There have been many debates over the years in the writing world: plotting or pantsing, trad or indie, but a question that never goes away is whether to distribute exclusively through Amazon or to “go wide”. The Alliance of Independent Authors advises self-publishing authors to publish and distribute their books as widely as possible. Today's post dives into the whats, whys and hows of going wide. This is the ultimate guide to publishing wide.
Our thanks to Mark Lefebvre for contributing to this post with an extract from his highly recommended new book: Wide for the Win.
What Does Publishing Wide Mean?
To “go wide” or “publish wide” is to distribute and sell books via multiple platforms, rather than limiting yourself to one outlet.
Authors publish wide in one or all of three ways:
- by uploading directly, on a non-exclusive basis, to platforms the such as Amazon KDP, Apple Books and Kobo (ebooks)
- by uploading to multiples sites via an aggregator like Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, or StreetLib.
- Or, most often, both.
Authors who publish wide are also free to publish and sell directly on their own websites.
Going wide, and keeping that option of selling directly on your own website, is ALLi’s recommendation for long-term, sustainable, scalable growth.
Advantages of Non-exclusive Wide Publishing
Indie authors love Amazon because it pioneered self-publishing for e-books and enabled authors to make a living online but authors are also aware of their dependency. Monopolies are never good, and overly depending on one source of income is risky for authors. It creates a disempowering relationship that leaves the author with no choice but to do what that company wants in order to continue working with them.
The author who publishes exclusively with Amazon is no more independent than the author who licenses all rights exclusively to one publisher.
Aside from independence, there are many practical business reasons for choosing to be non-exclusive and to publish wide.
Discoverability—having your books available for readers to find—is key to building a long-term, sustainable career as an indie author. As we’ve seen, one of the greatest benefits of self-publishing is the possibility for a single author to reach customers all across the globe.
- While Amazon may be the biggest player in the US and the UK, there are other retail stores and devices that dominate in other English-speaking countries, and many other countries outside of the Anglo-American world where books in English are sold:
- In Germany, which many experts agree is the next big market for e-books, Amazon has 40% of the market. Apple Books and Tolino (an e-book reader and associated stores run by a group of German publishers) have the rest.
- At time of writing, Amazon is only active in 13 countries in the world and only 10 of those are eligible for Prime. Apple is in 52 countries, Google Play in 110. Kobo has expanded into more than 70 countries, and sales in Canada come mostly from Kobo for most of ALLi’s members. While new outlets will likely be added to the Amazon roster, in most of these big publishing territories around the world, Canada, Germany, China, for example, Amazon is far from the dominant player. US and UK centric authors over-estimate Amazon’s global dominance because it is the dominant player in those two territories. But 95% of the world, and some important publishing territories, don’t have Amazon dominance.
- The biggest book fair in the world take places in Cairo, Egypt. In 2019, it saw over four million visitors pass through its doors (160 times more than the London Book Fair and 13 times more than the Frankfurt Book Fair).
If you remain exclusive to Amazon, you’re closing yourself off from many sales channels and avenues for discoverability.
These nascent markets are growing faster than the UK and US markets, which are now mature. A number of ALLi authorpreneur members are now finding that their growth on vendors outside of Amazon is faster than their growth on Amazon. So an author who is Amazon exclusive is reducing their visibility and discoverability around the world—and in countries where it is far easier to find a foothold.
Even within the US and UK, the exclusive author is missing out. One of ALLi’s ten publishing principles is to be where your readers are and provide books in the format they like. Just as some readers prefer audio or print to ebooks, some are loyal to their Nook (Barnes & Noble), Kobo ereaders, or Apple device and the ease of their associated apps. They cannot read the Amazon-exclusive author in the way they want.
ALLi Recommendations for Publishing Wide
To avail of the best financial return on the widest possible distribution, ALLi recommends that, time permitting, you upload directly as follows:
- to the e-book Big Five—Amazon’s KDP, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Google Play, and Kobo Writing Life
- to the print book Big Two–Amazon KDPPrint and Ingram Spark
- to the audiobook Big Two–ACX and an aggregator like Findaway Voices
And then use one or more e-book aggregators to cover other distributors across the world.
If you use those five for your e-books, together with Amazon KDPP and IngramSpark for print, and ACX and Findaway Voices or similar for audio, you have covered the channels that account for 97% of e-book, p-book, and a-book sales around the world and maximised your potential income from them.
The benefits of uploading directly include faster payments, up-to-date sales figures (important for measuring the effectiveness of marketing), more direct control of metadata (particularly categories and keywords which are important for discoverability), and the ability to manipulate pricing quickly and easily (important for promotion).
