Google Play Books: So much promise, so few results

By Blog, Industry

I’ve lamented the state of competition in the ebook platform wars in the past.

Take Apple, which had so much going for it 3 or 4 years ago compared to Amazon, with a vastly superior e-reader (the iPad using iBooks) and sales that regularly topped $200 per month for my In 30 Minutes series of how-to guides. Apple’s hardware/software advantage did not last. Amazon eventually closed the hardware gap with the Kindle Fire, and continued to make improvements to the Kindle software and ordering processes. Meanwhile, Apple’s bloated iTunes/iBookstore has continued to frustrate users attempting to buy or review books, contributing to a stagnant sales picture. So where did Apple place its platform improvement efforts while Amazon was catching up, you ask? Creating a superb closed-garden authoring tool (see my iBooks Author review here) which has done little for sales in the iBookstore and makes it impossible to export the efforts to any other channel.

Then there is Google Play Books and the partner center for authors and publishers. Google is the only other deep-pocketed company out there that could ever hope to compete with Amazon in the ebook space, but it too has dropped the ball with its marketplace. I have been selling ebooks there for 3 years, and sales have never been good. But there are a host of other problems that stymie content producers and make it difficult to consider it a serious contender to Amazon KDP.

Google Play Books review: What’s wrong with Google Play Books

Where to begin? How about the unilateral discounts that Google Play applies to pricing. It’s gotten so bad that when I create a new ebook listing in Google Play, I have to refer to this Kboards forum post that lists the amounts you need to input to Google Play books in order to display the desired price:

Set Price = Discounted Price
99c = no change (royalty = 52%)
1.49 = no change (royalty = 52%)

2.49 = 1.92 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 67%)
2.99 = 2.09 (Discount = 30%. Actual royalty = 74%)
3.49 = 2.65 (Discount = 24%. Actual royalty = 68%)
3.94 = 2.99 (Discount = 24%. Actual royalty = 68%)
3.99 = 3.03 (Discount = 24%. Actual royalty = 68%)
4.50 = 3.44 (Discount = 23.5%. Actual royalty = 68%)
4.99 = 3.82 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
5.18 = 3.99 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
5.25 = 4.04 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
5.99 = 4.61 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 67.5%)
6.48 = 4.99 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
9.99 = 7.99 (Discount = 20%. Actual royalty = 65%)
8.99 = 7.52 (Discount = 16%. Actual royalty = 62%)
15.99 = 9.99 (Discount = 37%. Actual royalty = 83%)

Then there’s the lack of a sales dashboard on Google Play Books. Even Nook and Kobo understand that authors and publishers want quick insights into how their books are selling, and provide an on-screen look at monthly sales:

Nook Sales sample vs Google Play books

Google Play Books Partner Center, on the other hand, doesn’t have any sales dashboard. It’s only possible to download a .CSV file that contains raw sales data. If you’re handy with Excel or Google Sheets, you can probably set up something that handles basic currency conversion and get a USD total for monthly sales, but if not, you’re out of luck.

Google Play Book reviews include scraped and fake reviews

And then there are the reviews that appear next to my books in the Play Store, written by people who have never downloaded or read them. To be fair, this is a problem with Amazon too, but at least Amazon displays “Verified Purchase” next to the reviews so shoppers know which ones are more trustworthy. Potential customers who venture to Google Play to check out my ebooks are likely to encounter drive-by complaints about the topics covered (“you can get this information on YouTube for free!”) or issues that have nothing to do with my books (such as the person who had a problem recovering a password from some online service). Because Google can’t screen or properly identify real reviews, I’ve taken the step of removing links from my websites to the Google Play Books product pages for half of the titles published. The Google Play product pages have become a liability, and I don’t want to send customers there.

Buy hey, I suppose I should be happy that I at least have access as a publisher, and basic support questions get answered. Nine months ago, Google Play Books closed its doors to new self-published authors and small publishers:

Over the course of the last four weeks there has been a media firestorm about the sheer scope of pirated content on Google Play. This has forced the company to close their Play Books Publisher Portal. In a message in the Google Product Forums, a Google rep said “We’ve temporarily closed new publisher sign ups in the Play Books Partner Center, so we can improve our content management capabilities and our user experience. We’re working to reopen this to new publishers soon. Thanks for your patience.”

As far as I know, Google Play Books is still closed to new authors.

Do you use Google Play Books as an author, publisher, or reader? What has your experience been like? What needs to change?

What should independent authors do about Kindle Unlimited and other predatory platforms?

By Blog, Industry

This post originally started out as a comment on Mark Coker’s blog post about the demise of Oyster, but it has actually been brewing for a long time, since the launch of the Scribd and Oyster ebook subscription services and the appearance of Amazon’s predatory Kindle Unlimited subscription plan. I’ve decided to expand my thoughts on the In 30 Minutes blog and seek feedback from writers.

