The Indie Quest: Visibility through eBook Distributors

Author Bruce FottlerGuest Post
by Bruce Fottler

There’s a proverbial sea of books for sale that usually leaves the average indie author drowning in obscurity. Gaining meaningful visibility has always been a daunting challenge, and it’s getting harder with each passing year.

Many indie authors have several published titles under their belts, having spent a lot of effort refining blurbs, covers, and developing marketing and distribution strategies. But despite these efforts, I often hear a familiar lament: Achieving visibility is difficult, maintaining it is even harder. And scaling it up? Ouch. Let’s not go there.

While there’s a multitude of marketing strategies and advertising options that various blogs have explored over the years, I’d like to focus on retail channel performance. Are retailers offering promotional opportunities, and have they helped to increase visibility for the average indie author?

Let’s touch on the retailers that I currently sell through:

Amazon: They’re the undisputed king and a constant source of personal frustration. While they should be commended for opening up the book market to Indies, their ongoing behavior has been endlessly debated. Are they currently helping or hurting us? I suppose the quick answer is yes to both.

Until recently, Amazon has been my leading sales channel, particularly after they opened AMS (Amazon Marketing Services) to everyone outside of KDP Select. But in addition to dealing with irritating reporting lags, my recent AMS ROI has taken a miserable turn. Lately I feel like I’m just handing Amazon money. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

The bottom line: Amazon is the 800-ton gorilla that offers unprecedented opportunities to Indies, but I feel it’s often skewed too far to their advantage. I suppose it’s good to be king (Kong).

Apple (iBook): I sell on Apple through Smashwords because I’m a non-Apple user with no means of direct access. There are no apparent promotional opportunities and my sales have been predictably scarce.

The bottom line: I’d obviously like to do better, and am always left wondering if going direct opens promotional opportunities that aren’t available to non-Apple authors. Maybe an Apple user can enlighten us on this?

Barnes & Noble Press: This is a retail channel that I feel should perform far better than it actually does. My presence there is stronger than on most non-Amazon channels, but there are no promotional opportunities. I find this quite perplexing in light of their recent web interface upgrades.

The bottom line: They’ve always been a frustrating enigma to me.

Kobo: They’re my new champ, and sales there have soared past Amazon this year. They offer a variety of promotional opportunities, several of which don’t cost anything out-of-pocket. Their web interface is smooth, and reporting is informative and timely.

The bottom line: I think Kobo is everything that Amazon should be. They’re clearly putting in an effort for Indies, and that’s a rare quality these days.

Google Play Store: They’re my newest retail channel. Access is currently by invitation only. I signed up on a waiting list and received an invitation to be a “partner” a few weeks ago. After clearing the entry hurdles, I didn’t find their web interface particularly user-friendly. This was a surprise coming from a leader in internet software technology. Also, care is needed when setting prices because they automatically discount. This could cause price matching issues with other retailers.

While they offer a promotion option, it’s mainly a way to temporarily lower the price of your books. They claim that your book “may be featured on the Google Play Store or in marketing emails.” However, I chatted with a Google rep and learned that an algorithm actually determines what promotions will get featured. So far their algorithm hasn’t shown any love for my promotions.

The bottom line: Their clunky web interface, vague promotion system, and a multi-day reporting lag leaves me wondering if Google is really a serious book retailer.

Smashwords:  As both distributor and retailer they’ve been a double-edged sword. While their online store offers mass-promotion opportunities (Read an eBook week, etc.), it’s not possible to enroll in promotional opportunities that exist in their channels. For instance, I need to sell direct through Kobo to access Kobo promotion offerings (which is why I always wonder about going direct with Apple).

While I haven’t used other distributors like Draft2Digital, I believe the same promotion limitations apply with their channels. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The bottom line: Smashwords has championed the Indie cause over the years, but it’s time for them to step up their game. Besides upgrading their outdated website, I think they should explore making promotion opportunities available through their channels.

In conclusion, everyone’s experiences likely differ and can quickly change in this market. What works well today could shift in a matter of weeks or months. I’d be curious to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

Bruce Fottler is just another average indie author who has written and published five novels, and has also dabbled with producing and directing film shorts. For more information, check out his Amazon Author Page or his Goodreads Author Page.

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14 thoughts on “The Indie Quest: Visibility through eBook Distributors”

    1. Also keep the Kobo/Walmart alliance in mind. Walmart will start selling Kobo e-readers soon, and revamp their online shopping to include ebooks through Kobo. Walmart currently doesn’t sell any mainstream e-readers (they booted Kindle years ago).