And, of course, aggregators like PublishDrive, Smashwords, Draft2Digital and Streetlib take their payment on top of that which is paid to the publishing platforms.
“Time permitting” is a key condition for indie authors though. By directly uploading, authors maximize income but of course, it makes things more complex to manage. Each platform has different dashboards and requirements, so it can become quite time-consuming, if you have a lot of titles. As writers, especially if we have day jobs and other commitments, our writing time must be protected.
Some authors hire assistance for this administration task. A VA can handle uploads if given the metadata but the cost of that work has to be offset against any increased revenue from going direct. If you seek assistance for your distribution tasks, ensure that the dashboards remain in your author name and that the payments goes directly to your account, not that of any intermediary service or agent.
It's also important to note that not everyone can make the choice to go direct. Options vary widely around the world, with authors in the USA and UK being best served. There are other restrictions too eg. Apple famously requires self-publishers to use a Mac to upload. For all of these reasons, many find it makes more sense to use an ebook aggregator who can distribute to Amazon, Apple, Google on your behalf as well as put books in thousands of different online stores, libraries and subscription services.
There are many ebook aggregate distributors. Three that ALLi recommends are Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, and StreetLib
Every aggregator has its own merits and quirks. Draft2Digital is more US-centric, PublishDrive uses a subscription payment model, StreetLib has most global outlets, IngramSpark allows you to have ebooks and print under one roof. Whoever you choose, pick an aggregator that has a wide selection of outlets and that continues to explore new markets.
Even if you choose to go directly to Amazon and others, do use an aggregator distributor also. They will reach parts of the world you can’t reach any other way. Although at the moment, the smaller retailers around the world account for a negligible proportion of sales, they help to increase your visibility and take very little time to set up. They are also growing far more rapidly than the more mature North American, UK and Australia-New Zealand markets, so over time you will benefit.
“Publishing wide” is not just about distribution. There is no point in just offering a book on lots of different websites without a robust sales and marketing plan. Distribution alone, without marketing and promotion, will take few books anywhere.
The below is an adapted extract from Mark's new book Wide for the Win if you'd like to read a copy, you can order one here. Please note, that Mark favors the term “wide” referenced in capitals.
Tips for Authors at Different Stages
It’s never too early or never too late to start thinking WIDE. How’s that for being open and exclusive? In my world, it’s not just the Prodigal Son who wins the parental heart. So too, does the Loyal Daughter, and the Newborn Child. And let’s not forget the Adopted Older Child. A parent’s love isn’t finite. Love itself isn’t finite. The same goes for a reader’s love for consuming more and more books.
We live in a world where no single writer will ever be able to produce enough material for their most passionate readers. A world where those readers aren’t all in the US and UK. A world where digital and e-book publishing is still at the very beginning of a long journey into digital reading. (This is based on industry stats that show most book lovers have yet to adopt e-books into their reading diet).
So, it’s good for authors to remember that there are more readers in heaven and earth than are found along the shorelines of the world’s largest river. And on the shores of those other rivers, streams, lakes, and bodies of water sit readers, eager to soak in your words, stories, and unique insights.
Your specific introduction to WIDE is likely more complicated than the four segments outlined below. And, while I’m sure you can find helpful ideas and perspectives within each one of them regardless of where you sit, you might be approaching WIDE from one of the four areas: At the Start of Your Indie Writer journey; Coming out of a Tour of Duty in KDP Select; Returning to WIDE; and You’ve Been WIDE and You’re Not Selling.
At the Start of Your Indie Writer Journey
Common advice for beginning writers is to start with Amazon because there is so much to learn. The idea of having to try to understand five of the main retail platforms, not to mention dozens of other retail, library, and subscription models of digital reading, can be overwhelming.
From a logistical and perhaps even business standpoint, this makes sense. Amazon is, after all, the world’s largest bookstore. Why not start with the largest body of water that contains perhaps the biggest number of fish?
But that approach might not be the best for properly adopting a WIDE mindset. Because, if you first focus on Amazon, learning all there is to know about that platform, your mindset, and your approach, is going to be obfuscated with their preferences, with how things work on that platform.
And all of your understanding of other platforms will be tainted with the scent or echoes of Amazon. Even if you are starting off on Amazon because it’s the biggest pond but aren’t clicking the KDP Select check-box that will put you into a 90 day tour of duty with Amazon Kindle, it’s good to be aware that you are coloring your perspective in a Kindle-centric way.
It might make sense to consider one of two approaches.
Start with a different platform, or perhaps start with two platforms. Amazon (they are the largest, after all), and another one.
