An Objective Comparison of Ebook Distributors

What I’ve noted so far.

I published, through Flying M Productions, my first ebook in October 2011 and have since published two others. (Learn about all of these titles here.) I went mainstream on all of the ebook distributions, choosing Amazon Kindle (custom mobi), Apple iBookstore (epub), and Barnes & Noble NOOK (epub). With about five months of sales and reseller experience, I thought it was about time to share my observations of these three platforms.

For each criteria, I provided a grade and notes to back it up. Remember, this is based on my experience with just these three books. For the iBookstore, I do not include my experience with iBooks Author-generated books in the table; that’s discussed briefly at the end of this post.

Criteria Kindle Store iBookstore NOOK Store
Ease of Publishing A
It’s very easy to get into the Kindle Direct Publishing program and publish books.
C
Apple’s iTunes Connect program requires a lot of paperwork and acceptance of agreements that are often updated. Its interface for publishing is surprisingly unintuitive (for Apple). It requires a unique ISBN for every book sold.
B
Getting into the B&N Pubit program is relatively easy, although there is an approval process that takes some time. Its online book submission process is easy.
Publisher Support D
Publisher support is nearly non-existent. It’s difficult to send questions. Most questions are answered with a “canned” response. Often, I’m told my question needs more research, but an answer never comes.
D
Publisher support is handled primarily through a menu-driven help system that’s poorly designed. It can take more than a week to get an question answered and it’s usually with a “canned” response.
n/a
I have no experience with B&N’s support system.
Ease of Creating Acceptable Documents B
I convert from epub to Kindle using the Kindle Previewer app. This usually goes smoothly the first time around, but it does require that conversion.
C
Apple is extremely particular about formatting and unusual characters in ebook files. For example, it doesn’t like uppercase filename extensions or spaces in file names. This often requires a lot of digging around in epub format files to fix problems. To be fair, I could probably improve my templates to prevent some of the problems I encounter.
B
BN.com accepts just about any epub I send, as long as it isn’t any larger than 20 MB (which I think is too restrictive.)
Appearance of Ebook C
The Kindle format inconsistently formats bulleted lists and font sizes and completely ignores some formatting. As a result, my books are not usually formatted as I’d like to see them.
A
My iBookstore books usually look very good. Apple is true to all epub formatting.
B
My NOOK books usually look very good, although I sometimes notice instances where formatting is ignored.
Speed of Review Process A
Amazon consistently makes my books available for sale within 24 hours of posting.
D
There is no consistency in the speed of Apple’s review process. I had one book appear within an hour of posting while I waited a week or more for others.
B
B&N consistently makes my books available for sale within 48 hours of posting.
Sales A
In most instances, Amazon sells the most books.
B
Apple sells reasonably well — unless a book has an unusual amount of appeal to Mac users, in which case, it sells best.
D
B&N’s sales are sluggish and rather disappointing.
Royalties D
Amazon offers the worst publishing deal. To get 70% royalties, you must price the book between $2.99 and $9.99. The 70% commission rate is only available for books sold to certain countries. All sales to other countries earn just 35%.You must also pay “delivery fee” based on the size of your book file for all books sold at the 70% commission rate. Amazon enforces price matching, so if your book is available for a lower price elsewhere, Amazon will arbitrarily lower the price of your book in the Kindle Store. And don’t even think of getting into the KDP Select Program; that’s something else I need to blog about soon.
A
Apple offers the best publishing deal: 70% flat rate on all books. No hidden costs, no exceptions to the 70% rate.
A
B&N also offers a good publishing deal: 70% flat rate on all books.
Sales & Royalty Reporting C
Amazon’s reporting system is inconsistent and confusing, although it does have up-to-the-minute sales figures. Amazon’s staff does not reply promptly (or at all) to sales/royalty report questions. Reports seem to indicate book sales at unauthorized prices, making me wonder whether Amazon is ripping me off.
A
Apple’s reporting system is updated daily. Reports can be viewed its iTunes Connect website as well as in an extremely well designed iOS app.
B
B&N’s reporting system is minimal but accurate.
Final Grade B
The only reason Amazon gets such a good grade is because it sells a lot of books. Its royalty structure sucks, but I can still earn more there for most titles than anywhere else.
B
Apple’s fair royalty rate and reporting help it score well, but its disappointing sales figures and inconsistent review process keep it from getting a better grade.
C
B&N is a nice platform, but low sales keep it from getting a better grade. In all honesty, if it weren’t for the fact that publishing there was so easy, I probably would’t bother.