I have long thought that in the battle of the platform marketplaces and their business plans, the content creators — whether they be musicians, filmmakers, or authors — seldom get a seat at the table. We have seen this happen with Spotify, where artists get scraps while the platform owners and investors (including the big music publishers) grab money and control. Following the launch of the Oyster and Scribd ebook subscription plans, I wrote:

“As for the venture-funded book subscription services, I’ve taken a look at Scribd and read some of the recent news about Oyster, too. I find it very telling that Scribd.com heavily promotes unlimited books for readers, and offers resources for publishers and partners, yet there isn’t a single page in their support section that explains to authors what they will be getting from the service. Clearly, authors are not a priority.”

Amazon Kindle Unlimited buffet - Depolo_cc_2-0_attribution_flickrAlthough Coker was eventually able to get a reasonable rate from Scribd and Oyster for authors participating in his Smashwords distribution service, it was overshadowed once Amazon decided to jump in with the Kindle Unlimited subscription plan. It’s cheap, fully integrated with the Kindle, and absolutely terrible for most participating authors. Just like the $10 buffet at the local Chinese restaurant, the cheap, all-you-can-eat subscription plan that Amazon launched requires cheap stuff in order to work. It’s great for readers, it’s great for Amazon, but for the authors and content creators? Not so great. Authors who participate (via Amazon’s KDP Select self-publishing service) are getting crumbs in the form of a per-page reading rate that is the same for all ebooks. In the long run KU is terrible for authors, except for a tiny minority who can achieve scale. This will reduce the size of the pie and leave a lot of talented authors struggling or even giving up.

I think it’s time for indie authors to look at the music and film industries to not only see where things are headed, but what can be done to preserve or strengthen our collective power. Withholding the best content from marketplaces (as HBO has done with Netflix and Amazon Prime, and some artists have done with Spotify) is one strategy, although it’s unclear how effective it can be unless lots of content is withheld and there are viable alternatives for audiences to turn to.

Sharing data and shining a light on the ugly reality of treatment of content creators is another, as artists have done for years with Spotify and Taylor Swift did most recently (i.e., Spotify’s claim it had paid out $2 million, vs. Swift’s revelation that it was 1/4 that figure).

However, one thing artists and filmmakers have been unable to do — in part because of the industry structure involving studios and publishers with misaligned interests — is band together to demand a seat at the table, and fight for their rights. In the publishing world, while some author organizations have taken a stance against Amazon, they represent relatively small numbers of authors. I think there is a huge opportunity to unite the population of indie authors (including self-publisher authors and professionals) who are not represented by these organizations, and are not beholden to the large publishing houses. With a strong voice, the ability to shine a light on the good and bad players in this industry, and the power to issue recommendations, it may be possible for independent authors and other content creators to finally get a seat at the table or take action when platforms behave badly.

What do you think? Is this an effort worth pursuing?

(Note: This post reflects my views only. I welcome dissenting views and discussion in the comments below, but please be respectful)

Image: Chinese Buffet, Steven Depolo/Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license

Does a free ebook download help extend a book’s longevity?

By Industry

Higher Order PerlProgrammer and author Mark Jason Dominus has written a blog post about an unusual publishing arrangement he has with publisher Morgan Kaufmann. Ten years ago, Morgan Kaufmann published his book Higher Order Perl. The HOP book is still available as a new paperback on Amazon for $67, and as a Kindle download for $47. But Dominus also arranged to have the book available as a free ebook download from his website.

Many authors and publishers would question this arrangement, but it’s worked well for the author, who wanted to get his book out to as wide an audience as possible, as well as the publisher, who the author says has done quite well.

Dominus also talks about why the book has been in print for so long. Remember, this isn’t fiction — this is a technical book in a very fast-moving field. He points out that many computer books disappear after just six months, but his has been around for a decade. He says:

“Part of this is that it’s an unusually good book. But I think the longevity is partly because it is available as a free download. Imagine that person A asks a question on an Internet forum, and person B says that HOP has a section that could help with the question. If B wants to follow up, they now must find a copy of HOP. If the book is out of print, this can be difficult. It may not be in the library; it almost certainly isn’t in the bookstore. Used copies may be available, but you have to order them and have them shipped, and if you don’t like it once it arrives, you are stuck with it.”

The free ebook download certainly helps keep it relevant and alive. In my opinion, there are other factors at work. They include:

  1. A relatively high number of professional reviews and reviews from experts in the field
  2. A moderate number of great reader reviews, including many “Verified Purchases” on Amazon
  3. Availability of new copies of the book, which signals the content is probably still relevant/not obsolete and may also indicate it’s a classic/foundation title considering how long it’s been in print.
  4. A solid online presence, including the product website that Dominus created as well as a Wikipedia page.

Regarding the convenience issue that he brought up: These days, it’s possible to buy a new book online and return it or resell it later (as 63 other owners are doing right now on the Amazon U.S. site). It’s a pain to list it and handle the packing, but so is driving to a bookstore to bring back a return.

But I would also like to talk about the effectiveness of having a free book download. Free titles are indeed very convenient for those who are unable/unwilling to purchase the print edition, but in my experience they are less likely to be read. I currently have a free download on Amazon — Personal Finance for Beginners In 30 Minutes, Volume 1. It’s been downloaded thousands of times, but through various mechanisms (including reviews, follow-on sales of the 2nd volume, clicks to the website from the ebook edition, etc.) I have determined it’s seldom read. I think many free ebooks and PDFs end up on people’s devices and are never opened because of a lack of time and all of the other free content that’s available out there.

