How to Publish an Indie Book, Part 5 of 6: Sales ChannelsColin Wright
Shelves and E-Shelves
Living in the future as we do, we’re fortunate to have many, many options when it comes to publishing written work that we’ve lovingly produced. The downside of this is that there are so many options available, it can be difficult to distinguish between them, leaving many people scrambling to differentiate between all the alternatives, often with sub-optimal results.
But fear not! Herein I will endeavor to not only explain the difference between the options you have available, but also help you determine which of the options is best for you, your project, and the eventual readers/listeners/consumers of your work.
The first thing you’ll want to figure out is what format or formats you’ll be utilizing.
The three main options here are: ebook, paperback, and audiobook. There are a few other options, and I’ll talk about them at the end of this post, but 99% of the work produced and published ends up as one of these three main formats.
Within those formats, there are other sub-options to consider.
When it comes to ebooks, you’ll need to determine which file type to make use of, and this decision will hinge on the online sales platform you decide on. This will be partially determined by the type of book (novella, picture book, cookbook), and partially by the type of customer you’ll be selling to (luddites might prefer Kindle books because it works seamlessly, for example, while books written for programmers could be published on a website or more open format).
Paperback books also have many sub-options to consider, from the size of the book (width, height) to the type of paper (glossy, matte, white, off-white) to the method of binding (perfect, saddle-stitch, ring-bound).
Audiobooks are less complicated in that the general standards apply across the board, but are more complex in that the minute details of the file you submit, and the standard prices you’re able to charge for your work, change from platform to platform.
But enough of the generalities, let’s dig in to each of these groups individually.
One of the most exciting aspects of being an author or publisher today are the opportunities afforded by the so-called ebook revolution. Now that a significant number of people have ebook reader devices or software on their phones and computers, the ebook market has grown ambitiously year after year, rattling the nerves of some players in the industry and sparking a fire for others.
For you, independently publishing your work will very likely include some kind of ebook, because there’s little reason not to. The cost of operation is essentially zero (literally zero, after the product is finished), so once you’ve written the book and produced it to perfection, popping it up on one of the myriad ebook shops is a piece of cake, and something you’ll never have to touch again, if you prefer.
Regardless of your format, you will need to procure an ISBN for your book(s). ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s basically your books unique serial number. ISBNs are linked to essential information allowing booksellers and readers to know what book they are buying, what the book is about, and who the author is.
At Asymmetrical we use two ISBN’s for each of our books: one for ebook and another for print (either ISBN will work for the audiobook version of your book, which does not require a separate ISBN). ISBNs are cheapest if you buy them in bulk directly from Bowker. If you don’t think you’ll need more than one (or two, since you’ll need one for your ebook and one for your paperback edition), you might consider buying from a reseller, rather than forking over a lot of money for just a few.
You’ll also need to make sure your book is in the proper format for the platform you’re using. Browse through the list of platforms below, and you’ll see I’ve specified the format you’ll need for each one, along with other considerations you’ll need to keep in mind when choosing between them.
Platforms sell your books through their own distribution networks — much like a traditional bookstore, but instead of being limited to a few shops, their storefront is anywhere their websites and apps can be accessed. Distributors will take your book (and often help you convert it to the proper format) and distribute it to many different platforms, usually leaving the selling to others, though they may help you manage your visibility.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room, Amazon’s Kindle is the dominant player in the ebook world, far outdistancing even its closest competitors in both variety of books available and sales of those books.
Amazon’s strength’s here are two-fold. The first is that they have an incredibly well-known online footprint, and there’s a chance that someone shopping on their site for socks will also pick up your book. The second is that they have the most popular ereader device on the market (the Kindle), which has become an eponymous title for ereaders as a whole (like ‘Kleenex’ or ‘Xerox’ in their respective fields, ‘Kindle’ is another way to say ‘ebook reader device’).
In order to get your book on the Kindle store, you’ll need a .mobi file, a cover (1563 x 2500 pixels is ideal), and a KDP account. From there you can submit your book, from which point it will take anywhere from a handful of hours to a few days to show up on Amazon.com. In the meantime, you’ll be able to flesh out your Amazon presence by creating an author profile at their Author Central page.
The process will be slightly different if you’re opting to produce work in Amazon’s proprietary KF8 format, which is their spin on EPUB3, and allows you to produce work that is more interactive and colorful, utilizing the power of HTML5 and CSS3 (in essence, this means you can more easily fix the layout of your books, use color, create children’s books, and produce graphic novels for the Kindle ecosystem). The downside is that KF8 books will only work on Kindle Fire readers or other color-enabled ebook readers with Kindle software installed. The KindleGen software is also a lot less developed and intuitive than Apple’s iBooks Producer software (discussed below).