Of course, it remains to be seen how well my iBooks 2 interactive (enhanced) books do on the iBookstore, since Apple is taking so damn long to approve them.

Do you have any experience with any of these publishing platforms? If so, what have you observed? Share your thoughts in the Comments for this post.

On Unfair Reviews

They destroy morale and businesses.

These days, many companies have created online rating/review services for a wide variety of things. There’s Google and Yahoo! of course, for just about any business or product that can appear in search results. There’s Yelp for local businesses and there’s Urban Spoon for restaurants. Angie’s List, which I’ve never visited, even advertises on NPR. Hell, back when I was writing Quicken books, even Intuit tried to get into the act — although I’m not sure how that went, considering how completely saturated the review market is.

There are also product ratings systems on many online services. All the online booksellers — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. — have them. There are rating systems for computer applications built into services such as CNET Downloads and Mac Update. Even Apple has online ratings for the products it sells, from hardware and software in its Apple stores to iTunes content, to iOS apps, to iBooks.

Frankly, these days you can’t shop for a product, company, or service online without being bombarded with people’s opinions of said product, company, or service.

And therein lies the rub.

What Are Opinions?

Reviews are a matter of opinion. And, on the surface there is — or should be — nothing wrong with opinion. After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

In a perfect world, a person would research a product, company, or service to determine whether or not it should meet his needs. If he decides that it does and gives it a try, he becomes entitled to form his own opinion on that product, company, or service. His opinion should be based on how well the product, company, or service met his needs, based on his expectations, which should be drawn from his research. It should also be based on his actual experience with the product, company, or service.

Sadly, only a small fraction of reviewers these days seem to understand this simple fact: you are not qualified to form and share an opinion of a product you know nothing about, or one that failed to meet unreasonable expectations.

An Example

Suppose you like cherry pie. You do a bit of research and determine that nearby ABC Pie company sells pies. You go to its website. You learn that they have won awards for their pies at the county fair for the past ten years. You learn that they appeared on a morning talk show where they talked about their pie-making techniques — and they even have a video clip on their Web site for you to watch. You learn that they have all natural ingredients and that all of their fruit pies are made exclusively with fresh, US-grown fruit. You drive over to their pie shop and are amazed to see a line coming out the door of people who have come to buy pie. You wait fifteen minutes on line. You get to the counter and ask for a cherry pie, to go.

The woman at the counter is friendly, but tells you there is no cherry pie. She’s apologetic when she reminds you that it’s February and they are unable to get fresh cherries until June. She reminds you that all of their fruit pies are made with fresh fruit. She tries to interest you in some other pies, but you want cherry. She apologizes again and says she hopes you’ll be back in the summer. After making sure there’s nothing else she can help you with, she moves on to help the next customer.

You’re upset. You feel that you wasted your time going to a pie store to get a pie you think they should have had. After all, you assumed that a pie shop would have cherry pie.

Are you qualified to get on Yelp and bash ABC Pie Company for disappointing you? For making you wait on a long line? For having terrible pie?

Of course not. You had unreasonable expectations — based on your own research! — and you never actually tried their product.

Besides, if cherry pie was the only thing you’d buy, why not call ahead to make sure they have it before taking the time to visit?

To get on Yelp and fire off a one-star rating and a review that bashes ABC Pie Company for the long line and lack of cherry pie would be unfair. To further tarnish the company’s reputation by insinuating that their pies weren’t good or that the woman at the counter was rude would be tragically unfair.

Yet people do this all the time on Yelp and other review services. And it hurts businesses.

And that brings me to the motivation of today’s post.

I am a Victim

One of the things I learned early on a writer was to not read reviews of my books. The reason: although many of them were fair — positive and negative — there were always a handful of unfair reviews that would get my blood boiling.

