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Two decades ago, self-published authors commanded about as much respect for their work as used car salesmen or politicians.
In other words, no one was taking them seriously.
But over time, stories began to emerge about authors like Mark Dawson, who has sold over 2 million copies of his books. Or Amanda Hocking, who back in 2012 reportedly made $2.5 million from sales of her books. Both authors are examples of the earliest success stories in the self-publishing world.
People started to take notice. And as the success stories continued to grow, self-published authors gradually gained a lot more respect for their work.
Today, choosing to self-publish can make a lot of sense for many authors.
If you are interested in self-publishing, the first step is deciding on a platform for publishing and distributing your book.
The good news is, there are many options available to authors interested in taking on the reins of publishing their book. The bad news is, there are so many options available, it can be overwhelming and confusing to navigate all the choices that are out there.
You will need to consider what kind of support services you are willing to pay for, as well as your your budget, your format, and your plans for distribution.
Types of Self-Publishing Services
There are two broad categories of self-publishing companies: retailers and aggregators. Retailers will sell your book through their own online store. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Barnes and Noble Press are two of the biggest, and most well-known retailers. Authors receive payment directly from the retailer for any books sold.
An aggregator is a company that will distribute your book to several book retailers at the same time. This can give a book wider distribution, particularly to foreign markets.
Some self-publishing platforms also offer a print-on-demand service, which allows authors to have physical copies of their books printed when requested. It also prevents authors from having to print large quantities of books and carry an inventory before being able to sell them.
Overview of Self-Publishing Platforms
Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
The behemoth in the self-publishing world is Amazon, who owns Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). With 85 percent of the ebook market share, they are hard to ignore.
Amazon makes it very attractive to sign up with KDP. For one, if you just want to explore self-publishing, you can upload your book to KDP and have it available for sale on Amazon within 24 hours. Amazon will take a percentage of your royalties for every ebook sold. Depending on the sale price of the ebook, Amazon pays royalties of 35 or 70 percent.
Authors also have the option of participating in KDP Select, a program designed to help authors promote their books on Amazon. Authors agree to give Amazon exclusive distribution of their book for 90 days. You can also re-enroll in the program as many times as you like. In exchange, you are able to participate in book promotions within the KDP Select program.
One benefit of KDP Select is your ebook will be also made available in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. The program allows Amazon Prime members with a Kindle device to check out one ebook a month for free. If they read your book, you can earn royalties based on the number of pages read. These royalties are in addition to any earned from the sale of your book.
For authors who want to also sell physical copies of their books, KDP has a print-on-demand service through CreateSpace. Acquired by Amazon in 2005, CreateSpace used to be a separate print-on-demand company. In 2018, it was completely merged into Amazon KDP. Authors can choose to have their print books distributed to Amazon only, where they receive royalties of 60 percent, or they can opt for expanded distribution with royalties of 40 percent.
Barnes and Noble Press
Books published with Barnes and Noble (B&N) Press are sold only on the company’s online and physical bookstores. It is pretty straightforward to upload a book into their self-publishing platform, and it’s free. Once you’ve got your book into the system, it’ll be ready for sale within 72 hours. Royalty rates for ebooks range from 40 to 65 percent, depending on the price of the book.
There are no exclusivity requirements to publish with B&N Press. It is also possible to price your ebook for free, which is something many authors use as an effective promotional tool. B&N press also partners with several other services to help authors with editing, marketing, design, and websites.
Another service offered by B&N Press is a print-on-demand service. Readers can opt to purchase a physical copy of the book through the website. For print books, the royalty rate is 55 percent, minus the cost of printing. Getting your book into Barnes and Noble physical stores, however, requires sales of at least 1,000 copies in a year to be considered for placement.
With its modest share of the U.S. ebook market, Kobo could be easy to overlook. But if you have any interest in sales outside of the U.S. (which you should have if you are trying to reach a large audience), then it’s worth considering Kobo. “We are a very global company,” says author engagement specialist Joni Di Placidoo. The Toronto-based company is particularly strong in Canada, where they account for 25 percent of ebook sales.
“We focus on a lot of markets outside of North America: Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and also non-English speaking markets,” says De Placido. “We do really well in the Netherlands. Many Dutch readers like to read English-language books.”
Kobo Writing Life is their free self-publishing platform. It’s simple to use and once your file is ready, your ebook becomes available to readers in over 190 countries. They pay royalties of 70 percent on ebooks priced more than $2.99 in the U.S. or 45 percent for ebooks priced below that amount.