Let’s take the example of launching on a non-Amazon platform first.
I’ve known authors who have decided to launch either a book, or even a series, on a non-Amazon platform first, and then, after learning a little bit about publishing in general, moving to Amazon and other wider platforms. This allowed them to experience what a book launch is like, especially one in which pre-orders really do matter, and then apply those experiences to the other four major platforms for the launch and release there.
Consider a parallel to this approach from the indie music scene. If Amazon is the biggest platform for authors, launching and learning there first might be compared to launching your first performance at Royal Albert Music Hall in the UK, Sydney Opera House in Australia, or Radio City Music Hall in the USA. Indie musicians usually cut their chops at a local bar or tavern, and then work their way up to larger and larger venues. There might be a benefit in getting to learn and understand the retail and digital reading environments through other or smaller venues first. There might be less pressure; not to mention the opportunity to make a few mistakes on a stage in front of smaller audiences.
(Let’s also consider the 30 day “cliff” common to Amazon. Imagine having a five-book series already launched on one or more of the other WIDE platforms that took time to produce. Picture all you’d learned about launching WIDE and then introducing it to Amazon in the “rapid release” approach that can work well there? I’m not suggesting this as a strategy, merely exploring it as a potential option. Remember, most readers stick to the single platform they read on. It’s often discussed from the WIDE vs exclusive perspective, but it also can apply to benefit you when moving TO Amazon from the other retailers.)
While I’m not suggesting that Apple, Kobo, or Nook might be looking for their own versions of exclusivity, I have known each of those platforms, over the years, to be open to a “[insert platform name here] First” type program, where a pre-order is only available on that platform, or perhaps the e-book is available there for a limited time, even if it’s just 30, 60, or 90 days. These are sometimes done collaboratively with authors in exchange for promotional consideration. Again, I’m not suggesting that a first-time author consider that as a strategy, particularly because the platforms are likely looking for authors with an existing audience, or large reader following, and that this might be dependent upon an existing relationship with contacts at those platforms – I’m merely sharing it as an example of a trend I’ve spotted over time.
Something that might be more realistic, because it reduces your learning to two platforms from learning them all at the same time, is launching on Amazon and a second platform. The benefit is that you aren’t first conditioning yourself to always be thinking Amazon first and everything else second. Like growing up learning two languages in the familial home, you’re likely more adept at speaking and even thinking in both languages rather than first learning one, then having to uncomfortably shift your thoughts and re-learn a second language, while having to force yourself to unlearn the rules of the first language.
For example, if you’re a Canadian author, and you know that Kobo has a significant presence in Canada, you might consider learning Kindle and Kobo first. Then, once you’ve comfortable, introducing yourself to the other platforms is done in a way where your mind was already open from the beginning.
When setting up your book, let’s say you’re using Kindle Direct Publishing and Kobo Writing Life. Try to do so on both platforms simultaneously, in either two windows, browsers, or tabs, while toggling back and forth. Pay attention to the differences between the two platforms, the required fields, the optional fields, the steps.
- How they differ in terms of how on one you can use a What You See Is What You Get editor for entering your synopsis, while the other requires entering basic HTML code to get specific formatting.
- The way one of them allow entering keywords, while the other has no such field.
- How one allows for global territorial pricing in NZD, while the other doesn’t.
- The manner one provides the ability to set different EUR prices by country, while the other has a single universal EUR price for the entire continent.
- How one has a cap on 70% at $9.99 USD while the other offers 70% for any e-book priced $2.99 USD or higher.
- The scheduling of price changes and promotions in advance that one platform offers while the other only allows those changes to be done live.
Those, of course, are just in the setup of your titles. You will, in parallel, learn much more about each platform. You’ll learn the different customer bases, the countries where each retailer is prominent. The fact that one is driven by automated algorithms whereas the other relies more heavily on manual human curation.
Instead of assuming all things Amazon, you “grow up” learning that there are plenty of differences and perspectives.
Hopefully, you’ll also learn something that I’m continually shocked most long-term indie authors still don’t properly understand. The fact that the contract with all major retailers includes a clause that your retail pricing has to be the same on every single retail platform, and that you can’t have a lower price anywhere else. (The common mistake most authors make is they’re aware of this clause on KDP – and Amazon is the most aggressive when it comes to enforcing this price-matching – but they haven’t a clue that all the retailers have this same clause).
Coming out of a Tour of Duty in KDP Select
Some think I’m being cheeky when I refer to the 90-day cycle of exclusivity in KDP Select as a tour of duty. But I’m not. The term “tour of duty” is derived from when a military person commits 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on active duty to serving in combat or a hostile environment.
