You may hear a lot of “big self-publishers” talk about direct sales. What are they? How are they different from selling on Amazon or the other big book retailers?
ACTUALLY, TECHNICALLY, there is very little difference between selling direct and selling on Amazon.
From your end, you are ALWAYS uploading content to a sale site, and they are ALWAYS handling the financial transaction, and they are ALWAYS passing the money on to you. Those elements are identical whether you sell through Amazon or a direct sale site like Gumroad (my personal choice for direct sales).
The differences between “Ebook Retailers” and “Direct Sale Sites” are in EXPOSURE, TRANSPARENCY and INDEPENDENCE.
Amazon offers benefits in terms of EXPOSURE. When your book sells a number of copies, Amazon will start to promote it in relation to other books. If 10,000 people have downloaded your book that have ALSO BOUGHT The Great Gatsby, then on the Gatsby sales page, Amazon will put a little link saying, “Customers who bought Gatsby also bought: [YOUR BOOK].”
We call these links “also boughts.”
Want to see how they work? Check out this fantastic link to a new tool I’ve discovered thanks to indie author Scott Richards (buy that guy’s books, by the way, they’re awesome).
It shows all the books that are related to my book. It shows books that appear as also boughts on MY page, and then books upon whose pages MY book shows up as an also bought.
With also boughts, and with a high sales rank and numerous excellent reviews, you can expect your book to do quite well on Amazon.
Many people elect to go whole hog on this strategy. They concentrate ONLY on pushing sales to Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. They may even keep their book off of other platforms for fear of cannibalizing their Amazon sales.
Many people have done well with this strategy. There is nothing wrong with it.
What if Amazon changes its policies in a year? Or five? Or ten? Authors more concerned over their CAREER than one year’s book sales often keep this possibility in mind.
And so we (for I am very much one of these authors) publish our books to MANY platforms. In fact, I sell more books on Kobo than I do on Amazon. If I were to concentrate only on Amazon, I would be neglecting about 55% of my audience.
What if Amazon were to close your account for some infraction, real or imagined? It has happened before. It is not likely, but it is possible.
And finally, what if Amazon were to go bankrupt? “Impossible,” you might say, but they said the same about Borders. And Tower Records. Everyone is too big to fail — until they aren’t.
I posit to you that in any of these cases of suddenly “losing Amazon,” the GREATEST blow to your career is not the loss of a marketplace. The greatest blow to your career is the loss of your CUSTOMERS.
What does this mean?
We come to the second difference in direct sales: TRANSPARENCY. When I sell a book directly through Gumroad, I get my customer’s email address. And if I am selling a series directly, I can see exactly WHO drops off at any point in the series. This lets me evaluate what I’m doing wrong. And if Gumroad.com were to suddenly go under, I would still have those emails. I would still have a way to reach out to my customers who have ALREADY SHOWN that they want to keep reading my books.
You know how, once you buy anything off of Amazon, they will contact you again and try to get you to buy something else? Well, direct sales let you do this on your own, eliminating Amazon from the equation.
There is the third aspect, as well: INDEPENDENCE.
You’re probably aware of Amazon’s price structure, but if you’re not, let’s review: sell a book from $0.99 – $2.98, you get 35% of each sale. Sell a book from $2.99 – $9.99, you get $70 of each sale. Sell a book from $10.00 and up, you get 35% of each sale again.
Amazon wants you to sell books in the $2.99 – $9.99 price range, and they will penalize your earnings if you don’t. This is based on their market research. This is based on their hosting and delivery overhead. And this is based on what they think will sell the most books and make their customers the happiest. And that’s fine.
But what if it’s not what YOU want?
You all have probably seen that I now write a weekly serialized fantasy series called ‘Nightblade.’ Each episode publishes Friday at noon and is 10,000 words long.
At 10,000 words, it’s ridiculous to charge $2.99 for it — I’m pricing myself out of viability within my genre, and besides, readers aren’t going to want to pay three bucks EVERY week just to read my story! $0.99 is clearly the right price point. But if I charge that much, Amazon will penalize me by only giving me 35% of my sales.
In the past, here’s what self-published authors would have done (and what I myself did):
- Publish the episodes week to week at $0.99
- As soon as the last episode was published, publish a “volume” of episodes with the package price of $0.99 an episode, and then increase the price of the episodes to $1.99 or $2.99.
