Format Diversity Can Lead to Higher Sales

Author Shaun McLaughlin

We indie authors work hard to coax readers to buy our books. When even a trickle of sales of an ebook is cause for euphoria, it astounds me that so many authors ignore 38% of the American ebook market and the majority of the Canadian market.

I am a regular visitor to IU. It’s a great site for trailers, sneak peeks, and advice. My only disappointment is the near exclusivity of Kindle as an ebook format. Most of the freebies offered on Fridays are Kindle ebooks. Twice, when I decided to buy a book after watching a trailer on IU, the Kindle-only format stopped me. Sure, I can read a Kindle book via a special app on my laptop, but that is not where I do my pleasure reading.

The Amazon format is proprietary. Its ebooks play only on a Kindle device or Kindle apps. The non- proprietary format epub is readable on the Kobo (my choice), Nook, Sony Reader, Apple devices, and via apps on third-party platforms. Together they claim a very large segment of the US market.

According to “The rise of e-reading,” by Pew Research Center in April 2012, the Kindle has 62% of the American market. The Nook has 22%. The rest is shared by Kobo, Sony, and other platforms.

While the Pew study stated that Kobo had just 1% of the US ebook market, a 2012 study by Ipsos Reid says Kobo has an astonishing 46% of the Canadian market, where it was invented. (The Canadian market is one-tenth the size of the American market.) In Canada, Kindle came second with 24%, followed by Sony at 18%.

The Global eBook Market” by O’Reilly Media says ereader use outside of North America is less popular but growing. In the UK, for example, Kindle has 14% of the ebook readers, Sony has 6%, the Apple iPad and iPhones have 17%, but 45% of people still use their desktop or laptop computer to read ebooks. The study notes that Kobo is grabbing global market share by creating localized versions for foreign languages.

It is easy to diversify your ebook format. Like most authors, I use Kindle Direct Publishing for sales on Amazon. But, I use Smashwords for every other ebook vendor. The Smashwords publishing process requires extra care in preparing the source manuscript because their “Meatgrinder” must convert the source into at least eight formats. But, if you follow the Smashwords style guide exactly, the conversion process works every time.

Smashwords will also make your ebook available to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, and others, if your manuscript and cover are professionally produced. Thanks to Smashwords, readers can find my first novel, Counter Currents, at all those locations and more.

Unless you have signed up for Amazon’s KDP Select, which demands exclusivity, diversify your ebook format to maximize your sales.

Shaun J. McLaughlin writes and publishes history books and historical fiction novels, both self-published and traditionally published. Find his thoughts on indie publishing and information on his books at his imprint blog Raiders and Rebels Press.

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20 thoughts on “Format Diversity Can Lead to Higher Sales”

  1. My books are on both Kindle and Smashwords. But the style guide for Smashwords is so complex that I had to pay someone to do the upload for me. I always find it frustrating to hear someone say otherwise. We are not all equally computer savvy. I managed Createspace and Kindle on my own but Smashwords is way beyond my capacity.

  2. Hello Shaun, great post but I have to agree with Yvonne. I have my book at Amazon and Smashwords both, but the headaches I went through with Smashwords were enough to send me on a killing spree, putting Mr. Coker first in line (just kidding Mark). If Amazon can make the process less painfull than getting a tooth pulled, why does it feel like open heart surgery with Smashwords. I did it on my own but now I walk with a limp. Don’t get me wrong. I love Smashwords. You can’t go wrong with their diversity but most people will take the paved road over gravel any day and the term, Meatgrinder. That’s putting it mildly.

  3. I have to add that the choice can be between a large reader base or a broader one, more income vs. less. Amazon can provide the largest reader base and larger income vs. a broad base and a smaller check.

  4. I spent one very frustrating day, and a lot more besides, pulling my hair out with getting my books Smashwords ready, each time being told that there were ‘autovetter messages’ making me swear worse than an Irish Fishwife. But now that I’ve been through that particular hell, it really is easy-peasy (sorry, Yvonne, keep at it though, it’ll come right).

    I only wish I’d consulted it before I started writing years ago; didn’t even know what the show/hide function was on Word until I read the guide, making the HUGE mistake on my, many, MS of using the space bar and return key (can you imagine?) didn’t realise that the perfectness of what I was seeing in Word looked horrible on an e-reader; all different sized text, spaces, italics etc; absolutely everywhere. Now I would NEVER work without formatting as I go.

    Like you say here, Shaun, it does work every time when you’ve got it all sussed, and I can’t actually believe that I DID find it so difficult once upon a time. I now only upload to Kindle too when Meatgrinder approves it in case it makes a difference there.

    A writer friend of mine was about to give up on it all too; being frustrated for a couple of days, annoyed with me for saying it was relatively easy, and so I sent her passages from it that I knew would help from where she was at, telling her to simply follow them methodically, and now she’s sailing fast and free too.

    And yes, you’re right; Smashwords is a great option for distributing to many outlets, and I’m always checking out other smaller ones too. Also, if authors want to give away free books, it’s simple to generate a code from Smashwords in order to do so; you don’t have to commit solely to the KDP programme in order to do that (I never did find out how to make them free from Amazon otherwise).

    1. There’s a way, Shaun, but I haven’t tried it myself. Supposedly if you set your book as free on Smashwords — that’s setting the price as $0, not “free with a coupon” — Amazon will (eventually) pick it up and price-match. I guess sometimes authors have had to tell Amazon, and get others to tell Amazon, that the book is free at Smashwords before Amazon will match the price.