The company also offers authors a promotions tool built right into the dashboard of the program. Authors can apply for both free and price drop promotions. Kobo Writing Life also has partnerships with libraries, including Overdrive. This is a free app many libraries and schools use to provide digital content (ebooks and audiobooks) to their users. Authors can have their titles available in the OverDrive library marketplace and get paid 50 percent of the library price the author sets.
By using a direct marketing approach to Mac users, Apple iBooks has managed to become the second largest retailer of ebooks in the U.S. To publish directly on iBooks, you’ll need to use a Mac device. Otherwise you will need to go through an aggregator. Royalties are set at a flat 70 percent rate, regardless of the book price.
Authors can publish their ebooks using Apple Author, or you can even publish your ebook using Pages, the word processor that is included on Apple devices. Books are made available to 40 country-specific ebook stores. One unique feature is you can price your books differently in each country and in the local currency. There is no exclusive distribution contract, and authors can schedule free or discount book promotions at any time.
Apple iBooks is attractive for those who are skilled with design and want to create ebooks with lots of images or graphics. The platform offers several templates, such as for cookbooks, textbooks, and even children’s books. They have a drag and drop feature for adding charts and tables, and even audio and video files to an ebook.
For those interested in quick access to a range of markets, this is where an aggregator is very helpful. These platforms will allow you to publish your book, and they will push it to a range of retailers all at once, including Amazon, B&N Press, Kobo, and Apple. All of your sales can then be combined into one report, resulting in one royalty check each pay period, greatly simplifying the process of distribution. You pay a cut of your royalties to the aggregator for this service.
Key factors to consider when choosing an aggregator are price, distribution, and support.
The first to offer aggregator services, Smashwords has been in the business since 2008. They are one of the world’s largest distributors of self-published ebooks. When asked why an author might choose to use a distributor, Jim Azevado, Smashwords’ Marketing Director explains, “A distributor’s greatest value to self-published authors and independent publishers is massive time
s savings. With a distributor, you format your book once, choose where you want your book distributed and–viola!–you’re done.”
With Smashwords you get access to their wide distribution network that includes Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and many other smaller specialty retailers. One notable exception is that Smashwords does not distribute to Amazon, unless you have earned over $2,000 on their platform.
To submit your book to Smashwords, you will first need to format it yourself. They provide authors with resources to help guide you through the process, including the free Smashwords Style Guide, which “has become sort of the bible for ebook formatting,” Azevado says.
Authors earn up to 80 percent of the retail price for ebooks sold on Smashwords, and up to 60 percent of the list price for ebooks sold at other retailers. They provide daily reports of your sales from the larger retailers.
One interesting feature is Smashwords Presales. Some authors like this feature because it enables them to offer books to their selected readers before the public release date of their book. The company also offers authors help with promotion through events exclusive to Smashwords. They also have a partnership with Findaway Voices to easily turn your book into an audiobook.
Estabished in 2012, Draft2Digital has emerged as another major aggregator for self-published authors. They do not have the largest distribution network, but they do distribute to Amazon. Their network also includes the larger retailers such as Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, as well as a partnership with Findaway Voices for audiobooks.
The company strives to distinguish itself as one that provides excellent support to its authors. “We want to give people a venue to self-publish with support, empowering authors to control their path forward,” explains customer services representative Alexis Grey.
One notable feature Draft2Digital offers is they will format your book for both ebook and print at no charge. Some authors prefer to work with Draft2Digital for this feature alone. The company takes 10 percent of the retail price of the book, no matter where it is sold.
Draft2Digital also offers authors access to Universal Book Links (UBLs). Having your book widely available is great for potential book sales. But when an author wishes to promote their book (on their website or through an email, for example), they need to provide the link to the retailers. Many choose to simply include a link to Amazon and maybe one or two other retailers. But with a UBL, authors can just offer one link. This will take customers to a page showing all the retailers where their book is for sale. Instead of having to manage a separate link for each retailer, UBLs consolidates them all into one place.
Entering the aggregator market in 2015, PublishDrive is fairly new to the scene. But that hasn’t stopped them from quickly establishing themselves as an option worth considering. They have relationships with over 4,500 publishers and 400 stores worldwide. They distribute to the major retailers: Apple Books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Books.
Their expertise in international distribution is one of their notable features. They have a few stores in Eastern Europe and have headquarters in Hungary. If you are interested in reaching some niche foreign markets, PublishDrive is equipped to help you.
