having me on WG2E!

More writers every day are going indie, and sharing information to help fellow journeymen/women is practically a Golden Rule in indie publishing (and writing in general). So I’ve worked up a series on the basics to get folks started – nuts and bolts like Where to Publish and Formatting (the Easy, the Hard, and the iTunes). Hopefully this will help smooth the kinks in the process and get you on your way!

Where to Publish

You’ve heard of the “Big Six” publishers (er, maybe now the “Big Five/Four”)? Well here are the “Big Four” online retailers that will make the largest deposits in your checking account: Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBookstore/iTunes, Kobo*.

*Kobo is big in Canada and internationally, but also inked a deal to supply independent US bookstores with ereaders and a digital storefront.

Ebook Retailers and Distributors
Retailers are the people that sell your book directly to readers: they have a storefront, and they will pay you royalties for every sale. Distributors will send your book (often formatting and providing other services as well) to the retailers on your behalf. Distributors can often get you into retailers that do not have a direct-publishing option. Just to make things confusing, some places are distributors AND retailers.

(listed approximately in order of market size)
Retailers: Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBookstore/iTunes, Kobo, Smashwords, Sony, Diesel

Distributors: Smashwords (who distributes to B&N, iTunes, Kobo, Sony, Diesel), Createspace (who now distributes both ebooks and print to Amazon) (there are others, but I don’t recommend them)

It’s more complicated than just that, but I’m trying to keep it simple. This is the BASICS tutorial, yes?

One thing first-time self-publishers need to be wary of are Vanity Publishers. The number and variety of these are multiplying faster than bunnies hyped on easter candy, so please be careful. Even Big Six Traditional Publishers are now getting into the Vanity Game, and many previously “respected” suppliers of writerly information (I’m looking at you, Writer’s Digest), are trying to cash in on the self-pub craze.

Here’s your Common Sense dose for the day:

  • if someone is promising to do all the work for you, they will expect to make money for it. That money comes from you. There is no free lunch, and some people will try to rip you off.

Fortunately for you, “all the work” is not that hard. Figuring it out is, seriously, the hardest part, which is why I’m doing this series of posts to make it easier.

While some people like using Distributors, and they can be useful for some things (like getting into Apple, if you don’t own a Mac, or setting your book free on B&N by distributing it through Smash), I believe having direct control of your books is best (for updates, cover changes, price changes, and getting timely reports on sales). However, I tend to err on the side of wanting MORE control, not LESS, and not everyone works that way. Many people successfully use Distributors, and YMMV. /endcaveats

My Best Recommendation
  1. Make accounts on the Big Four Retailers: Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing), B&N (PubIt), iBookstore (iProducer), and Kobo (Kobo Writing Life)
  2. Format your book to meet their specs: Amazon (Mobi), Everyone Else (Epub)
  3. Upload to Smashwords for Direct Sales only, or use them for distribution, if you have a specific need that you think they can fulfill (like making a book free on B&N). Be wary of using them to distribute to retailers if you expect to make any changes in the future (it can take literally months for changes to update; it took two months for one of my books to pull down from Sony; some people have no problems with Smash, but I wasn’t one of them).
NOTE: If you only want to publish on one platform, make sure it’s Amazon. They are the biggest retailer by far. Amazon’s Select program, which requires exclusivity, is an option that I’m not going to discuss today. But there are many forums that talk about it.

Smashwords Apologia: I don’t think the problems are entirely Smash’s fault, just understand that the more people involved, the less motivation there is to move along with a schedule that works for YOU. Smashwords is an innovative champion of self-publishers, and has recently added options to distribute to Baker&Taylor among other options. I’m agnostic on whether these are worthwhile, having seen no evidence one way or the other, but I greatly appreciate Mark Coker’s attempts to move these things forward for indie publishers.

Tips on Retailers and FREE books

Amazon: You cannot set your book to FREE on Amazon, unless you use Select (a program where you go exclusive with Amazon for 90 days, get a few free days, and make your book available in the library). However, Amazon will price match your ebook, so if it is set to FREE elsewhere, the Zon may match it. Or may not. This can cause complications if you have your pricing different on other retailers – Amazon never wants to be the highest price, and its bots will find you, even if it’s only a low-priced promotion on Sony. This is why I recommend not distributing through Smash, but only going where you have direct control over your pricing. (Note: Smash does not distribute to Amazon, even though it has it as an “option” – they are being optimistic about the future.)

