Amazon, Part 3 — Kindling the e-Book Fire With KDP

Third installment of a three-part series that grew out of a presentation by Thom Kephart, the community outreach manager for Amazon.com, at the Aug. 25 meeting of the Publishers & Writers of San Diego.

Kephart spoke about Amazon’s self-publishing divisions, CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. This segment addresses the Kindle e-book aspect.

As expected Kephart sang the praises of KDP, which commands the lion’s share of e-book sales, if industry reports are to be believed. Some authors report that 70 percent of their e-book sales are through Amazon.

However, Kephart admitted — in a refreshing surprise — there are problems with the Kindle document-conversion process. I’ll get to that in a sec.

Four Easy Pieces

First, the limelight. Kephart said that in “four easy steps” anyone can be published and have his or her “content” available for the Kindle world to download and read.

Critics say it’s “too easy.” Anyone with a computer can now be a “published” author, with the emphasis on quantity, not quality. If an author doesn’t want to bother with that pesky little matter of editing and chooses to design his or her own cover, voilà, a book is born in one speedy upload.

Kephart did say, “Hire an editor.”

E-book prices range from zero (limited time only) to sky’s-the-limit. Many Kindle books sell for 99 cents, others for $2.99 or a little more. (Keep the price low, sell more books — at least that’s the theory, and the subject of a future blog.)

The Kindle “royalty” structure (it’s not really a royalty; more like revenue sharing) encourages authors to price their books in the range of $2.99 to $9.99, for which the authors receive 70 percent of the sales revenue. For e-books priced below or above that range, the share drops to 35 percent.

Authors set their own prices, but Amazon, the Kindle overlord, may discount the price to be competitive with other sales outlets, such as Google, so the amount of revenue the author actually receives may be lower that expected. An author at the PWSD meeting complained about this, but Kephart said that’s the way business works. (Hey, it’s better than no sale.)

Kephart’s advice to all authors using KDP (or CreateSpace:) “Read the contract.”

Skyrocketing Sales

A few Kindle books sell in the hundreds of thousands. According to Kephart, 96 Kindle books have sold 100,000 or more copies; 24 Kindle books have sold 200,000 or more. Fourteen authors have sold one million-plus Kindle books. With those numbers, even at 99 cents the 35 percent share that goes to the author adds up to a respectable amount of dough.

Some Kindle/e-book authors have rocketed to stardom and celebrity status. Witness John Locke, author of the Donovan Creed crime series and Emmett Love westerns, as well as paranormal paramour Amanda Hocking, progenitor of a vampire series and the YA Trylle Trilogy, and Barbara Freethy, a best-selling romance writer who self-published her backlist.

Locke even has a Kindle book about his success: How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months.

I don’t know about Locke, but Hocking said she spent a lot of time hawking her wares. So much so that she accepted a traditional four-book deal from St. Martin’s Press — let them so the selling.

So, authors are going both ways — self- or indie pub to the traditional route, and those who went the traditional route and are now self-publishing backlists and new books.

Chet Cunningham is an example of this trend. He has written more than 300 books, mostly westerns and action-adventure published in the traditional manner. He’s now publishing some of his latest novels strictly as e-books. (Self-promo: I facilitated his e-book ventures through Wigeon Publishing.)

Upshot: As Kephart said, the opportunity to become a hot-selling author has never been better for the entrepreneurial writer. Anyone can now bypass the time-consuming, low-percentage path of traditional publishing  and, at relatively low cost, have an e-book in the market in a head-spinning instant. Under the traditional model, Kephart said, only three out of every 100,000 submissions are published in a given year. (You get much better odds in Vegas, and probably have more fun.)

The advantages of e-book publishing are obvious: There’s no printing cost, delivery is instantaneous, there are no steep discounts to distributors, and there are no returns. Although, Kephart said, there may be a “delivery cost” tacked on for large e-books.

IMHO, indie authors/publishers should seriously consider fashioning their business models around e-pub, not print-pub. Print books should be available for those readers who want them, and for the author’s public appearances, but for the indie author, I see them as more of an ego salve, loss leader and marketing tool than the road to riches — unless the author does a lot of public speaking and is able to “hand sell” the books.