The earliest of these was back when I wrote my first Quicken book in the late 1990s. The Amazon reviewer gave it 1 star and said that it didn’t include anything more than what you’d find in the manual. This was blatantly untrue. The book included several lengthy sections with advice on finding mortgages, reducing debt, shopping for insurance, and calculating loans. I wrote this original material at the request of my editor, who wanted the book to provide information to help readers get their finances in order. I drew upon my accounting experiences as a small business owner, as well as what I learned in college business courses. I created photo-copyable worksheets, each of which appeared in the book. None of this content was in the product manual. It was clear that the reviewer had never read the book — and possibly never even opened it. Yet, for some reason I couldn’t discover, he had taken it upon himself to bash the book and publish outright lies about it.

Talk about unfair!

I appealed to my publisher and they went to Amazon with the facts. The review was eventually removed.

It was then that I decided to avoid reading reviews of my books.

iBooks Author IconBut sometimes reviews get in your face. Yesterday, I checked the listing for my iBooks Author book in the iBookstore. I don’t even know why I did. And I was shocked to see a one-star review where the reviewer had taken the time to do some book bashing. His complaint: the book wasn’t written with iBooks Author. He claimed that it was impossible to write the book without using the software to write THAT book. (Almost as if he didn’t think I’d ever used the software at all.) I guess he never considered that the book provides instructions for creating another book with iBooks Author. Or maybe that’s not good enough for him.

It’s almost as if he’s suggesting that when I write a book about Excel, I should write it in Excel. Or when I write a book about Photoshop, I should write it in Photoshop. (A picture book, I guess.)

I should mention here that nowhere in the book’s description does it say that it was written with iBooks Author. Obviously, he had unreasonable expectations. (Kind of like assuming there’s cherry pie when there’s no reason to believe there should be.)

So he bashed the book. Even said “don’t waste your money.” As if the content didn’t count for anything because it wasn’t written in iBooks Author.

(Don’t waste your money on this Toyota because it wasn’t built in a Mercedes factory.)

Why would someone do such a thing?

Is he stupid? Does he simply not understand what a review is supposed to be? A summary of how a product met reasonable expectations?

Or just inconsiderate? Does he have a mean streak that makes him want to hurt people by making unfair comments in public?

Or have it in for me? Is there something about me personally that he doesn’t like? Something that makes him want to hurt me?

Does he understand the impact of his actions? My book had steady sales for four days in a row, but after his “review” appeared, sales dropped off. While I don’t know for sure if his “review” caused the drop, what am I supposed to think?

And what am I supposed to do?

I should mention here that the only other review (with words in addition to stars) was a five-star review that had glowing praise for the book. (And no, it wasn’t written by me or any close friend.)

Obviously, I’m going to try to get Apple to pass judgement on the review. I think I have a case, but I don’t really think Apple will do a thing. As I mentioned at the start of this post, things like this happen all the time. Apple would need a full-time staff just to handle complaints about unfair reviews.

I’ll just have to live with it and hope potential buyers can see just how unfair it is.

And if you think book reviews have been the only source of angst for me, think again. This telemarketer’s “review” was so over the top, I had no trouble getting it removed.

Fight Unfair Reviews

As a business owner and author, all I can do is present my case for the other business owners and authors out there. Many of us work hard and seriously do our best to make customers and readers happy — or at least satisfied.

If you have a legitimate gripe about a product, company, or service, by all means, share it. If a product, company, or service did not meet your reasonable expectations, tell the world.

Throughout the years, I’ve gotten feedback about my work from people who have read and commented on my work. Not all of it was good. In every case possible, I took the negative points — the fair ones, anyway — to heart and used them to improve my work in the future. I’ve added new content to later editions of the same work, I’ve changed the way I present certain material. I want my work to be the best it can. I want my readers to be happy with my work. Legitimate, fair reviewers can help me — and others — be the best we can be.

But unfair reviews don’t help anyone.

See an unfair review online? Mark it unhelpful or report it (if possible). Weed out those unfair reviews so the fair ones get the attention they deserve.

Small business owners are depending on it.

More Self-Publishing Insight

With project #3 done, I have a few more experiences to share.