As an author or publisher, what’s your take on having a free ebook download? As a reader, do you read all of the free ebooks available on Amazon and elsewhere? Comments are welcome.

Marketing self-published books: There is no magic bullet

By Blog, Industry

A Lifehacker reader commenting on my recent How to Self-Publish a Book article had an interesting question: How do you advertise self-published books?

I believe his/her question actually had more to do with the entire spectrum of marketing, rather than just advertising. It’s a valid question, considering it will be nearly impossible to attract readers to a self-published work without a marketing plan in place.

Facebook ads books

However, there is no magic bullet for marketing self-published books. I have experimented with low-cost advertising, such as Facebook ads and Google AdWords. The results have been poor. Relatively few people click on the ads, and still fewer actually end up making a purchase. As for traditional advertising, I would never throw away money on expensive broadcast or print advertising — it’s simply not worth it, considering my sales channels are restricted to Amazon and other online stores, and the results are so hard to quantify.

There are other marketing activities that do not involve paid advertising, including social media, community websites (such as Goodreads), blogging, and media/press appearances. None will instantly transform a new title into a breakaway hit, but they can help build awareness of the value offered by your book, which can lead to additional sales or other positive results, such as user reviews and recommendations.

My own marketing efforts center around the following activities:

  1. Ensuring that the online product pages for IN 30 MINUTES titles have attractive, compelling copy that lets people know what information the titles contain.
  2. Creating websites that not only make it easy for potential readers to buy the titles, but also provides helpful “how-to” information for free that demonstrates the expertise of the authors. This can lead to additional sales.
  3. Encouraging existing readers to buy other IN 30 MINUTES titles, and leave honest reviews online.

I don’t waste a lot of time on activities that fail to generate results. For instance, I could spend many hours per week searching out and participating in media opportunities — interviews, guest blog posts, podcasts, “expert” quotes, etc. However, I’ve found the success rate is low and not all media appearances, interviews, and mentions lead to sales.

A corollary: I don’t do things that risk alienating readers. For instance, I see way too many new authors stuffing their twitter feeds with non-stop plugs. This is low-value content that is not authentic, has the potential to scare away new followers as well as existing followers/readers, and at the end of the day doesn’t deliver much in the way of sales. While social media can certainly help a marketing effort for a new book, there has to be more than links to Amazon product pages.

What do you think about marketing for self-published books? What works, and what doesn’t? Leave your comments below.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription plan screws self-published authors

By Blog, Industry

Amazon just announced its Kindle Unlimited subscription plan for ebooks, and boy, does it look great for readers and traditionally published authors. Readers get access to hundreds of thousands of titles for a low monthly price of $10. If you’re a big-name publisher, traditionally published author, or an author published through an Amazon imprint, the terms are great for you, too, according to Publisher’s Marketplace. As long as a reader reads just 10% of your book, you get 100% of what you would get as if the book were a standalone download . Competing subscription plans, such as the one offered by Scribd, don’t come close.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Wait a minute. What’s the payout for authors and publishers who are using Amazon’s exclusive self-publishing platform, KDP Select?

Well, you are out of luck, because Amazon’s terms aren’t nearly as generous. I quote from the email Amazon out to KDP members last week:

KDP authors and publishers who enroll their books with U.S. rights in KDP Select are automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. Inclusion in Kindle Unlimited can help drive discovery of your book, and when your book is accessed and read past 10% you will earn a share of the KDP Select global fund. For the month of July we have added $800,000 to the KDP Select global fund bringing the total to $2 million.

In other words, self-published authors in KDP Select are getting paid … who knows? It’s certainly not the 100% enjoyed by traditional publishers and authors on Amazon imprints. It can’t even come close to the 70% that all KDP authors (including those who are not in KDP Select) normally get for a single digital purchase of their book, because the “global fund” simply isn’t big enough to cover subscription reads and the free reads that are part of other KDP Select promotions.

So we have a situation in which one group of authors is getting the gold standard — 100% of what they would get as if they sold the book individually. And then there are the self-published authors in KDP Select, who are providing the bulk of the current Kindle Unlimited catalogue. They are getting some lesser fraction and cannibalizing full-priced digital downloads to boot. On Kboards, some of them have begun to mildly object to this unfair treatment, which surprises me. Self-published authors are getting screwed and they should be vociferously protesting the second-class treatment and terrible terms offered by Amazon.

KDP Select has other issues, too. As described in “Is KDP Select worth it?”, I dropped out of KDP Select after running some experiments and finding paltry sales and reimbursements, and a negligible rankings boost. I also object to the monopolistic exclusivity requirements — authors in KDP Select cannot publish their book on any other platform thereby limiting the ability of their books to reach audiences on those other platforms. The new subscription plan and its lopsided reimbursement plan gives me another reason to steer clear of the plan — and warn other self-published authors to consider doing the same.

Image: The email I received from Amazon about the Kindle Unlimited subscription program:

Kindle Unlimited terms for authors