The Flip Side

Now for the lemon-light. Kephart acknowledged that the Kindle conversion tool “does not work most of the time.” In otherwords, if you upload the Word doc or PDF of your print book and preview it as an e-book, you’re in for a shock. As they say in Merry Olde, it can look like a dog’s breakfast. Especially if you neglected to strip out the headers, footers and page numbers. If you add images, it looks like a 1995 Web page, or primeval HTML. (Text does not wrap around images.)

In essence, it is a 1995 Web page. An e-reader is basically a Web browser in a picture frame. The e-book file is a series of Web pages cleverly disguised as chapters, linked together with a table of contents and meta data, and having a low-res JPEG as front piece or “cover.”

However, the conversion of Word docs and PDFs to HTML can be filled with errors and bad formatting, requiring knowledge of the inner workings of HTML and Web design to sort it out. (HTML, or Hypertext Mark-Up Language, is the lingua franca of the Web.)

Kephart said “a Word doc is not the best way to submit to Kindle.” Amen to that. Nor is a PDF.

I generally start with a Word doc, convert that to HTML, clean up the HTML — which I test in a Web browser — then use Calibre to format it as a “.mobi” file for Kindle and “.epub” file for Pubit (Barnes & Noble) and other outlets.

Two of the biggest problems are paragraph indents and punctuation. In addition, fonts don’t always translate because the e-reader only displays a limited number of fonts. All that fancy formatting you spent so much time on and are so proud of? Mercilessly — nay ruthlessly — vaporized. Bold and itlalics may be compromised.

Kindle isn’t the only service with conversion problems. They all face the same hurdle of dumbing down complex electronic documents to the plain-text environment of HTML, but still giving the appearance of the original complex electronic document. (Talk about the Wizard of Oz — the only thing missing are the smoke and mirrors.) Complaints about conversions by Smashwords, a competing service, are legion as well.

Double Delight

Why two major e-book formats rather than a single standard? (There are more formats, but these are the dominant two.) Same reason we have DVD and Blue Ray video discs. Innovation in a free market. But it leaves the consumer hanging, unsure of which will prevail.

I suspect this distinction will disappear eventually, with the tsunami favoring .epub. Kindle devices support .epub (according to Kephart), but not all other platforms support the Kindle format. Some people own multiple e-readers or compatible devices. Part of the problem is that Kindle, et al., are trying to keep readers from sharing files — going through the same angst as the music industry did a few years ago.

Technologists tell me that in the not-so-distant future, Web browsers will be able to read the epub format, just as they read PDF files now.  Which pretty much means virtually any electronic computing device. You want big print? Bring it up on your big-screen TV.

Hey, there’s a concept. Coach potatoes using their TVs to tune into their favorite books. Doubtless, the TVs will read the books to them, and offer a selection of reader voices, like we have on the GPS units in our cars. And with that big screen, more opportunity for the author — think “product placement.”

But I digress.

Final note: An audience member asked Kephart about DRM (Digital Rights Management), which is technology that blocks piracy. He said it’s not all that important, and that it “creates more challenges for the reader.” (In other words, they can’t open the e-book.) From what I’ve read about DRM and its “challenges,” I agree with him.

I’d like to hear your stories and thoughts regarding e-book publishing — what you’ve done, what services you’ve used, and your perspectives on going forward.

Read Part 1, Amazon Publishing Services: It Ain’t the Whole Loaf

Read Amazon, Part 2 — Take the Gloves Off: Create Space v. Lightning Source

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About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- www.larryedwards.com -- www.dareicallitmurder.com -- www.wigeonpublishing.com
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6 Responses to Amazon, Part 3 — Kindling the e-Book Fire With KDP

  1. Great series, Larry–I really enjoyed it!

  2. 1. Bad books are here to stay :(
    2. Amazon will continue to bully us because it can :(
    3. Had no problem with file conversion, but then I bothered to learn xhtml :)
    4. Don’t agree with (subjective) comment about print books being ‘ego salve’ – mine is selling better than the e-book (Will it make me ‘rich?’ I don’t know, but that’s not my only indie objective)
    5. I agree that the solution to the 2 formats (Mobi / ePub) might rather be in new device technology that will be able to read either or)
    6. I’m currently locked into the Amazon KDP Select Program (I’m yet to see any benefit); as soon as my ‘term’ is over, I’m taking my files to Kobo

  3. Penelope J. says:

    Larry, thanks for this series. You did us newbies a great service reporting on Thom Kephart’s speech. For me, what most stood out in this report was – like them or not, indie authors should prepare their marketing plan around e-books as much as/if not more than print – unless they have a publisher footing the bill, or are a well-known writer like Chet Cunningham.