By raising the prices on the episodes, you encouraged people to go buy the volume instead. But then, why still HAVE the episodes? Why were they there? All they could do was accidentally attract customers, who would pay too much, and if they ever found out there was a “volume deal” out there, would likely be pissed off at YOU for overcharging on your episodes.
So most self-publishers simply removed their episodes after a time being. They’d leave the first episode up as lead gen, often permanently free, to get new readers. And the link in the back of the book would say, “Hey, did you like this? Go buy the WHOLE VOLUME for only $4.99!”
It worked, after a fashion. But at that point, you’re not really serializing fiction any more. In TV terms, you’re only publishing DVD boxed sets and then publishing the pilot episode for free. The reading experience is fundamentally changed.
It really sucked.
But now, I have direct sales.
I can publish episodes of ‘Nightblade’ for $0.99 a week, and Gumroad.com only charges me 5% plus a $0.25 transaction fee. That works out to 70% on a $0.99 purchase (Amazon’s HIGHEST royalty rate).
But that’s not all. I can STILL publish volumes, at a slightly lower price (removing a buck or two), and then I get about 90% of each sale. Whoo-hoo!
AND, if I want to (which I do [and I have]) I can set up a subscription model. Customers can SUBSCRIBE to the ‘Nightblade’ series for only $2.99 a month. They save money (it would cost them $4.00 or $5.00 a month to buy the episodes) and I have a locked-in customer who never forgets to buy the next episode. Sure, I lose a little bit of money from episode sales, but that’s fine, because my customers are subscribed and therefore more interested in really reading my work.
It’s like HBO. They could make a lot more if they charged you a tiny amount for every show you watched. But it’s a better model to just give you EVERYTHING for a monthly subscription. It’s like Newton’s laws: once the customer starts subscribing, they’re unlikely to stop unless acted upon by an outside force.
And all of this I describe, all the things I’m doing with ‘Nightblade,’ would NEVER have been possible with Amazon (or any other ebook retailer). They simply don’t make these tools available to us. And they view our readers as THEIR customers, not ours.
So this is what we mean when we say INDEPENDENCE.
“Well, why doesn’t everyone do direct sales, and screw Amazon, then?” you may or may not ask.
And it’s a fair question.
The honest answer is that Amazon DOES help new authors — helps them tremendously, in fact. Because when you’re just starting out, your chances of getting anywhere with direct sales are next to nil.
I self-published for six months before I even tried direct sales. Then I only did direct sales of my paperbacks.
Only a month ago (a year and a half into my writing career) did I embark upon direct sales of ebooks. True, I didn’t know of any workable tools for it up until that time. But truthfully, I probably wasn’t ready for direct sales until this time, either.
Amazon is a little bit of an “easy button.”
“Write good things,” they say. “Get good reviews. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“But sir,” you say, peering at them with doe-like eyes from beneath your Oliver Twist hat, “who are these people buying my books? How can I reach out to them?”
“Oh, those are OUR customers, child,” says Amazon. “We’re GIVING them to you. Enjoy them. Enjoy their money, too.”
And you do. But soon you realize that, if you moved your platform off of Amazon, quite a few of those people would come with you. And you’d be getting a lot MORE per sale. And you’d know who they were.
And finally, it becomes a viable option.
My books are still on Amazon, and probably always will be as long as Amazon exists. Thousands of people have downloaded ‘Nightblade: Episode One’ for free off of Amazon. I don’t offer free direct downloads of Episode One. Why would I? A larger percentage of a free book sale is still zero.
So people download the first episode for free. And then many of them go buy Episode Two from me directly.
Some still go and buy it off of Amazon. That’s fine. They really ARE Amazon’s customers, not mine. (That number, by the way, is actually quite low. I sell more books directly now than I do on Amazon).
But either way is honestly fine. Because people are reading, either way. And every time they buy a new episode off of Amazon, they become more and more MY reader and less and less AMAZON’S customer.
So find your own balance. Make sure you’re ready to make it on your own before you try. And never put all your eggs in one basket. You still only have to export ONE ebook, write ONE book blurb. Publishing to Amazon and publishing for direct sale only takes an extra couple of minutes.
But realize that at some point, you’ve got to take as much control over your own career as possible. Plan for it so that it doesn’t ruin a good thing. But plan for it.
Do it and you’ll win.