  1. Bruce, thanks for posting. Excellent info from experience. I’m about to publish my 1st book at age 88, and need all the help I can get. the thing about Kobo and Walmart is interesting. It’s going on my marketing list, thanks again.

  2. I recently went wide via D2D, without much success I might add, but I’m sticking with it because something’s wrong with Amazon. And no, I don’t mean that as a writer, I mean as a /reader/.

    It’s never been particularly easy to browse for books on Amazon, but now it seems that the only books I ever get to see are their ‘best sellers’ or ‘top 100’ or some other list that’s clogged with either trad books or the super popular Indie books that get millions of reviews.

    Why is that a problem? Because I’ve learned the hard way that these super popular books are rarely the kind that I enjoy. Does that make me a book snob? Maybe, but the sci-fi I love seems to have little in common with what’s popular.

    And that’s my problem. Amazon has become a popularity contest instead of a place to find interesting, innovative writing. I know there are literally millions of Indie titles on Amazon, yet…I keep going around in circles with these damn best sellers. Even typing in keywords didn’t bring up much in the way of unusual books. And ‘Also Boughts’ is gone. It used to be good value. Now, I don’t know how to find the good books any more. 🙁

    1. I agree that Amazon isn’t the same, and now they seem to be tapping their vendors as a new source of revenue. There’s a recent article by Market Watch which reports on Amazon’s record 2.5 billion quarterly profit:

      “When asked on a conference call by surprised investment analysts, who were predicting about half as much profit from the e-commerce giant, where all that money came from, Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky summed it up pretty easily: Less spending, especially on new hires, and more ad sales.”

      Welcome to the new Amazon pay-to-play profit machine. That’s why you see product pages littered with ads these days.

  3. iTunes worked for me, even though I am not direct user and I use Smashwords and PublishDrive to publish on iTunes. However, I had a bad experience with Kobo. If I publish a book with other distributors and they publish to Kobo, the book sells. If I put it directly on Kobo, I don’t have any sales.

  4. Thank you for breaking this down, Bruce. My Smashwords experience is similar. And I’ve interviewed their marketing director several times for IU. Each time I bring up the out-of-date website, and why, why, why there’s no tutorial on how to upload ebooks to the user’s devices, and I get no response. You also have me thinking about Kobo, and how I could do a better job there. My local indie bookstore sells ebooks through Kobo. And I wonder if others are doing the same.

  5. Thanks for the recap. Good information.
    I must be the only one happy with Amazon.
    I give them quality books in niche categories and Amazon promotes them.
    With “also boughts” and very inexpensive Amazon Marketing Service (AMS) ads, my brand recognition is steadily growing.
    It’s a business. There are no “fairness” police.
    Amazon’s business purpose is to sell books. Therefore, they recommend books that are already selling. But those initial sales are up to you, not Amazon. And they give you the best chance they can with 30 days of “New Release” publicity.
    They are not perfect, but when compared to (unnamed) and (unnamed), they are certainly close.

  6. Thanks for this. I reach Kobo primarily through D2D. My sales there are low other than of one boxed set I have with them direct. They’re on my list to go direct with everything.

    I reach Apple with D2D also, since I’m not an Apple user either. I’ve noticed steadily increasing sales there but that’s only been after doing some paid newsletter advertising that links to multiple outlets (Bookbub and others). I’ve considered getting a used Macbook and going direct with them as well.

    Sales are picking up on other subscription channels I reach through D2D and through Smashwords, especially ones that work with libraries. I sell a bit through the Smashwords store. The Kobo/Walmart deal holds a lot of promise and all of the distributors have been putting out emails about it.

    I go direct to Amazon and B&N and I use four distributors. In addition to D2D and Smashwords, I also have my books on Streetlib (to get to GooglePlay) and PublishDrive (which can also access GooglePlay). They all reach different library distributors and loads of smaller e-retailers. Streetlib used to be Italy based. They now have a US office but their presence across Western Europe remains strong. PublishDrive is based in Hungary. They have a strong presence in Germany and in Eastern Europe. Both have tentacles that reach into Asia. Yes, I give up a little bit of money going through them but I have four interfaces to deal with instead of dozens. All have paid on-time, every time and customer support from all of them has been better, faster and more responsive than with Amazon.

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