PublishDrive also differs from other aggregators by offering a subscription pricing plan, something no other company does. Authors can pay a flat $100 monthly fee, after which they keep 100 percent of their royalites for any books sold (minus the retailer’s portion). Authors also have the option to pay 10 percent of their revenues if they prefer not to pay a subscription.
The company also provides marketing support to its authors. Authors paying the subscription fee are given some Amazon Advertising credits (basically allowing you to place ads for your product on Amazon) so they can give this approach a try. PublishDrive also allows authors to set price promotions and provide review copies.
Print on Demand Aggregators:
The final category of self-publishing platforms are those services that specialize in providing a print-on-demand (POD) option. For any self-published author just starting out, having the ability to print books as they are sold saves on both money and hassle. A few of the more well-established companies are discussed here.
Founded in 2011, Bookbaby has a wide distribution network, including the large retailers Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, in over 170 countries.
For those who like the idea of a platform that offers support with all aspects of the self-publishing process, Bookbaby offers comprehensive packages. These include the steps needed to get your book ready for publication, such as editing and design services. They also have distribution packages for both ebooks and print books, and offer a print-on-demand service. Bookbaby can also help you with marketing.
They offer a number of different packages as well as individual services. Their most comprehensive package, which costs $1,699, includes cover design, formatting, 25 print books, distribution, a Facebook ad campaign, and a listing in the BookBaby store, Bookshop.
They also don’t take a portion of your ebook sales. Instead, Bookbaby charges a one-time fee of $299 per title. Authors then receive 100 percent of their sales after the retailer’s commission. For sales made through Bookshop, authors earn 85 percent royalties.
IngramSpark’s roots date back to 1996 when Ingram created Lightning Source, which services mid-to-large size publishers. IngramSpark was created for self-published authors in 2013. Similar to the other platforms, IngramSpark will distribute your ebook to the larger online retailers such as Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
The reason IngramSpark deserves serious consideration is because it is a part of the Ingram group. Authors have access to Ingram, which is the world’s largest distributor of print and ebooks. They are connected to 39,000 bookstores, libraries, and online retailers in more than 150 countries.
Their print-on-demand feature is one of the most valuable features available to self-publishers today. “There is a lot of flexibility in our system,” explains IngramSpark founder and director Robin Cutler. “The pay-as-you-go model allows authors to make their book available to Ingram in a way where they don’t have to carry any up-front costs.”
For those interested in the best quality print books, IngramSpark offers a premium level of printing. Also, if you are interested in getting your book sold in brick-and-mortar stores, when you use IngramSpark, your book will also be included in Ingram’s wholesaler database. “It will look just like any other book in the system,” Cutler says.
The company also provides a key feature, their book returns option. “Most booksellers will require returnability to stock a book on their shelves,” says Cutler. Authors aren’t required to accept returns, but no returnability is one of the main reasons a bookstore will refuse to carry a self-published book.
IngramSpark charges a 53 percent commission for sales to bookstores and 30 percent to online retailers, minus book production costs. There is also a $49 set-up and $12 annual fee.
A Word of Caution
While the self-publishing world has many excellent and reputable companies offering services to help you, there are some scammers out there. It is very important that you research any company carefully before signing up with a service.
Many experienced authors advise against using what are known as “vanity presses.” These are companies whose business model is to make money not from book sales, but from the authors directly. They tend to push their products on their customers, make claims they can’t deliver on, and generally end up costing authors a sizable sum while providing little support.
If you are not sure about the legitimacy of a publisher, ask around. “Try not to fall victim to short-term scams that promise thousands of readers in a matter of weeks or months,” advises Smashwords’ Marketing Director Azevedo. Author forums are a good place to check, or simply Googling a company can reveal those with questionable practices.
Choosing a Self-Publishing Platform
Deciding which platform to use to self-publish your book will again depend on your goals and constraints. If you simply would like to have a completed book to satisfy your own creative needs and are not viewing it as a commercial endeavor, you should probably go with the easiest option. That would likely mean using a retailer such as Amazon KDP or Barnes & Noble Press, which are free to use, and allow you to quickly create your book.
If you have a vision of selling a significant number of books, or need the ability to widely distribute your book, then you should consider going with an aggregator.
Keep in mind that you can also choose to use more than one service. Many self-published authors will use Amazon KDP because they have the lion’s share of the ebook market. But they will also sign up with an aggregator to have access to a wider distribution network. If you are interested in having print copies, then look for platforms that offer print-on-demand. And if you hope to see your book sold in brick-and-mortar stores, you should explore using IngramSpark.