Authors who are choosing to self-publish their ebook now find themselves faced with a number of questions regarding not only how to get their book into the correct formats but also what to do with those files once they have them. Most frequently, they want to know how they can get their ebook to Amazon (for the Kindle), Barnes & Noble (for the Nook), and Apple (for the iPad). In addition, there’s the Google eBookstore and Sony, among others.
There are two primary choices for authors when it comes to publishing their ebooks: They can choose to publish their own files to each retailer themselves, or they can choose to use an aggregator, who will publish for them.
What is an ebook aggregator anyway?
An ebook aggregator is a company or service provider that will typically take your existing manuscript and convert it into the formats needed to publish to the widest range of ebook retailers. Many aggregators go a step further and now offer a wider range of services, including help with your book cover, ISBN acquisition, and help with copyrighting the material. They will handle distribution, sales, accepting payments, and managing your account—so all you have to do is sit back and accept your royalty payments. Sounds good, right? We can’t deny that this is a very useful service, but detailed research also shows that there are trade-offs, and most ebook aggregators won’t tell you what those are. We’re going to examine the pros and cons of both options, starting with the positives.
Benefits to Using an eBook Aggregator
There are three top aggregators upon which we’ve chosen to focus, as these are the most well-known or operated by large companies with significant resources at their disposal. (We recognize that there are more aggregators than just these three, but we’ve chosen to base our reviews on the ones that are currently the most popular and reputable.)
Currently, the benefits to using an ebook aggregator include the following:
- Access to Apple’s iBookstore. It can be very difficult to get to Apple on your own (http://www.ebookdesigns.net/publish_with_itunes), so by using an aggregator, you bypass the hassle required to publish your book to Apple.
- Single account management. By submitting your book to an aggregator, you then only have to manage a single account rather than multiple accounts for multiple submissions on multiple websites.
- File conversion. Most aggregators offer a bare bones free file conversion process, where they will take your submitted file and convert it to the appropriate ePub and Kindle ebook formats. Some will (for a fee) provide a more complex conversion and allow you to submit your file in file types other than Microsoft Word, such as PDF or InDesign. This means you don’t have to worry about converting the file yourself, since this is often a difficult process—especially for books with complex content.
- Sales reporting/tracking tools. Most aggregators will provide you with an account logon and dashboard that will supply you with sales information from the various retailers. It will also keep track of what you are owed and how much you have been paid, all in one place.
- Ease-of-use. There is less that you, as the author, will need to do to take your book from manuscript format to published ebook. The aggregator will handle many of the steps needed past your initial submission. You can lean back and let someone else take control!
Drawbacks to Using an eBook Aggregator
Now that you’ve reviewed how nice it can be to use an aggregator, it may be hard for you to imagine doing it yourself! In fact, some retailers, such as Apple, really prefer that you use an aggregator. Also, as mentioned before, the aggregators themselves will tell you that it really IS the best way to go. It’s possible that the truth lies somewhere in between. Our research showed us an important picture in terms of royalty amounts, sales options, and the quality of the actual books produced. We’ve outlined these items below:
- Royalty amounts may be less. Aggregators, even those not charging initial setup fees, may take a percentage of your sales for handling your book distribution. In addition, the retailers themselves may pay a different royalty amount (typically lower) to authors using an aggregator than to those who are publishing with them directly. (See eBook Aggregator or Direct to Retailer comparison chart for actual royalty rates!)
- No real-time sales tracking. Although every aggregator will supply you with sales reports, because they must rely on ebook retailers to update their sales records, in almost all cases there will be a delay in sales tracking. This delay could be anywhere from 60 – 90 days. When you publish yourself, most retailers are able to supply you with updated sales reports within 24 hours. This allows you to track your sales and make near-immediate pricing or promotions adjustments, and then see whether those changes made any difference.
- Publication time is delayed. When publishing directly with ebook retailers, in most cases your book will be available for sale within 24 to 72 hours. Google takes a bit longer, with a processing period of 1 to 3 weeks. When publishing with an aggregator, it may take up to three weeks for your book to appear for sale from various major retail outlets.