When you are exclusive to Kindle, you are committing to a dedicated service. You’re serving Amazon’s e-book platform and its customers. And you are sacrificing other things in order to do so. You are giving up freedom to publish e-books to other platforms, giving up all customers from other e-book platforms, and giving up on the ability to offer library sales.
I won’t even get into the parallels to shell-shock and PTSD I regularly see sketched onto the faces of authors leaving a KDP Select tour of duty. Let’s suffice it to say that, with very few exceptions – and this would mostly be authors who are already independently wealthy or perhaps already have multiple income streams – when authors leave exclusivity, it’s often with some sort of emotional scars, anxiety, even bruised egos, or perhaps the feeling of being rejected, betrayed or let down by something they gave a good part of themselves to. Also, they are returning to a world that is quite different from the hostile and cut-throat “pay to play” conditions they’ve become accustomed and conditioned to.
So, in many ways, it’s not easy to integrate into the environments of the broader global e-reading communities. And it might even be harder for you than for a beginning author. Because, as I mentioned in the “At the Start of your Indie Author Journey” section, your perspective has become tainted significantly in favor of Amazon.
Take keywords as an example. Amazon is the only platform that truly leverages keywords in a very specific way that is used to “game” Amazon’s retail store algorithms for placement in certain categories and maximizing ranking. The majority of other major retailers don’t even have a specific field to manually enter keywords in your metadata. And yet entire businesses have been built upon understanding and leveraging keywords for Amazon.
How, then, would you understand that Apple, Kobo, and Google mine other metadata fields and even the content of your ePub file, to derive a similar effect to what those seven fields entered in Kindle Direct Publishing can provide? It’s simple. You wouldn’t. Because you “grew up” learning Amazon.
I would advise that you start in the same way that authors are advised to start learning about e-book publishing. Pick at least one of the WIDE platforms and spend some time trying to learn and understand it. And not just the publishing side, but the consumer/reader/retail experience.
How much time do you spend looking at your book’s item page on Amazon and worrying about the category ranking? Do you spend even a quarter of that time looking at your book on other platforms? Do you even know if they have and display a ranking, or how it even works? Have you ever browsed, shopped, purchased, or read an e-book on any other platform? What is the customer experience like?
Stephen King said that if you want to be a writer you need to read a lot. I would argue that if you want to be a WIDE author you have to understand WIDE platforms a lot. If you begin to see how your book looks, how it shows up (or doesn’t) in search results on the other platforms, what internal and third party promotion tools work best for elevating your sales and ranking and discoverability on those other platforms, you’ll begin to properly cultivate your sales there.
One thing I can guarantee is that it won’t be fast. And it won’t be easy. Consider the term “cultivate” from the horticultural origin of the word. Plants prosper differently under specific conditions that are unique to each. They require careful attention, training, study, and time. Your books, and the platforms they grow in, are no different.
Oh, and one more thing that I think is important for you to be aware of. You might need to re-condition or re-approach your existing customer base. If you’ve been exclusive to Kindle and making good bank on Kindle Unlimited page reads, chances are you’ve conditioned a good portion of your reader base that your books are free. You might need to ensure they are aware that, when you are truly WIDE, your books will be available to millions of MORE readers and also now free to even more people through numerous library programs.
Returning to WIDE
While this realm is similar to one’s first introduction to WIDE, it also comes with its own challenges. The first is recognizing that, every time you delist your titles to go exclusive to Amazon Kindle for 90 days of multiple tours of duty in KDP Select, you are re-setting or wiping out the ranking and temperature of your books on the other platforms.
I liken it to falling off the wagon of sobriety. (And yes, if it’s not already blatantly obvious, I have a deep personal bias about exclusivity that seems to result in the use of negative anecdotes for describing KDP exclusivity, such as tour of duty or addiction). But let’s follow along. Every time you give in and take another drink, you give up the right to hold a sobriety chip and the counter goes back to zero. The same holds true when you delist from other platforms. The rank of your book goes back to zero. Any systematic benefits from being wide are gone.
Perhaps the only thing that is likely to still be there when you return would be the reviews. Because, if you publish using the same ISBN/edition of your book that was delisted, most of the WIDE retail systems retain a connection to a customer review. That is, at least, one saving grace.
But you might have lost the faith of your readers along the way. If you were, for example, releasing a series and then disappeared for those promises of the “greener pastures of the Kindle Unlimited fields” any readers who might have been avidly following you might have been put off and moved on to other easily available books and authors. You may have lost them. You may even have insulted them. You might be able to win them back. But in many cases, you’re often having to start from scratch with each re-entry.