    I don’t fully agree with your assessment of print books from indie authors, and the term “ego salve” seems a bit harsh. A print book gives credibility, status, and a sense of achievement to the author, and takes the book to another level above the e-book that as you say, anyone can download and “publish.” Also, the print book can provide an incentive for readers to buy the less expensive e-book

    Where I do agree with you is that indie authors have to let go of their dream of selling piles of print books, and fasten their gaze on the rapidly growing e-book market. Readers will pay a higher price for a well-known author’s print book, but might hesitate to drop $15 – $20 for an indie author’s – unless they’re part of their cheering squad. If they can obtain the same book in e-book form for $10 less, why not go for it? I would, but then, I just got an e-book reader.

    • Re: “ego salve” — let’s face it, there’s a bit of that in every writer. My point is that I know plenty of self-published authors (as do you) whose books should have received a thorough edit (or two) before seeing the light of day, but they published anyway, in large part to be able to say, “I am a published author.”

  4. largolobo says:

    Larry – great job of getting the facts out. As you indicated, the area of e-books is murky mainly because the technology to create one is so convoluted. Amazon was the biggest boy on the block with MOBI, but a zillion other formats soon arose, not to mention the international standard of EPUB. All too much for the average wordsmith to deal with. Actually, the conversions using Word 2003 works very well, since it isn’t burden down with all the Microsoft razzmatazz formatting the later versions deliver in the upload. You can shoehorn them in to work, but this is where most of the frustrated author experiences have come from. I converted several books for authors and have had no issues using Word 2003, but that’s because I read the guide and followed it – not an easy task, since they are all so poorly written. Ironically, all this stuff should be in the EPUB format from the get go, since it all ends up there anyway, even MOBI is in EPUB format, just disguised. I’m surprised the e-book distributors haven’t made EPUB the standard upload. That would make Adobe smile, since InDesign natively outputs in EPUB format. If the uploads were EPUB, then you, the author, could edit the metadata to be complete with the correct ISBN references, copyright, and publishing info built in. If you curious, Sigil (Google code) is the editor of choice to pull open an EPUB and develop the metadata.

    As far as the politics of whether e-books are better than pulp or should be pursued only, etc., that’s as twisted as an Edinburgh alleyway. There is no silver bullet business plan there. If your not selling well, then people don’t know you or your work, so marketing is the place you want to spend your time and money. If you start to sell well, e-books enhance sales and spread your work worldwide faster than any other way. That’s a good thing, but if you really sell well, then people will not only want a paper version, they’ll want a hardback. It’s all about degree of success and where you hit your market. In the Air Force we used the phrase “Maintain a position of rigid flexibility.” That sums it up pretty good. You have to adjust your marketing scheme as your sales develop.

    One point needs to be emphasized a bit. I hope authors realize good editing for a quality product is a basic part of writing a book in the first place, but the cover can be tricky. I’ve seen books jump from dull sales to good sales because the cover was redesigned. Clever covers that reflect a quality product are just as important as good styling in new cars. When it comes to placing only e-books, the cover is easily skimped on, because the process to upload without costs is so tempting. The e-book has a cover and that cover needs to be top notch, not only because it’s part of your quality product, it shows up in the distributors listings. It will be the first things buyers see. So e-books aren’t so free of costs. You have the cover to cover. What would you do if sales bloomed an people wanted a paper version? Would you want the paper version to have a crap cover? No, I didn’t think so.

    DRM is like cutting a rope with a butter knife. It was created by Amazon to make Kindle seem more precious, bull feathers. It’s has the opposite impact to authors. It limits exposure of your work. It’s not the tool you should use. Neither is the “Select Program.” That was created by the back-room at Amazon to try to knock the competition off the table. Once again, it restrict an author’s exposure and that limits sales. I’ve tested my own numbers and have seen nothing but a reduction after falling for these miserable schemes. If you’re James Patterson, your select program will take the lion’s share, but even that publishing power house doesn’t want to limit exposure. They are trying to get all the sales, not just a “select” few.

    Well, if nothing else, you spurred a passionate discussion, and hey, that’s what a good writer is always trying to do. Bravo.

    • Jack, thank you for commenting. Good thoughts. The epub format is the industry standard, but Amazon bought the outfit that developed .mobi, so it has an investment to leverage. Kindle will read epub files — or so I’m told.

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