- Start here
- Formats accepted: .mobi, Word (.doc or .docx), HTML, .epub, .txt, .rtf, .pdf. Format recommended: .mobi (any other format will be converted into .mobi, potentially ruining any formatting work you’ve done), or .KF8 for image-heavy books
- Royalties: 35% or 70%, depending on the country you’re selling in and the price of your book (the 70% option is only available in select countries, and for others is only available if you’re a part of KDP Select — the cost of delivering the file is subtracted from your royalty, so this option is best for books with smaller file sizes, and you can only choose 70% if your book costs between $2.99 and $9.99 USD). Payout via check, or through Amazon Payments (which is a lot like Paypal), each month
- Largest library, largest audience
- Best name recognition
- Interesting programs like Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, Kindle Singles, and Whispersync (which allows readers to switch between the written and audiobook versions of a book seamlessly).
- Fairly simple registration and submission process
- All the downsides that come with being just a tiny snowflake inside a blizzard of ebook authors
- Amazon will sometimes cut the prices on your books without warning, or do other strange things like that
- Amazon Payments is not as ubiquitous as Paypal, so getting paid if you’re outside the US or another major international market can be tricky
- Books are locked in Amazon’s ecosystem, and the deeper you get, the less freedom you’ll have to deal with other platforms
Barnes & Noble’s Nook
The Nook is — in many ways — the Pepsi to Kindle’s Coca-Cola. Although iBooks has a massive audience (due to the ubiquity of Apple phones and tablets), the Nook is still the second-place contender for US market share, taking about a quarter of the pie, while Amazon holds over half.
Second-place isn’t a terrible spot to hold, however, as it’s given the Nook team a chance to innovate in small ways, and just like the aforementioned soft drink comparison, the Nook has managed to gain some die-hard fans as a result.
The biggest difference between publishing on the Nook (using Nook Press) and publishing through Amazon’s Kindle platform is that while Kindle allows you to upload a document to be converted to the proper format, the Nook platform allows you to build your book inside their platform. That means the tools you would normally use (like Scrivener) to publish your ebook file wouldn’t be necessary — you could do all of your layout work on the Nook Press site itself. There are a few other minor differences — the royalty structure is staggered differently from the Kindle’s, for example — but the main differences are purely brand oriented.
- Start here
- Formats accepted: .epub, .pdf, .txt, .rtf. Format recommended: using their built-in editor will probably garner the best results
- Royalties: 65% for books $2.99 to $9.99, 40% for all other price points (an advantage over Kindle’s method is that you don’t pay for the delivery of the file to the reader’s device)
- Seems to be focusing on work from indie authors, which could mean more promo in the future
- Slightly better royalties if your work falls outside the $2.99 – $9.99 price range
- Books are saved as .epub files, which many people prefer over the .mobi files Kindles use (which is a latent type of DRM, even if you don’t want any DRM on your books), and which means you’re less locked-in to their ecosystem
- Better book-publishing experience — very simple compared to Amazon’s somewhat-simple process
- Publishing software baked in to the platform, making it a one-stop production and publishing resource, if you wish to use it that way
- Much smaller audience, and far fewer Nook devices in the wild
- Fewer options beyond the standard store compared to Kindle
The iBooks store is a large platform and brings a lot to the table, but also has many limitations.
First and foremost among its limitations is that you cannot read any of the books published on this platform unless you’re using the approved Apple app, and that app is only available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and Mac through the iTunes store.
Second is that the process of publishing a book on the service is famously difficult. In theory it should be quite simple, because it makes use of proprietary desktop apps instead of web apps to publish the book and mange your account, and proprietary formats for the books themselves. But despite all this customization, you’ll still need to download iBooks Author to produce and upload the book. If you use some other software to produce the ebook file, you’ll need iTunes Producer to upload it to the iBooks store (which is nestled within the iTunes store). The not-entirely-surprising kicker? You’ll need an Apple computer to use iBooks Author and iTunes Producer. Tough luck if you’re on anything else.
All that being said, iBooks is still a top contender as a platform for two main reasons: the ubiquity of Apple products (and their ‘it just works’ mantra, which encourages owners of said devices to use Apple software like iBooks), and the wonderful way iBooks displays books that are heavy on images and other media.
- Start here
- Formats accepted: only .epub and their own proprietary .ibooks format, though you can output from iBooks Author as an .epub or .pdf, and use those files elsewhere
- Royalties: 70%, no muss, no fuss
- For people who are targeting an Apple-device using audience, and who themselves use Apple computers, and who are producing work with images, videos, or anything beyond text, it’s the single best platform available
- Building a media-rich book is easy as can be using the iBooks Author app, even if publishing it is a bit trickier
- iTunes U is an interesting opportunity for textbooks and book-driven courses
- Allows you to set your book prices to ‘Free’ at any time
- 70% royalty applies at any price point (though they do limit you to certain pricing options)
- Only available to readers with iOS or OS X devices
- Sub-optimal reading experience, compared to other offerings (Kindle, Nook, and Kobo apps, not to mention ebook readers themselves)
Although it possesses an ebook market share in the low single digits in the US, the Kobo is dominant in many countries, including Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. In many countries around the world, Kobo is the only player in the ebook game, and as such it’s proving to be quite the contender, despite being an also-ran in some of the larger markets.
