Today I spoke with Thom Kephart, the community outreach manager for Amazon.com. OK, full disclosure—he answered a question of mine; mostly I just listened.
Kephart talked about Amazon’s self-publishing divisions, CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, at this month’s meeting of the Publishers & Writers of San Diego in Encinitas, California (North San Diego County). As evidence of how big of a phenomenon Amazon has become, roughly 150 people crowded into the meeting room, about double the attendance of most PWSD meetings.
Some of Kephart’s comments surprised me. I had expected total PR spin, with him telling us how CS and KDP are the greatest triumph for book publishing since Gutenberg. I did not expect him to be so candid. I found his honesty refreshing. More on that in a minute.
He did deliver the CS/KDP spiel, which is OK. That’s his job—to point out the benefits to authors and independent publishers of his employer’s “free” publishing services. There are many advantages to CreateSpace for some people, and Kindle is a great way for an author frustrated with the status quo in New York to get a book to market for minimal cost and reasonable economic return. (It eliminates the cost of printing, has global distribution, is not returnable, and the compensation—on a percentage basis—is better than any book deal with one of the Big Six.)
Kephart noted that the CS/KDP customer service reps are not in India, that they are all native English speakers in South Carolina (I might argue that point) and South Africa. (Ahem. According to The Times of India, there are more than twice as many English speakers in India as in the United Kingdom, the birthplace of the English language. Mind you, comprehending the Indian accent can be challenging for Americans—particularly those in South Carolina.)
Yet, and this is where the surprise element came in, Kephart admitted that CreateSpace isn’t for everybody—that it’s not necessarily a one-stop shop. He encouraged authors to use, in addition to CS, other services (including Lightning Source, Inc.) to reach as many potential book buyers as possible. (In case you’re unaware, there’s an ongoing debate within the indie publishing community over the best path to publishing. I will address that thorny issue in Part 2.)
Kephart also recommended that authors obtain their own ISBNs, the universal identification number (on Planet Earth, anyway) for published books. I, too, am an advocate of authors obtaining their own ISBNs.
CreateSpace will provide an ISBN, but that makes CS the publisher of record, not the author. Which in turn carries some baggage or “taint” with it. (TK didn’t get into this.) I.e., it tells the world—and book reviewers and booksellers—the book is self-published. Some book reviewers refuse to review self-published books, and some booksellers have said they will not carry books published through CreateSpace. The problem is two-fold: (1) self-published books have a (deserved) reputation for being riddled with typos, bad grammar, poor writing and plot holes, and (2) some booksellers do not like the way Amazon has muscled into their territory.
In addition, if you own your ISBN, you control the meta data, which contains all the pertinent information about your book, including keywords that might trigger a search result. If you don’t own the ISBN, you don’t have full control of what comprises that meta data.
In that vein, Kephart suggested that authors interested in broad distribution for their books should look at using Lightning Source in addition to CreateSpace to publish printed books. (My hat’s off to you, Mr. Kephart. You didn’t have to say that.) I have my own perspective on this, which I address in Part 2.
And I cheered when he advised all authors to hire an editor. (I are one, after all.)
He also acknowledged that KDP’s tool for converting manuscripts to Kindle’s e-book format “does not work most of the time. . . . A Word doc is not the best way to submit to Kindle.”
I second that. The conversion of Word docs and PDFs to HTML is often filled with errors and bad formatting, requiring someone with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of HTML and Web design to sort it out. (HTML, in case you don’t know, is the coding that underpins the Web, and an e-book, in essence, is a series of Web pages cleverly disguised as chapters.)
What is the best way to submit to Kindle? He didn’t say this, but the answer is “an HTML file,” which is problematic for those who have no clue how to create or edit HTML. Yes, Word will convert a document to HTML, but the result ain’t pretty. Trust me on this. (Again, the subject of a future blog.)
One thing Kephart said did bother me—a lot—because it tells us where Amazon is really coming from. Amazon, from what I can tell, doesn’t give a crap about literature, literary value or even decent writing. Its mission, it seems (Mr. Kephart’s “hire an editor” comment notwithstanding), is to be the Wal-Mart of written works, never mind how poorly written those works are. (Which is not to say HarperCollins—isn’t that a cocktail?—Penguin, Simon & Schuster, et al., are not of the same mind set. Witness 50 Shades of Grey, begat aboard Kindle, as I understand it.)
On one of the slides in his presentation, he had the headline: More Books Content for More People in More Ways. (He had crossed out “Books” and inserted “Content.”)
To me, these are still books, whether it’s India ink on velum or e-ink on a touchscreen. The word “content” demeans the process, treating it as a commodity. Call me old fashioned, but I do not consider creative works a commodity. (Unless it comes from James B. Patterson, Kenny G or Thomas Kinkade, but in the latter case I probably shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.)
All in all, though, Kephart gave an informative and useful presentation, and I applaud him for being forthright. I also applaud PWSD (specifically Karla Olson) for inviting him to speak.
PS: Oh, and Thom? It’s “et cetera” not “ek cetera.”