B&N: You cannot set your book to FREE on B&N either, but if you distribute a free book through Smash, it may eventually be free on B&N as well.

Kobo: This retailer is new-kid-on-the-block and still working out some issues, but it’s an up-n-coming retailer. And you CAN set your book to FREE there, which is great. Except they don’t report downloads (not so great). Note: I recommend uploading an epub directly to them, not a Word document, because their conversion software stinks.

Apple: They will allow you to set your book to FREE, which is awesome. And they report downloads! (sort of) They’re difficult (but not impossible) to navigate to load directly (more on that later in an upcoming post) – you may want to use Smash to distribute to them. However, once again, there’s problems with that too (delayed uploads/price changes).

What about Print?
There are three main ways you can get your print book into the wild: Createspace, Lightning Source, and a small print run of your own.

Hint: Having a print book is great for signings, author ego, and libraries. You are unlikely to be in a bookstore, unless your mom owns it, and maybe not even then. If you do get into bookstores, it will likely cost you an arm and a leg in returns (because bookstores will only take books on a return basis).

Another hint: print is not necessary to your bottom line, in fact, it can gobble up all your profits, if you’re not careful. Of the many sales I’ve had with the Mindjack Trilogy so far, less than 5% come from print (note: there are always exceptions).

Pros: easy, zero cost to upload, minimal cost for print proofs ($10 or less), distributes to Amazon with no hiccups (because Amazon owns them), quality is good, free ISBN, now makes your print book available overseas!
Cons: Have to pay $35 for extended distribution to get your paper book on Barnes& as well as other paper book distributors; will not do bookstore returns, which is why bookstores will not carry them.

Lightning Source
Pros: some people report higher quality, gives option of “returns” which means B&N will consider stocking (maybe), access to Baker&Taylor (wholesaler)
Cons: difficult to navigate, higher cost to upload and get print proofs, requires publisher name (“DBA=Doing Business As”)*, must pay for ISBN, sometimes has delays distributing to Amazon.

*may require incorporation in some states

If you’re contemplating a small print run, make sure that you plan for print books to be a large part of your marketing effort. They are difficult to move without access to a bookstore.

My Best Recommendation
  • Use Createspace: it’s easy to produce a high quality book for practically zero upload/proof cost.
  • If you really want to be in B&N online store with a print book, pay the $35 for extended distribution; otherwise skip it.
  • Order a few author copies to have on hand. Use Paypal to offer signed copies to fans.
  • Forget about making lots of print sales or getting into bookstores. You’re an indie author – ebooks are your bread and butter.
Come back tomorrow for a FUN post on formatting!
(I’m completely kidding. There’s absolutely no fun in formatting.)

Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling Mindjack Series, which includes three novels, three novellas, and a trailer. She’s currently writing a steampunk fantasy romance, just for kicks. When that’s out of her system, she has ambitious plans to embark on a series about the Singularity (the time when computers become more intelligent than humans) that should appeal to fans of the Mindjack novels. Or possibly play on Facebook all day. Could go either way.

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  1. Sibel Hodge says:

    Great info, Susan! :)

  2. Very helpful. Even though we might know some of this, we don’t know all of it and Susan spells it out for us with excellent advice. Thank you.

    • This is definitely the “most basic” of the Basic posts! While most of my friends already know this, it provides a handy post to point people toward when they’re just getting into the game. ;)

  3. Julie Day says:

    Thanks for this. I publish onto Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords. As I live in the UK and I don’t have a Mac, I can’t publish directly onto iTunes etc. I leave the rest to Smashwords. Interesting that you report print sales are really low, as I am thinking of doing a print version as well as ebook for my first boxed set of YA stories later this year.