Today, Kobo has ebook markets in over 190 countries,
- Start here
- Formats accepted: .epub, .doc, .docx, .mobi, .odt. Recommended format: .epub (otherwise, their software will convert your file into an .epub, and you may not like the formatting changes made)
- Royalties: 70% on books between $1.99 and $12.99, 45% on books above or below that price range
- Attractive and intuitive author dashboard and publishing process
- Allows you to set your book prices to ‘Free’ at any time
- Better royalties on a larger number of price points
- Massive international presence
- Android, iPhone/iPod/iPad, Mac/PC app for reading and shopping for ebooks
- Pays out only royalties twice a year
- Many international markets won’t be interested in books not published in their native language
- Large number of ebook readers sold, but not as many ebooks as would be expected
Smashwords is an underdog in that it’s less of an ecosystem than the above platforms, and serves as both platform (books are available through the Smashwords store) and distributor (you can publish through Smashwords to Amazon, iBooks, Nook, Kobo, and other platforms).
The Smashwords platform is well-known for hosting a few main genres: romance books, mysteries, and thrillers. Other types of books are available, but these three seem to fare better than any of the others, and as a result (or maybe the other way around), many of the readers and authors who swear by the site and its offerings are producers and consumers of those genres of fiction. That’s an advantage to some, and for others, the higher royalty rate for authors, coupon generator, and ease of distribution might be a tempting selling point.
That being said, Smashwords has far fewer books on hand, and is not built natively into any app (Kindle, Nook, and iBooks can all sell books at the tap of a finger on a smartphone screen, while those who wish to purchase from Smashwords have to visit the website, create an account, and jump through a few other hoops to get satisfaction). It doesn’t have the strongest ecosystem of the platforms available, but it’s certainly the largest and most well-known apart from the big four listed above.
- Start here
- Formats accepted: .doc and .epub. Format preferred: both work equally well, meaning that they will need to adhere to Smashwords’ fairly rigid style guide, though the .epub file presumably undergoes less transformation when put through the Meatgrinder than the .doc file, so that would be preferred.
- Royalties: authors earn 70.5 – 85% from ebooks sold through Smashwords platform, 60% from sales on other platforms where they distribute your work
- ‘Meatgrinder’ software can convert a .doc Word file into functional ebook files
- Functions as both platform and distributor, saving you time if you want to put your book up for sale across multiple platforms
- Potentially higher royalty rates, especially at lower and higher price points
- Coupon generator, allowing for free books as giveaways, buy-on-get-one deals, and the like
- Ebook files produced by Meatgrinder are godawful ugly and unprofessional looking
- As a platform, lacks audience and ease-of-use others bring to the table
Better known for their book printing services, Lulu also has dipped their toes into the world of ebook publishing with their platform, the Lulu Marketplace.
The main differentiator between Lulu and the platforms listed above is that foot traffic to the Lulu Marketplace is nearly nonexistent — there’s a chance someone could stumble upon your book randomly while searching for some phrase or another, but it wasn’t built to be an Amazon competitor, it was built to give people who publish through them a store from which to sell to their existing audience (friends, family, readers). This results in the highest royalty of any platform, but a ‘bring your own ball’ approach to selling your work.
Like Smashwords, Lulu also operates as a distributor to other platforms, though gives fewer options in that department. It does, however, have a well known paperback printing department, which gives it an advantage over most other platforms.
- Start here
- Formats accepted: .epub, .doc, .docx, or .rtf. Preferred format: .epub (anything else may result in sub-par layout changes)
- Royalties: 90% of retail price when sold from their platform, varies when sold on partner marketplaces
- Platform and distributor
- Also allows you to sell printed editions of your book
- High royalty compared to other platforms
- No real audience to sell to, beyond what you bring with you
- Converter tends to shred ebook formatting if you use anything except an .epub
Other Online Options
Although selling through platforms and distributors makes sense for many people — especially when just starting out — there are also options for those who want an online hub but don’t want to be limited by the marketplace their work is sold through.
In this case, you might consider platformless, self-managed online sales services. Some are free and take a small cut of the sale, others require a monthly payment, but leave you to make as much money as you can once that flat fee is covered.
A long-time heavyweight of online sales, e-junkie’s proposition is simple. You sign up and pay a fixed amount per month, and from there you can sell as many products as you want (up to the limit for your price bracket) to as many people as you want. They don’t take any fees above and beyond the monthly payment, so you’re good to expand and charge what you want. e-junkie has long been a favorite among the online marketing and blogging caste, too, because it allows for affiliates (where others can sign up to help sell your books, and then take a cut of the profit for each sale they bring in), discount codes, and other useful features.
- Start here
- $5/month to $265/month, depending on number of products and storage space allotted (you can host your files on your own server, but the ability to do so will cost you)
- You sell on any site using their buttons and banners and URLs, and manage everything from a centralized dashboard
- Only for the technology-savvy — it’s not rocket science to learn, but it’s not easy, either
- Easy to set up affiliate programs, promotions, and other advances marketing gimmickry
- Quite cheap (flat fee), especially if you’re selling a lot of books
- Been around a long time, so quite reliable
- A bit outdated, in looks and technology
- Sometimes their delivery emails (sending ebooks to the buyers) end up in Spam folder
Ultra-simple and minimal, Gumroad was build in response to the more feature-filled and convoluted online shopping carts that came before. All you have to do is sign up, fill out a couple of fields and upload your product, then share the link (or embed the code) it gives you. There’s also a bit of analytics and such, but it’s also quite minimal. One of the simpler ways to sell something, if you don’t mind paying for the service with a cut of the action, and only selling to your existing audience (since there is no platform involved except your own).