      1. Hmmm, interesting, I guess it would work for people whose works are free for long periods of time. (ps; I’m not Shaun, though) Easy mistake; Shaun’s article an’ all. Thanks a lot. 😀

  5. My books, too, are on Smashwords as well as Amazon. For the last couple of books, I’ve dropped Smashwords distribution to B&N and published them directly through PubIt. They’re doing pretty well there, interestingly enough, and my Smashwords sales are…not.

    That said, I’m still making the most money from Amazon. Not sure whether to credit that to promoting my Amazon link first, or to the fact that Amazon is the 600-lb. gorilla in e-book publishing.

    (I didn’t have a problem with formatting for Smashwords. But then, the law firm I work for has spent lots of money training us secretaries in using Word, so I knew about Styles to start with. Even so, I usually do the nuclear option, just to make sure my doc is absolutely clean.)

  6. Great post Shaun. I haven’t tried either Amazon or Smashwords yet but when I get to that point I will definitely take your advice. Or at least try to. 😉

  7. Thanks, Shaun, a nice post. It’d be nice if Amazon used the same format as everybody else, but they’re so big they can do whatever they like. My only issue with Smashwords is the poor conversion that results from their Meatgrinder. If you make a valid EPUB, it’s pretty easy to get it into the Amazon MOBI/KF8 format. I recently published a non-fiction eBook, and I have had a lot of customers ask for me the PDF version since it is a technical reference. It might be worthwhile to consider keeping a PDF on standby if you’re publishing non-fiction.

  8. I think it’s reasonable to upload your book to as many venues as you can when you’re building your base/platform. I’ve been using Smashwords for a couple of years now and I like it, a lot (yes, even the dreaded meatgrinder. I consider it a challenge to get it right each time :-). But, I also like Amazon, a lot. And Barnes and Noble. And Kobo, iTunes, Sony, et al, because without them, I wouldn’t be a self-pubbed writer who actually makes a living. That being said, each has their strengths and I use them that way (KDP Select has worked wonders for launches, and I love the coupons on Smashwords)

    You have to find what works. It’s amazing to me the tools authors have at their disposal today. And, yes, it’s been frustrating, but so much fun to experiment!

  9. That’s very sound advice, Shaun, thanks. Like the mainstreams when it comes to quality, Amazon would like everyone to think that their platform is the only one that matters, and that’s wrong. The Smashwords formatting guide does take a great deal of patience, and would be very difficult for someone who doesn’t use Word docs on a daily basis, but having your work on SW is a must also, I think, to show that you care about getting your work out there. In addition, we often can’t be sure how our readers find us and prefer to read us, as you point out.

  10. Nice post, Shaun. I started with Lulu, which gets you to a lot of the others: iBookstore etc. I then went to Smashwords, which was different again, with different rules for the pre-EPUB prep. Eventually I went to Amazon, which was different pre-EPUB prep again.

    Amazon was probably the easiest to hook up too, Smashwords the widest base; however, Lulu is far and away the promptest payer; no messing, right up front, on time, and I think it produces the best eBook copy.

    My biggest bitch with Smashwords is trying to get then to deliver on a service they promise: a signed letter to accompany the forms for IRS. I’ve been hassling them for nearly a year and still no joy.

  11. I agree with Paul. If Amazon had chosen to use ePub3 (as all other eReading devices do) when they released the Kindle Fire, life would be simpler for all of us (authors, eBook formatting professionals, and readers.)

    I can’t offer my eBook for free in any format other than PDF, because the publisher (eBooks2go) will not opt for the Kindle Select program that requires removing the eBook from all other sites where the book is sold.

    Proofing the ePub3 edition, correcting the errors made by eBooks2go (new errors appeared in every proof) was a maddening, lengthy process. It was finally released in December for the Color Nook, Kobo, Sony and other eReading devices that use ePub3. But then, when they created the KF8 file for the Kindle Fire edition, I was sorry to see that the format is not as attractive (indents are “off”) and unlike the ePub 3 edition, the references in the text do not auto-link to the endnotes and the list of color images in the back of the book do not auto-link to those images in the text.

    Their book keeping department sends out quarterly sales reports, with a check that is “soon to follow” but always quite late. The majority of my eBook sales are through Amazon, with Barnes and Noble close behind, and a few here and there through Sony.

    Smashwords couldn’t handle the complexities of my book (too many color images, references, endnotes, requiring too many fonts.)

  12. Good advice. If you treat your e-book like a print book, you would obviously want it in EVERY bookstore you could imagine. You wouldn’t just want it at B&N, but also at your neighborhood bookstore, my neighborhood bookstore, the NYC bookstores, etc. Smashwords is not without its issues, but it is a great way to avoid having to reformat for each different site/device. And, actually, a quick dynamic copy paste or the Kindle version, with:
    – the Smashwords statement up front (you know the one, the…if you didn’t buy it, please do so now…),
    – the published by Joe Blow at Smashwords,
    – deleting all page ends/numbers and headers/footers and
    – avoiding fonts over 16 pt.
    you probably won’t have any issues–or few enough to make it easily managable.

  13. You make a great point about reaching diverse markets. I find many librarians, for example, have not embraced the Kindle format (I’m working on this).

    On the other hand, you can read a Kindle on nearly any smartphone, PC or MAC by downloading some free software from Amazon.

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