- Changes aren’t reflected right away. This impacts two items: If you find errors in your ebook file and need to make corrections, it will then take time for those new files to make their way to retailers. Generally, you can expect this to take the same amount of time it took for your book to appear with retailers in the first place. This also makes it much more difficult to try variable pricing. Variable pricing is a method sometimes employed by authors who wish to experiment with raising and lowering the price of their ebook to see whether this impacts sales. It may take up to two weeks for new pricing information to appear.
- Book design is much less customized; authors are responsible for pre-formatting. For those aggregators who offer free conversion, authors must first pre-format the work so that the book has a better chance of converting properly using automated processes. During the automated process, your work will be formatted to what we like to call the “lowest common denominator.” (Smashwords calls the process of converting your book, putting it in “The Meatgrinder.”) Because an aggregator’s goal is to get your file to as many retailers as possible, as quickly as possible, they are less interested in taking your manuscript and giving it a custom look, or working to match a print version you might already have. (They aren’t going to request to see a copy of your print book so that they can implement special design elements!) In most cases, they will strip out your custom elements (or flag them as errors) and simply make certain you have a file that works. This can be fine for simple books, but for more complex work or custom layouts, your book may not convert well. In that case, they may recommend one of their paid conversion services, which will improve your results and allow for submission of more file types; however, authors may need to opt-in to paid services in order to have access to the finished files when using certain aggregators. (When they tell you it’s free, be sure to read the fine print!)
- No access to Amazon Kindle Select Program. Amazon Kindle Select (KDP Select) is an offering by Amazon that provides authors with certain extra promotional tools in exchange for committing to make the digital format of your book available exclusively through the KDP for a period of 90 days. (Authors may renew if they choose.) During this period, authors may not distribute their book anywhere else, including websites, blogs, or other retail outlets. If you are publishing with an aggregator, you would not be eligible for this option without opting out of distribution with every other retailer (which defeats the purpose of using an aggregator to begin with). Is it worth it? The KPD Select program allows authors into the Lending Library, where each lend counts as a unit sold and increases your paid sales rank. Here is a good article detailing the benefits of trying out the program: http://publishingperspectives.com/2012/01/is-kdp-select-salvation-or-damnation-for-indie-authors/.
- Authors have less control over the publishing process. While it can be nice to sit back and let someone else take over the wheel, the trade-off is a certain amount of flexibility. Retailers such as Amazon (http://www.ebookdesigns.net/publish_on_the_kindle) Barnes and Noble (http://www.ebookdesigns.net/publish_with_PubIt), and Google (http://www.ebookdesigns.net/publish_with_google) have provided authors with tools that will be useful in tracking sales, easily making pricing adjustments, and marketing to a wider client-base. They also pay slightly higher royalty rates direct to authors and allow the submission of pre-designed ePub and PRC files, which may lend itself to a more professional or creative result. Working with an aggregator means inserting a third-party between you and your book (and sometimes, your profits).
So, What about the Big Apple?
In our experience, we’ve found that the toughest retailer to reach (and thus the biggest selling point for aggregators) is the difficulty in getting to Apple. While it is possible for authors to publish directly to Apple using iBooks Author and iTunes, the Apple app iBooks Author only allows for publication on Apple, making the publishing app useless for a wider market, and publishing with iTunes has such specific requirements that many authors will give up—especially because Apple themselves will keep recommending that you use an aggregator at almost every step of the process!
Is publishing on Apple important? Yes, and no. The ebook sales figures for 2011 show that Amazon’s share of the North American ebook market is around 60% to 80%. Barnes & Noble had taken 27% of the US market by June of 2011. Apple’s iTunes was in third place (exact sales figures were not provided but UK rates showed 15% – 20%), and fourth, with perhaps 5% of the market, was Kobo. (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/18/ebook-price-wars and http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/Frankfurt-Book-Fair/article/49021-the-global-ebook-market-current-conditions–future-projections.html)
“According to analysts at Stifel Nicolaus, the Kindle Fire sold nearly 6m units during the last quarter of 2011. In Britain a survey found that one in every 40 adults was given an e-reader for Christmas, and of those 92% were Kindles.” (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/jan/31/amazon-fourth-quarter-results-kindle)
These figures show that the most critical retailer at this point remains Amazon (keep in mind that Smashwords does not yet distribute to Amazon), with B&N second, and Apple third. But that doesn’t mean the retailer should be ignored; it simply means that they may not be as critical in terms of book distribution as the popularity of their iPad and iPhone may suggest. Also note that ebooks sold via Amazon, B&N, and Google can all be read on an iPad using the various ebook apps provided by each retailer.