- Start here
- Costs 5% of item price plus $.25 per transaction
- Provides a URL and embeddable code (for use on your website/blog) which displays your sale page
- Incredibly simple to set up and use — takes all of a minute or two to get going
- Relatively cheap for the service it provides
- One of the first of its ilk, so probably not going anywhere
- Lacks any features beyond the bare bones basics
- If you’re looking to sell to people outside of your existing network, look elsewhere
WooCommerce / Squarespace Commerce
WooCommerce is a very sophisticated free plugin for WordPress that turns your blog or website into a fully-functioning e-commerce store. It’s very feature-rich right out of the box, and if you find something it can’t do, you’ll very likely be able to remedy that situation by purchasing an extension (everything from drag-and-drop shopping cart experiences to accepting Bitcoin payments).
You can buy WooCommerce solo and add it to your existing WordPress setup, or you can buy it tandem with a specialized theme that was made with the plugin in mind. Either way, it’s a really rugged setup with a lot of bells and whistles, capable of selling e-goods, physical goods, and even subscriptions.
Similarly, Squarespace is a blogging platform with a built-in Commerce app, which — because it’s a wall-garden, as opposed to WordPress’ freewheeling open source status — is well-integrated across their entire catalog of templates, and requires less fiddling to fix otherwise-inevitable glitches and display issues. The downside is that Squarespace will cost you ($30/month if you want to use their Commerce offerings, or $24/month if you pay a year in advance), which could be a deal-breaker for some. That being said, if the monthly cost doesn’t phase you (and if you appreciate that they don’t take any additional fees for using their platform, above the cost of the integrated credit card processor), it’s a great option that’s easy to set up and go. They also have famously solid customer service, so some hand-holding is available, which isn’t typically the case with a WordPress/WooCommerce combo.
- Start here
- Free, but extensions will cost you $99 and up, and themes are about the same
- Works within a website you set up, but also capable of allowing you to advertise elsewhere, pulling people back to the main site
- Very active community, so if you run into a problem, there’s likely a solution available
- You really can accomplish just about anything you want, from building premium online courses to selling ebooks to building packages of products and selling them at a discounted rate
- Might be a little too feature-rich if you’re simply looking to sell a few ebooks
- Some solutions require programming knowledge to apply, and the people who built WooCommerce are not always polite in dealing with luddites
- Price of extensions can really add up, if you’re looking to do something specialized with your shop
Paypal / Amazon Payments / Google Wallet
Sometimes the simple answers are the best ones, and if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to sell online, and not concerned about scaling and automation your operation right away, using a straight-up payment gateway might be the right option.
A payment gateway, pure and simple, allows you to receive money online. You provide a link or a shopping cart button, someone else clicks it and says what product they’re purchasing, and then they pay you using credit they have on that particular gateway, or a credit card they enter when checking out. That money then resides in your gateway account until you pull it out, either by using the account to buy something else online, or by transferring it into your bank account.
- Start here for Paypal, here for Amazon Payments, and here for Google Wallet
- Super-simple, and three legit options from major players in the field
- You can build a button and embed the link on your website, or just have people send a specific amount of money to your account
- All three will take a cut of the sale as payment, plus a small fee on top of that cut — the percentages differ minutely
- The main difference between the three is that Paypal is the most well-known and commonly used, while Google Wallet and Amazon take slightly smaller fees per transaction, and don’t work in every country
- Keeps things simple
- No middle man between you and the money exchange, and easy to pull your money out to your bank afterward
- Doesn’t scale well — it’s hard to keep track of who you need to email an ebook to after they’ve paid
- Not terribly professional or slick, if you’re into that kind of thing
- Could be too simple, if you’re trying to do anything beyond “You send me money, I give you book” transactions
There are far fewer options when it comes to publishing and selling audiobooks online, but thankfully the few that exist are decent enough to make what used to be a fairly obtuse industry (when audiobooks only existed as mountains of cassettes or CDs) quite accessible.
The best known distributor for audiobooks is ACX, which will take your work and distribute it to the three main platforms: Amazon, Audible, and iTunes (the three biggest players in the online audiobook scene — though Audible is also owned by Amazon, so you could say there are only two main platforms, though they still maintain a brand distinction).
ACX is interesting in that it also helps you create an audiobook, should you wish to take that route. You can post your work to their site and narrators will submit an example of what they have to offer, if they’re interested in taking on the project. In return, you’ll either pay them (if they’re more experienced, this is more common), or they’ll take a cut of each sale (more common if they’re new to the industry). This is a great option if you’re not really interested in doing any of the leg-work to get an audiobook made, but want to have one available, as it’s very hands-off for you.