    • Julie – in my iTunes post, I’ll talk more about the ins and outs, but here’s the upshot for you: as far as I know, you can upload from anywhere in the world. If you don’t want to invest in a Mac, and can’t borrow one, you can use Mac-in-Cloud – basically renting time on a Mac to upload your files. I highly recommend going direct to all my retailers – it gives you better control over your pricing, which indies tend to experiment with, do sales, etc. For example, I’m running a 99cent sale on my first book this week on all channels – something I couldn’t do if I published through Smashwords, because there’s no way to guarantee that Smash/Apple would update the price in a timely fashion. When I’m direct with Apple, my price changes within 24 hours, sometimes immediately.

      Re: print for your boxed set – I’d love to know how you plan to do that! I have a YA digital box set, but I haven’t seen any economical way to box it in print.

      • Julie Day says:

        The cover will look like a boxed set but the inside will be an anthology of the first 3 of my ebooks. Does that make more sense?

      • Thanks for the valuable information. I prefer to upload directly, too, but because I don’t have a Mac, I haven’t been able to upload my books directly to iTunes. I’m looking forward to learning more about Mac in Cloud.

  4. Glynis Smy says:

    Great post! I popped my first enovel onto Smashwords and Amazon. My sales are higher over at Amazon com and UK. My second I decided to keep at Amazon and at a low price for a while. I refuse to give my book away but opted for the select programme for lending option. I paid for distribution pack for both books, and because they end up on Book Depository (owned by Amazon), my paperback sales tick along, too. (Used CreateSpace). All in all, I am sticking with Amazon as the Kindle ebooks seems to outsell the ipad/Kobo books.

    Looking forward to your next post, Susan! I love formatting! NB: One of those two sentences was a little white lie, guess which one. :D

    • LOL! I think I can guess…

      I LOVE that Book Depository makes my print books (through extended distribution in Createspace) available anywhere in the world at a reasonable price. But now that Createspace also distributes to the European channels of Amazon, there’s that option as well. Very nice!

      I think that your %print vs. ebook depends somewhat on sales and somewhat on your genre/market. Some people do fabulous in print. I know one indie who has her books in Costco (through a friend)! Her sales are almost all through that channel, and all print. But most indies with more than 1000 sales/month are mostly making those in ebooks, not print.

  5. Tamara Ward says:

    Thanks for the tip… and the trailer! Awesome!

  6. Ansha Kotyk says:

    I’m one of the few, who for now, have most of my sales in paperbacks. But that’s dependent on genre. I write middle grade and it seems to work, I think because kids are still reading books more than ereaders (so far!).
    I chose Lightning Source for it’s quality, and I have my own client coordinator, so if I have issues with anything I can email him directly. So far I’m very happy with Lightning Source.
    Having a print book also means I can do the giveaways on Goodreads as well as Library Thing.
    But again, I don’t make as much of a profit off my paperbacks as I would off an ebook.

    • Middle grade is definitely a print-heavy genre, one of the few left. And if you plan on having a lot of print sales, Lightning Source can make sense (I believe they have somewhat better royalties on print as well). As you point out, though, it’s harder to make money on print. The trad-pub world, with 1000+ novel print runs and paper distribution channels through bookstores, is still the most profitable way to sell print books (although they still have to deal with returns, etc, so it’s a high stakes kind of business vs. the low stakes of Print-On-Demand).

  7. Monica Davis says:

    Great post, Susan!

    As for “quality control”, check everything! My ebook version went up on Amazon in mid-December. I downloaded the “sample” to find…not 10% of the book, but the entire book! (Same with “Look Inside” feature.) It took 2 weeks, numerous emails and phone calls to Support, and a letter to the corporate office to get this fixed. I was told that it was a “system glitch”, and not an isolated case so, heads up…check your samples from time to time.

  8. My debut novel was released on 1/3 on Amazon and through Smash to everyone else. The biggest reason I let Smash distribute to B&N was because B&N’s author direct program didn’t seem very easy or friendly. I’m monitoring sales and may end up changing my mind on future releases but for now, I’m happy with this strategy. Keep the great info coming!

    • B&N’s PubiT isn’t quite as easy as KDP, but I haven’t had too many difficulties with it. Both PubiT and KDP are a dream compared to Apple, and I still upload to them, because the one-time-pain is worth the higher profits and flexibility in pricing. Sometimes “easy” on one end means you pay a price on another end, but everyone has to decide for themselves what works best for their writing lifestyle/career. I know some people that simply do Amazon/Select and nothing else, and it works well for them. There’s certainly an attraction to that when most of your sales come from Amazon, but a lot of the effort/formatting/uploading time goes to the other, smaller channels.

