The word is out. The biggest monopoly in the history of the book business is buying the biggest independent book review website. Most of what I’m reading about Amazon’s pending purchase of Goodreads is positive, but personally, it sends chills down my spine — and not in a good way.
If a big retailer like Barnes & Noble bought an independent objective review site like Goodreads, that would be bad. If a big publisher like Penguin bought an independent objective review site like Goodreads, that would be bad. Well, Amazon is both a big retailer and a big publisher.
Amazon’s recent lawsuit against book publishers and Apple allows Amazon to continue to set prices in the eBook industry, which takes money right out of the pockets of authors who have the chutzpah to have their books published by someone other than Amazon. They have purchased a number of small publishers and opened their own publishing imprint, so they are in direct competition with the publishers whose books they sell. And by purchasing Goodreads, they are taking control of the most influential independent book review site.
I was slow to get involved with Goodreads in the beginning. I rated and reviewed a few books, but didn’t really spend much time there. Then I discovered that the site was a great way to interact with my readers. All but one of my books was already listed there, and adding that remaining book was an easy process. Their author pages are easy to customize and easy to integrate with your blog.
Overall, I love the fact that Goodreads is independent, with no single publishing company telling them what to do. A book from Penguin and a book from a tiny regional publisher get exactly the same placement and the same amount of attention. No publisher controls the site. But we are losing that. Amazon is a publisher. A huge publisher. And when they purchase Goodreads, the site will lose its publisher-agnosticism, becoming another shill for a a company that isn’t lacking for shills.
One of my favorite features is that individual users can set the book buying links to include the vendors of their choice. If I want to buy from Barnes & Noble but not from Amazon, I check and uncheck the appropriate boxes and the links on every page change accordingly. I wonder how long that option will last when they become yet another subsidiary of Amazon.com? Farewell, objectivity.
The publishing world is a hard one for independent bookstores in the age of Amazon. It’s also a hard place for authors who have chosen traditional publishing. It’s about to get harder.
In 2003, I created a booklet based on a pamphlet written by Fay Kuhlman. Entitled The Darkest Hour: A Comprehensive Account of the Smith Mine Disaster of 1943, it sold pretty well both at my bookstore and at the Carbon County (Montana) Historical Society. When 2010 rolled around, it seemed like time to update the book a bit, so I went to work on building a 3rd edition.
I had monkeyed around with eBooks back in the 90s, but that was well before their time. Delivery mechanisms were limited, there was no copy protection, and few devices that would qualify as readers. I decided this would be a fine time to see what’s involved in becoming a Kindle author and an iPad author.
I must confess that I went into the experiment with a bias. I’m not your typical Apple fanboy, in that I definitely recognize the flaws in Apple’s products and I use a wide variety of competing products. I have, however, done consulting for Apple, owned many of their different products, and currently use an iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, AppleTV, and more.
On the flipside, I own a bookstore. That means I deeply resent some of the things Amazon has done to the book business. That hasn’t stopped me from selling used books on their site and promoting my own books there, but I’m certainly not an Amazon fan.
Nonetheless, I resolved to do both at the same time and compare the processes with as little bias as possible.
I began the process by applying to be a publisher on Kindle Direct and on Apple’s iTunes Store. I filled in the forms, submitted them, and set out reading whatever information was available on preferred formats. The Kindle application went through fast. I was up and ready to publish in a day. The Apple application took well over a week, and I couldn’t find any way to speed things up. It was far more complex and the agreement far more restrictive than Amazons. This is definitely Advantage: Amazon.
As for file formats, Amazon uses a format called MOBI. You can use color in your cover image, but the inside of the book is black & white. Amazon didn’t have any tools of their own for doing the conversion, but recommended a product called Calibre. Once I stripped out tables, removed all color, and generally took the book back to text-only format, I could reformat the illustrations, build a table of contents, add in the cover art, and convert it using Calibre. It took several iterations, but I finally got what I wanted.
Apple, on the other hand, uses the open ePub format. Since Calibre does ePub, I did a quick reformat of what I’d done for MOBI, swapped the color pictures back in, and did the conversion on Calibre. Looked smooth and easy, but wouldn’t upload. I wrestled with it through several iterations, and finally resorted to reading the help files on Apple’s website. As it turns out, they specifically tell authors to avoid Calibre, as it creates incorrectly-formatted ePub files. Argh! However, the “Pages” word processor on the Macintosh outputs beautifully-formatted ePub, and everything went smoothly from there.
Since I don’t own a Kindle, I had to download a “Kindle Preview” app from Amazon to see how the book would look. On Apple, I simply dragged it to iTunes and synced the iPad. In both cases, I saw what I expected.
Given the formatting capabilities, availability of color, and openness of the format, I’d have to call this Advantage: Apple.
Making the books available for sale
Once your contracts are in place, uploading books is easy with both companies. Again, Amazon’s is faster, but that wasn’t a big deal. Setting prices and royalties was similar. Amazon made the book available in the U.S., U.K., and Germany. Apple gave me all three of those, plus Australia, Canada, and France. One rather significant difference is that Apple requires an ISBN for each eBook. I bought a block of ISBNs when I self published a couple of books years ago, so that wasn’t an issue for me. If you’re a first-time self-publisher, however, that could be a problem. Amazon, on the other hand, makes up a code themselves (they call it an ASIN rather than an ISBN), and you’re ready to go.
You can see what the book looks like in Amazon’s store and Apple’s store and compare for yourself. The Apple iBookstore looks quite different in a web browser than it looks on an iPad, but you’ll get the idea.
Both companies offer online sales and royalty reports and trend charts, and both make it easy to remove or update your book. It’s a close race here, but not requiring an ISBN probably makes this Advantage: Amazon.
The bottom line: Sales
The Darkest Hour, 3rd edition went on sale through both venues in March. Aside from a quick announcement on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve done no promotion whatsoever. It’s a highly-specialized booklet about a mine explosion that took place over 65 years ago. How has it done? According to the royalty reports, 25 copies on Kindle and 1 copy on iPad.
I’ll probably come back and update this after doing some promotion and giving it more time, but for the moment I have to declare Kindle the winner from the author’s perspective. I still like my iPad much better for many reasons, but as I release eBooks, I know where I’m putting my priority for first release!