The alternative is producing your own audiobook files, which you then upload to ACX for them to review. After the review process (which can take upwards of a month, be warned) your book will be made available on the three platforms mentioned above — on Amazon, it will be listed alongside your ebook and/or paperback offerings.
Note that you don’t get to choose your own price when you go through ACX — they decide based on the duration of the ebook. This isn’t the end of the world in most cases, but if you’re hoping for free-reign over such things, you might be better off producing an audiobook and then selling the file through a platform like e-junkie or Gumroad.
- Start here
- Distributes to the three major audiobook platforms, Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.
- Also serves as a matchmaker between authors and narrators.
- Fairly easy to use, so long as you have a basic knowledge of audio production (if you want to create your own audiobook), very easy to use if you want to have someone else handle the production angle
- Simple way to get an audiobook made for little or no upfront investment
- Hands-off distribution to the main audiobook markets, and excellent integration with Amazon’s offerings
- Little choice in pricing of your work
- Can be a bit confusing at first, if your experience with online sales platforms are limited
- You can’t submit your audiobook file for review until you’ve published an ebook or paperback version on Amazon (and then the review takes up to a month), making a synchronized launch nearly impossible
Ebooks are the new kid in town that everyone wants to meet, but printed books are still selling well, and in some genres will remain dominant long into the future. Thankfully, there are print on demand (POD) services available to authors who want the ease of production and sales that ebooks offer, while still providing a tangible finished product that you can sign, sell, and see on bookshelves, unlike their ebook brethren.
CreateSpace is, like Amazon, a dominant force in the POD world. Which makes sense, as it is owned by Amazon, and integrated fairly well into their overall offerings.
As a result, CreateSpace has become the platform of choice among online authors wanting to hit a real-world audience with their words, and the former number one (Lightning Source) has taken a back seat, though CreateSpace still lags behind its rival in a few key ways. The first is selection of print options: Lightning Source allows for matte finished covers, a wider range of trim sizes, and the option to print hardcover books. It also allows for limited print runs instead of just POD (which means you’ll get a discount if you print 50 or more books at a time — an amazing deal, since most print companies require 1,500 copies to be printed minimum before you can even think of doing a print run), something that CreateSpace doesn’t offer.
Lightning Source also allows you to accept returns from bookstores, though given the likelihood that a bookstore will stock an indie book without having a preexisting relationship with you (incredibly unlikely), that’s not a major deal-breaker.
For its part, CreateSpace is the cheaper option, has very solid print quality (though it lags behind a few other options when it comes to full-color, photo-heavy books), and enough trim sizes to accomplish anything most authors and publishers will need to get done. Its close relationship with Amazon also makes getting a paperback version of your book up to compliment the ebook version a walk in the park.
- Start here
- The current ideal solution for most people publishing normal books, especially if you want to sell it online rather than in stores
- Cheaper than most alternatives
- Easy to use, compared to alternatives
- Baked-in Amazon integration
- High-quality printing for most books
- Lags a bit in quality when it comes to picture books
- No print runs or returns, which could be good to have in some circumstances
- Limited trim sizes, binding options, and finishes compared to Lightning Source
Lightning Source is the once-king of the POD world, though now it’s playing second-fiddle to Amazon’s CreateSpace. This position doesn’t mean it’s any less useful than it once was, however, and in some areas in particular, it still handedly beats it’s more popular rival.
As mentioned above, Lightning Source’s big advantages are in distribution and print options. You can print hardcover books, books with matte finished covers (which tend to make a book look more serious and proper), and a wider variety of trim sizes (larger, smaller, and more exotic shapes). It’s also got you covered if you want to order a reasonably large batch of books, or if you want to allow returns for the bookstores who stock your work (which is standard practice for most traditional publishers).
That being said, part of why Lightning Source has floundered in the past several years is that it’s more expensive than CreateSpace, and most people don’t need the optimizations they offer. While Lightning Source offers more of the professional tools publishers and indie authors have traditional needed in their arsenal, many of those tools are now irrelevant, and their potential clients are no longer seeing the benefits of, say, being able to offer matte covers, when a glossy is almost as good, and the platforms offering glossy covers are so much easier to use, better connected with the sales channels they want to sell through, and cheaper all around.
Still, Lightning Source is a great option if you’re looking to have truly professional work done, and don’t mind the slight administrative muddling and increased prices.
- Start here
- Former number one in the POD space, Lightning Source is now a very capable number two, with some pro-level advantages over the dominant CreateSpace
- More trim options, binding options, and cover finishes
- Better options for dealing with bookstores and other real-world distribution centers
- More expensive
- A little more cumbersome to use than alternatives
- Less likely to be latently stocked by online platforms (like Amazon, which prefers their own POD platform, CreateSpace)
Lulu / Blurb
If CreateSpace and Lightning Source compete for dominance of the normal, written-word book space, Lulu and Blurb are doing the same for photo-heavy book dominion. Both work similarly, both produce high-quality products, and both have a slight stigma attached: that they are consumer-grade printers, not suitable for professionals.
But that stigma is unwarranted in both cases, because both companies have tools and end-products that justify their use in certain circumstances.