  9. Lois Lavrisa says:

    Susan – Great post- I so agree with you “I believe having direct control of your books is best (for updates, cover changes, price changes, and getting timely reports on sales). ” Welcome to WG2E:)

  10. Great post, Susan! Gives me food for thought on the choices I’ve made so far. And I just downloaded Mindjack #1 — the series sounds fantastic!

  11. JamieSalisbury (@JamieRSalisbury) says:

    Wonderful and valuable information!! I look forward to your next installment! Control. . .that is exactly why I started out indie and will remain indie. . .to maintain control of my “babies”.
    Thanks Susan.

  12. Jill James says:

    Extended Distribution at Createspace is $25.00. I love knowing my books can go anywhere in the world. Very exciting times!

  13. Alison Pensy says:

    Thanks Susan, this is great info. I’m looking forward to your formatting post and I’m going to look into your Mindjack series. It looks like something I would enjoy :-)

  14. What a fantastic, comprehensive post. This is one for anybody who’s thinking of self-publishing to bookmark! I love the idea of calling the four online retailers “the Big Four” instead of thinking of the Mighty Zon as the only outlet. This is beautifully put together and well-thought out. Thanks so much Susan!

  15. Victoria Noe says:

    Very timely, as this is what I’m literally doing this week with the first book in my series.
    Based on my audience (already there and targeted) I’m using Kobo to get into the UK, Canada, NZ right away. I’ll also do Amazon (including Canada and UK), B&N and Apple.

    I’m also doing print through LSI. I need to be in the Ingram catalog, rather than B&T.

    What I’m NOT looking at is setting my price at free. My ebooks will be 20% lower than print. I need print for non-traditional sales avenues: conferences, nonprofit organizations, hospices.

    There’s no one answer for everyone. Who you use – and why – should be based on your target audience (who those people are and how they buy).

    Great post!

    • Great points, all around! What’s implicit in this post, but I should have stated explicitly, is that this is primarily for fiction. Non-fiction, especially when you have a lot of conferences and non-traditional outlets, is very different, especially for print.

      Sounds like you’ve got a great plan!

  16. Great info! I love being able to pass on posts and the site to friends who are considering self-pubbing. Thank you!

  17. Fateen Moussa says:

    Hi Susan

    I represent a monastery from Egypt and we published hundreds of books in many languages , all by the local facility and distribute the books with our limited facilities. Some of the books published in English via some publishers.

    We plan to expand and think in amazon, and our biggest question is what is the way to publish Arabic books which we are sure that we will get great success.

    We are looking for advise and professional help. We have a good printing facility and can prepare the scripts, just need some technical help.

    Any way you can help us ?

    Fateen Moussa

    • Fateen, I’m afraid I’m not the person to help, but I’m sure you can find plenty of companies that will be willing to help you transition to ebooks. Best of luck!

  18. Christina says:

    For romance writers, All Romance Ebooks is another good one. I sell there fairly regularly.

  19. I’ve been pretty much exclusive to KDP Select with most of my books. I had planned to switch to all platforms at the end of January. After reading more of other writers’ experiences, I think I’ll still migrate to all platforms, but slower, experimenting one book at a time. I had disappointing experiences with non-Zon platforms early on and I’m anxious for Smashwords to improve to a point where they are a destination site for readers. I’m hoping Kobo and Apple improve their market share so Amazon has credible competition (not because I hate Amazon but because competition is healthy for everyone.)

    After reading this excellent summary, I also realized I was giving too much brain space to thinking about my paperbacks. Ebooks is where the action is. Thank you. (Pointed my blog readers your way from ChazzWrites.)

    • Thanks for the link-love! And my general philosophy has always been “be everywhere” but that can be a drain on time/energy when the other channels really aren’t delivering the same ROI. I’m going to experiment with Select with my next book (a romance) before releasing on the other channels, and see how that goes. I too would like to see more (credible) competition.

      Thanks for stopping by!