Best of Both Worlds: Combining Options to Publish Your eBook
Authors might do best with a combination of Do-it-yourself and aggregator publishing. There are three primary approaches to consider:
Option 1-a: For authors with a print version (or for those considering both print and ebook editions)
If you have a print version of your book, or plan to publish both a print and ebook edition (highly recommended to reach the widest possible market), you might consider publishing yourself with Amazon, B&N, and Google, and then use a print distributor such as Lightning Source to both print your book and distribute an ebook to Apple. Ingram does provide distribution to Apple (among other retail outlets that you have probably never heard of) if you supply your own ePub file. This will mean preparing an ePub and Kindle file yourself, or better yet, see if the company who is providing your print book design can also prepare your ebook files. (We offer both services at rates that rival those provided by aggregators, but we also provide you with custom design, design consultations, and in the end, your Master ebook files!). This allows you to get both a custom print design AND an ebook design that will closely match your print design, giving you the most professional product, and the greatest amount of control over the entire process for the cost of pre-production services (saving you on setup fees). Companies like ours will also help walk you through the process of publishing your ebook on the various platforms, so don’t feel too intimidated by the DIY aspect to use this approach. We’re here to serve as an author advocate, meaning we want to help you take advantage of the best publishing options.
Option 1-b: Highest Royalty (ebook edition only)
If you plan to publish an ebook version only, then you will get the highest royalty amount by publishing yourself to each individual retailer. This means Amazon, B&N, Google, and Apple (direct). This also allows you to try out Amazon’s KDP Select program, as you can choose to disable sales directly on other retail sites until the 90-day exclusion period is over. You can also choose to bypass Apple temporarily, until you see how you do on other retail sites. (Keeping in mind that iPad users can still access your book through all of the other retail sites.)
Option 2: Free DIY and Aggregator Combo (Smashwords + Self-publishing to Amazon and Google)
Publish your book using Smashwords, one of the few aggregators who are free of setup fees but who also provide a higher royalty amount, and then publish to Amazon and Google yourself.
We must mention here that Booktango also offers a free option; however, they take a larger percentage of sales. The trade-off is that Smashwords does not distribute to Amazon or Google, while Booktango does. Even with the Amazon/Google limitation, the reason why we recommend Smashwords over Booktango at this time is because Smashwords will provide access to your finished ebook file (at no charge) and may be higher in quality; their publication waiting period is shorter; their minimum sales requirement before payment is sent is less; the payment waiting period is slightly shorter; and they offer better royalty amounts. Booktango is hard at work improving their service offerings, so our recommendation on this could change in the future.
Option 3: Paid Aggregator
If you would still like to use an aggregator to take over the entire process, we recommend Bookbaby. Although they charge a setup fee, they DO offer authors the widest range of file submission options, including submitting your own custom ePub and PRC files! We recommend this approach if you decide you want to use an aggregator because you can still get the highest quality result having your files professionally prepared elsewhere, if you so desire; you will own the files outright; and while Bookbaby does offer a service that will convert your files for a fee, using a dedicated design service will most likely still provide you with a better quality end result at a rate comparable to what Bookbaby will charge to do ebook conversion. Bookbaby does offer a free conversion service as well, but keep in mind that auto-conversion is not built to retain special formatting features or closely match print versions.
Bookbaby offers a wide range of distribution options; however, they do not currently distribute to Google. It is still recommended that authors submit to Google on their own. Bookbaby (like all aggregators) also allows you to opt-out of any retailer on their list. This means you can also choose to use Bookbaby to submit only to Apple, leaving the rest to you. Because you can submit your own file, it’s possible to use them as an Apple-only Aggregator without the hassle of going through their conversion process or paying additional design fees. One setup fee, and then you get to keep 100 percent of the net revenue!
At-a-Glance/Pros and Cons of Self vs. Aggregator ebook Publishing
Don’t forget to check out our eBook Aggregator or Direct to Retailer comparison chart for actual royalty rates and general publishing comparisons!