Lulu’s strength is in its ease of use and low cost of entry. It’s generally significantly cheaper than Blurb, and has a thriving community as a result.
Blurb’s strength is in its higher-quality printing (some would say highest in the color POD industry) and production software (which some consider to be a benefit, while others see it as a hurdle). It’s community of users is smaller, but the work usually looks a bit better designed and printed.
The choice between these two options is largely a matter of taste, because the quality difference would not be noticed by most readers, and the ease-of-use for both options is pretty accessible. At the end of the day, it’s not too much a Coke and Pepsi differentiation as a Coke and Diet Coke gap. I’ll leave it to your judgement which is which.
- Start here for Lulu, and here for Blurb
- Both provide high-quality POD color books at reasonable prices, especially compared to options available from CreateSpace and Lightning Source
- Great quality images and binding
- Easy to use, even for luddites
- A lot of import options available between the two services, everything from automatic blog importing to photo album uploading
- Often considered to be less professional than competing services, because they focus on making everything so consumer-grade, rather than offering a lot of pro-level tools
- Neither plays as well with Amazon and other online bookstores as CreateSpace and Lightning Source — more ideal for printing and ordering hand-sell copies than selling on their respective online platforms
- You lose some degree of control with both, though Blurb also includes their copyright information in your book, which may be off-putting to some
Real Life Options
A relative newcomer in the payment processing world, Square hit the scene with a bang a few years ago, and since then has handedly taken over the mobile payment processing world with a simple offering: a credit card swiping device that plugs into your phone, tablet, or other mobile device.
It’s a simple change, but a big enough deal to have changed the perspective of many smaller shops, restaurants, and indie authors overnight. Rather than being forced to purchase a massive card processing terminal and pay excessive usage costs, you plug a tiny device into the headphone jack of your iPhone, iPad, Android phone or tablet, and swipe. The Square app takes the card’s information and allows you to enter all kinds of data about the sale (if you like), including the name and email of the customer, a photo of the item being sold, or random notes on the purchase. The receipt can then be emailed to the customer and info about the sale is saved to your account. Card not working? Forget the swiper dongle? No worries, you can enter the card information by hand.
You also have two payment options: either 2.75% of each transaction, or $275/month. Depending on the number of sales and price of what you’re selling, one or the other will make more sense and allow you to keep more of the profits. Both offerings are quite a bit cheaper than traditional credit card terminals.
- Start here
- Sign up, wait for free mobile dongle to arrive in the mail, download app, and start swiping. Pretty much the easiest way for an individual to process credit cards. Only cost is 2.75% of each transaction or flat fee of $275/month
- Incredibly simple to use
- Plugs in to device you probably already have with you, but there’s also a wooden iPad terminal available
- Get paid the next day — money from card swipes is deposited straight to your bank account
- There aren’t any real downsides to using this system
Paypal, still a dominant force in the online payments world, saw what Square managed to do with mobile card processing and decided to provide their own version, called PayPal Here (PPH).
PayPal Here works essentially the same way as Square — plug in a device to your phone or tablet and swipe cards, then complete the sale in the associated app. PPH does have a few advantages over Square, and also one major disadvantage. The advantages are that you get paid on the same day the card is processed (the money appears in your PayPal account, at least), and it takes .05% less from your transaction (2.7% instead of 2.75%). You can also accept PayPal payments in person (just enter the appropriate info into the app), checks, and invoices.
The big downside of using PayPal Here is also an advantage: it relies on PayPal to process everything. Your money goes into your PayPal account, and you can use the money right away using PayPal online, a PayPal debit card, or withdraw it into your bank account. The reason this might be a downside is that PayPal has a reputation for sometimes put holds on accounts without explanation, hassling people for having strange activity on their account, and essentially being unresponsive when contacted by users who are trying to get access to their money. This is not common, but it happens often enough that many people avoid PayPal when possible and prefer to remove the intermediary step, funneling money directly into their bank account, rather than hitting the PayPal service first.
- Start here
- Easy to use, free dongle to plug into your devices, costs 2.7% of every transaction
- Makes good use of PayPal network to allow for more payment options
- Makes use of PayPal network
- Dongle is kind of ugly compared to Square’s
I probably don’t have to sell you on this option, and there isn’t a service available to enable it, but hand-selling and accepting only cash is a time-worn tradition among authors and small publishers, and is especially effective when combined with one of the above credit card processing options. Accepting credit cards allows more people to purchase books, and especially if you offer some kind of deal (buy two, get both at a discounted price), folks will be more likely to pick up a few books rather than just one.
That being said, cash is easier than swiping, and as a result it’s smart to keep change on hand, and sell your books for nice, round prices ($7, not $6.97, though $5 or $10 is even better). This is also a good opportunity to note that anyplace, anytime can be a sale channel, so long as you have books on hand and people who are willing to hear about your book. Get creative.