Late last month I wrote a typically lengthy post about my experiences to date as a self-publisher. At that time, I’d finished two book projects and was in the middle of my third.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not new to publishing. My first self-published book was my 79th book. I’ve been at it for 20 years. But as my publishers begin to cut back on their publication schedules, I had to do something to find a market for my work. My self-publishing solution seemed like a good idea.

The jury is still out, however.

What Book #3 Taught Me

My third and biggest (so far) self-published book.

My most recent project, iBooks Author: Publishing Your First Ebook, taught me a few things:

  • I don’t write as fast as I used to. Sure, I knocked out a 242-page book with 274 screenshots, all laid out in InDesign CS5.5, in about 10 days. But they were grueling days that never seemed to end. And the whole time, I was racing against the clock, doing what I could to be the first book out about iBooks Author. I’m not sure, but I may have succeeded. But I’m really tired.
  • An InDesign to EPub conversion process doesn’t always work as smoothly as it did the last time I did it. Indeed, Apple’s iTunes Producer program kept choking on the epub I created, even though it proofed fine in multiple tools. (Note to self: Make sure the name of the InDesign file does not include spaces. Further note: Make sure all filename extensions are in lowercase. Sheesh.)
  • None of the ebook sellers are interested in providing support for publishers. Amazon.com sends an automated response, follows it up with a canned response two days later, and then ignores subsequent requests for help on the same issue. Apple’s Contact page takes you through a list of possible FAQ responses and then tells you to get an aggregator. Barnes & Noble won’t allow pubs over 20 MB in size. Period. If you don’t know their rules or have a clue what you’re doing, you’re screwed.
  • Amazon.com will squeeze every single penny they can out of a publisher. My final book was huge — after all, it included 274 color screenshots. Amazon.com’s “delivery” fee ate up half of my royalties. I had to recompile the book with all images converted from PNG to JPG to regain about 50¢ per copy in royalties.
  • DRM might not be a good idea. I’d been sitting on the fence about this option and decided to try it for this book. I really thought Amazon.com and Apple’s iBookstore would have had this figured out, but apparently they don’t. On the third day after publication, I was getting complaints from readers. I wound up republishing the iBooks version with DRM turned off. We’ll see what happens with the Kindle version.
  • I hate indexing books. Well, this book didn’t teach me that. Other books taught me years ago. But it did remind me. Unfortunately, when there’s no advance and no guarantee of sales, I can’t afford to hire an indexer. So I have to do it myself.

I Like My POD Printer

A few days ago, I searched for my first self-published book, Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs, on Amazon.com and was pleasantly surprised to find both the print and Kindle versions. Apparently, the Amazon.com Website is automatically populated from data in the Ingram Catalog. Since my print books appear in that catalog, they also appear on Amazon.com. The second book was there, too.

What was odd, however, is that the book is available from other booksellers who sell through Amazon. They’re discounting it. I don’t personally care what they sell it for because I don’t earn based on a fixed wholesale price, which is 55% off the retail price. The POD printer gets the money they send, subtracts the cost of production, and sends me the rest. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. We’ll see, I guess.

I should mention that the print books are on Barnes & Noble’s Website, too. BN.com even showed the correct cover photo. (I had to contact Amazon to get the cover photo to show up for the print book.)

Books Do Sell

Although sales for my first two titles were a bit sluggish — and remained so — the third book is selling quite briskly, especially on the iBookstore. I’m able to monitor sales at Apple, Amazon, and BN on a daily basis for the previous day’s sales. I’ve sold about 100 copies in 3-1/2 days.

Oddly, it’s also the most “popular” of my books on Amazon.com right now, even beating out my Lion book. It’s currently #9 in the Graphic Design category in the Kindle store; it was #16 yesterday. (Of course, one of my Mac OS books once hit #11 storewide on Amazon.com, but I fear those days are long gone for me.)

But I’m no fool. I figure I need to sell an average of 80 books a day to make a living doing this. So, in a way, I’m back to where I was when I started my writing career 20 years ago. Back then, I realized that if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I’d have to write a lot of books.

What Are Your Experiences?

Someone recently commented on my first self-publishing post to thank me for sharing my experiences. But I’d like to read what others are going through. Why not use the comments link to share your experiences with me and the others who read this? Surely we can all learn from each other.

I don’t know about you, but I never stop learning.