It can take as long to return to success on the WIDE platforms as it took to first build up your sales there in the first place.
Just be aware that when you play the “in again and out again” game of Kindle exclusivity vs WIDE, you’re doing yourself no favors on those WIDE platforms. You might, in fact, be harming your reputation as a reliable and professional author with any of the people who work for or with those platforms. Think of the spouse whose partner has had an affair and cheated on them numerous times. How likely are they to ever fully trust that person again? If you think I’m being overly dramatic in that perspective, just remember, I spent several years at one of those retail platforms and had to play the doting and loving Betty who always took that fickle Archie back in no matter how many times he dumped me when the rich and privileged Veronica batted her pretty little eyes at him. I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling the side effects of that blatant rejection.
So, when a promotional opportunity comes up, just remember if you might be seen as the spouse with a history of “stepping out of the relationship” or the reliable constant one whose faith and commitment has never waivered.
You’ve been WIDE and you’re not selling
If you haven’t already guessed, I like drawing parallels to other life experiences. This one reminds me of what can happen in a long-term personal relationship. At the beginning, everything was new and fresh and exciting. As you were getting to learn about one another, there was a unique high in each new experience. There was hope for a bright future; the romance was strong.
Then, as the newness and thrill of discovery gave way to normalized and systemized patterns, the luster and shine faded, and you found yourself in a comfortable routine of taking that partner for granted. You already know, or think you already know, everything about that partner. There’s no newness, no freshness, no dramatic fanfare.
But here’s the reality. People are always evolving. Always changing, learning, and growing. We notice it in friends we haven’t seen for years, but rarely notice it in those closest to us. Because the change, the growth, the differences, are subtle, and are things we don’t often consciously perceive. So it’s important to pause and step back and take a fresh look at this long-term acquaintance. Give them the respect and attention you would give to a new prospect.
In a relationship situation you might ask yourself things like this:
- When was the last time you actually looked at your partner?
- When was the last time you asked them how they felt about something rather than assuming you already know their feelings about it?
- When was the last time you tried to do something new with them or explored new opportunities you could do together?
- When was the last time you attempted to seduce or woo them, like you did back in the early days of your relationship?
- When was the last time you purposefully let them know they were a priority?
I’m sure you see the parallels I’m getting at here. Are you taking this platform you’ve had a long-term relationship with for granted? When was the last time you bought it flowers or cooked it their favorite meal, or spent time crafting something unique, by hand, because you knew they would appreciate it? When was the last time you prioritized spending quality time together?
When was the last time you focused on listening to them, observing them, watching how they performed in their element? Recognized their strengths and unique talents and abilities? Do you even know what those things are? Have they developed or grown new ones?
Talk to them. Listen to them. Pay attention to them. Be willing to re-learn, re-appreciate, and re-cultivate things with them.
Or, if you can’t draw your own parallels, here are some ideas:
- Where are they speaking, sharing, or communicating with authors? And are you actually there and attending to what they say?
- Is there an opportunity to network, connect, and interact with them in any way? Relationships are far more critical on most of the WIDE platforms than they are on Amazon’s algorithm-centric platform.
- What other authors have had success on the same platform? What are they doing? How are they doing it? Are there any similarities between their books and what you write?
- Reach out. Talk to them. Ask for feedback. Engage with them.
- Offer them something. Is there something that would be valuable to them that you can assist with? A blog, podcast, other content that they would find helpful for their authors or readers?
- Speaking of readers, are there tools you can leverage to offer something for their readers? Do they have their own unique eReader that can be offered up to your own mailing list/reader base? (Most authors think about offering an offer of a free Kindle as a prize? But that’s so specific to one retailer prominent in the US and the UK? What about the rest of the world? What about readers on other platforms?)
The whole idea is not to take the WIDE platforms for granted. Treat them the way you might treat a budding new relationship. Attend to them the way you would attend to a new friend, a new romantic interest. Yes, it takes effort, and it takes time. And chances are that you’ll have to focus on one at a time, because each of the platforms is unique in their approach. But you’ll likely find that if you attend to what’s special, unique, and important about each of the platforms, you’ll find an approach that can work to strengthen your own presence with their customers.
Don't forget you can get a ton of tips, tricks, methods and tactics from Mark Lefebvre's new book: Wide for the Win. Grab your copy today.
ALLi members can download guides to publishing directly on Kobo, Apple, KDP and more in the member dashboard. Log in to allianceindependentauthors.org with your member password and navigate to –> APPROVED SERVICES –> SERVICE GUIDES