- Nt set up necessary and easy to use, so long as you have change on hand
- Most people have some kind of cash on hand, and works perfectly in conjunction with a mobile payment processor
- Not everyone has cash on hand, and not necessarily enough to buy a book or three
- It can be hard to keep enough change on hand, especially if you’re on the road
HTML / Blog
Not all sales channels need to sell products. In some cases, you can provide your work as more of a service, providing access to you work for those who wish to pay for it.
It’s important to note that there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of membership-paid blogs and writer sites out there. Putting a paywall around your site limits the number of people who will read your work significantly, and even the smallest price tag will be enough friction to keep folks from coming back. That being said, there are options available if you have a project that you think would be well-suited to such a model, and the website- or blog-based published work is also a great way to share your work, should you decide to give it away for free (either as promo for other work, or because you’re more concerned with building an audience than selling right now).
One of the easier ways to set up a website or blog is using a content management system called WordPress. WordPress is free, and can be completely hands off (you sign up and start writing) or self-hosted and built. There’s more ease-of-use with the former, and more control with the latter, including the ability to install a membership site plugin, which will allow you to charge for access to your work.
Of course, if you’re just looking to share a few pieces of work, rather than an ongoing series of writings, an HTML website will do just fine. You can pick up a template at depositories like ThemeForest, or learn to build your own (a skill that will be very handy moving forward).
- Start here for a free WordPress setup, or here if you want to self-host
- Incredible variety of options, in terms of different blogging software and layouts for websites
- Costs anywhere from nothing to hundreds of dollars, depending on what you’re trying to achieve
- Can be super lightweight and easy to set up
- Lots and lots of options
- Not ideal for selling — far better for giving stuff away (which can be part of the selling process)
- You need to know what you want before you start producing — there are few limitations
Issuu / Scribd
Document library sites like Issuu and Scribd are great ways to present your books to the world, making them available to share and page through with intuitive interfaces, so long as you have a PDF file to share and an audience to share it with.
The main advantage these sites offer over blogging or building a website for your work is that there is a community of people perusing the documents uploaded, which means you stand a chance of having your work discovered organically. The presentation of your work is also quite beautiful, and there are many options for sharing and embedding your work elsewhere from these sites, should you choose to.
Scribd gives you the option of selling your work through their store, while Issuu gives you the option of signing up for a Pro account, removing adds and recommendations from the reading interface, and giving you the ability to monetize your work. Both services do an okay job of this, though the real power of both (like with blogs and websites) is presenting your work in an elegant, easy-to-use format that allows and encourages sharing. To that end, these two services are top notch. For selling, they’re just okay.
- Start here for Issuu, and here for Scribd
- Elegant interfaces for sharing published work, with excellent sharing and embedding options
- Issuu Pro (which removes ads from the reading interface and allows you to put it on sale or take subscriptions) costs $19/month
- Scribd costs 20% of transaction price plus $.25 per sale.
- Great platforms if you’re looking to promote your work with free books, short stories, or the like
- Excellent sharing and embedding options, and a great reading experience across devices
- Not ideal for selling your work
- Neither have huge audiences, so sharing from the site and pulling people back to your work is your best bet
Mailchimp / TinyLetter
Publishing doesn’t always mean creating something static — it can also mean creating something and delivering it to the reader via email. Newsletter services help you accomplish this quite easily, and modern newsletter services allow you to serve your work up beautifully and reliably, and in many cases cheap or free.
There are many different paid newsletter services available, but the one with the best look and ease of use is handedly Mailchimp (there are some people who prefer Aweber, but in most cases they either appreciate the ample marketing tools, or promote it because of its generous affiliate program). When it comes to straight up usability and design, Mailchimp’s drag-and-drop interface is second to none, and their Forever Free plan allows you to use their services without paying a dime up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month. Not too shabby!
TinyLetter works a bit like Mailchimp’s free plan, though it’s even simpler. Rather than dragging-and-dropping your interface and images around, you write an email using a simple text editor (or send an email to a unique email address), and the message you write is then delivered to your list (which is limited to 2,ooo people). It’s completely free, and there’s no premium option, so it’ll stay free and simple.
There are pro’s and cons to both, and certain projects will warrant more or less control, so choose carefully. It is worth mentioning that Mailchimp once allowed for paid subscriptions, but has recently phased that option out (while other newsletter services that focused on paid subscriptions — like letter.ly — have stopped allowing new sign ups). This is likely a temporary change up in the industry until a better way to process very small transactions comes along, but for the time being, unfortunately, there aren’t any cheap, reliable ways to charge for subscription paid newsletters, so these delivery options are best used for promotional and free work, or as a means of distributing shorter pieces to your audience between longer, paid works.
- Start here for Mailchimp, and here for TinyLetter
- Lots of free options, though Mailchimp will start charging more and more as your list grows into the thousands ($10 to $240)
- Many ways to send your work out to your readers, which allows you to easily compose and publish completely from your phone, if you want to
- Cheap or free, no strings attached
- No built-in way to make money from your work, so best used as a promotional tool or for experimental work
It’s not common, but it’s possible to publish your work through social media platforms. And if done correctly, this can be a very impactful way of sharing your work, and having it passed around to reach a new audience.
Choosing the right social media platform for your project is key. Twitter, for example, limits you to 140 characters, so unless your work is easily broken apart into chunks that size, Facebook might be a better option, with its 63,206 character limit. Longer form work is also shared quite a bit more on Facebook, whereas Twitter is more ideal for sharing links to work hosted elsewhere (even on Facebook).
If you think creatively, you can even come up with ways to use photo services like Instragram and Pinterest as publishing platforms — a real win, since both sites are highly trafficked and full of people who share things they like constantly. Try converting your words into images, or overlaying an appropriate image with a poem you’ve written. You could also publish your work as the comment, while the photo helps it get passed around. The sky is the limit, and if your work contains visual media in addition to words, there are a lot of opportunities within the social media world to publish it in a non-traditional way.
All that being said, there’s absolutely no reliable way to monetize the work you share on social media. This option is best left to promotional and experimental work. Stuff you can afford to give away, to give people a taste of your work (you can link to your paid work in some cases, though not on every network).
- Start here for Facebook, here for Twitter, here for Instagram, here for Pinterest, and here for Google Plus
- Lots of opportunities to get creative with your work, maybe even having something go viral if it’s shareable enough
- You’ll need to present your work a lot differently if you use these platforms, since each has different length limits and different types of media get more attention than others
- Incredibly shareable if done right
- Free to use
- Built-in audience of millions of people
- Very impermanent — expect to publish and have everyone forget you did so a few minutes later
- No way to monetize
- Limiting in how you present your work
Podcasts are radio shows for the modern listener, sitting at their computer and listening to their iPods, rather than listening to the radio and Walkman. The type of content you can share in a podcast is equally new-age. Rather than just music and radio shows, the podcast format allows you to present work audibly that might otherwise might just sit quietly on the page.
Podcasts, like blog posts, tend to do best when made available for free and when sharing is encouraged, but there are a few ways to monetize. You can embed them in blog posts or websites, for one, making use of the aforementioned membership plugins. You could also sell individual episodes or sell subscriptions (monthly, yearly, or a season or collection of work).
Some podcast hosting services like Libsyn offer premium subscription plans, paid either monthly or by taking a percentage of your subscription payments. You can also monetize your work with podcasts by integrating advertising — something that most hosts offer, each using slightly different models.
- Start here
- Great way to present to work to people who don’t read much, or who listen to a lot of radio or podcasts
- Early costs are reasonable (usually around $10-20/month to get started)
- Reach a whole new audience
- Many expansion options, ranging from monetization opportunities to custom mobile apps
- Could be a distraction from writing, since it requires a completely new set of equipment and skills
- Requires that you build an audience, as there isn’t much opportunity to gain readers organically
Vimeo / YouTube
Like podcasting, video renditions of your work offer up some very interesting opportunities, so long as you’re willing to put in the time to learn to do it right, and don’t mind translating your work into vocal or visual performances.
Both Vimeo and YouTube have a lot of offerings beyond the standard, consumer-grade video opportunities. Both offer ways for members to make money from their work (you’ll need a Pro account to do this on Vimeo, and they’ll take 10% of all revenue you make therein, while YouTube offers advertising partnerships, and may soon offer a similar paywall as Vimeo), and both offer an array of sophisticated tools for optimizing and publishing your work.
YouTube has an advantage in terms of organic traffic — you’ll have to work for it, but there’s a chance you could get foot traffic from viewers watching other videos. Vimeo doesn’t have that same asset, but it is considered to be a more professional platform, so if you have an existing audience, it might be the better choice (less clutter, no ads, cleaner design aesthetic).
It’s free to start working on both, though a Pro account on Vimeo will cost you $200/year.
- Start here for Vimeo and here for YouTube
- There are many options available, but both YouTube and Vimeo provides many opportunities to share your work, and monetize it in some way
- Vimeo costs $200/year to use their full range of Pro-level tools
- People love video, and love to share video content
- Opportunity to extrapolate on your work and present it in a different form
- Tools required are easily acquired
- Takes practice to do really good video work
- Make take time to find correct format for presenting your work in video form
- Costly to use Vimeo’s services, and YouTube’s are plastered with ads
About This Series
Over the course of six essays and six podcasts, Joshua Fields Millburn and I show you, based on our own experience as successful Independent Authors, how to publish an Indie Book (hence the title). This series includes six parts (listed below).
Each essay also contains a short podcast in which we expound on the contents of the essay, using our own personal experience and opinions as a beacon to guide the conversation.
We welcome your feedback and questions in the comments below, which we’ll use to append our teachings herein.
Podcast: Sales Channels
Now, before you move on, you ought to jam your earbuds in your ears and listen to Joshua and me chat about sales channels.
Move on to other segments in the series:
- Introduction & How to Write a Book
- How to Edit and Proofread Your Book
- How to Create a Book Cover, Author Bio, and Synopsis for Your Book
- How to Format Your Book for Print, Ebook, and Audiobook
- How to Distribute Your Book via Various Sales Channel
- How to Successfully Promote Your Book to an Audience
Subscribe to our free Newsletter so you don’t miss any parts of this series.
(Photo by Megan Jae Riggs)