Should Authors Publish Wide or be Exclusive to Amazon?

If you want to sell books, then it’s not enough to just be good at writing anymore. In fact, being good at writing doesn’t really mean shit, (something I hate, but I can’t argue with the truth).

I watched a Chandler Bolt from Self Publishing School tutorial and he recounted a quote, from (I forget who), some big named best-selling author who was talking to a newbie about to publish.

This young author asked how the best selling author did it, how he sold so many books. To her disgust, he said it wasn’t about writing good books. He freely admitted he wasn’t the ‘best writer’ in the world. His accolades didn’t say “Best Quality Writer” or “Most Like Shakespeare” oh, no. His accolade said “Best-Selling Mofo” the only thing he (and subsequently the newbie writer) needed to be good at was selling.

I’ve talked about Author Earnings before, it’s a report on the whole book industry from Data Guy and Hugh Howie, something that I like to ponder on regularly. If you’re taking book selling seriously, then I think studying the industry is important. You don’t want to establish yourself as a writer and then get side slammed because one of your platforms for selling books closes. I look to the future a lot, and I talked about the debate between the indie and traditional publishing routes back in September, but today I am pondering the latest Author Earnings report, and what it might mean for us writers.

You can find the latest Author Earnings: Big, Bad and Wild International Report here. (note: this is the report I refer to throughout although I shorten to just Author Earnings report)

In Data Guy and Howie’s latest report they show the total annual ebook sales by country.

Image credit: Data Guy and Hugh Howie – Author Earnings Report Feb 2017

Not a great surprise that the US is in the top spot for annual ebook unit sales. But what does that actually mean for us as writers?

It means that as a UK writer (or even if you’re US), I have to decide where I’d rather target. I could target the UK, write with UK-isms and ignore the American preferences, but is that really sensible given the size of their publishing-pie? And if you analyse your blog stats what do they tell you about where your audience is? 50.5% of all my views come from America. While that might not make my fiction audience American, it certainly says something about my non-fiction.

But, Amazon is only King in America and the UK, if you look at the Author Earnings next table, it shows that for Canada and Australia, Apple books has a substantial chunk of the market.

This comes back to the age ol’ question of whether you go wide across publishing platforms, or stay exclusive to Amazon. It’s a tricky question. Stay exclusive to the rainforest beast and you see significant benefits of Amazon’s added advertising favouritism for it’s exclusive authors and that makes a big difference to sales. But the downside is that you’re at the peril of their whimsical decisions, as they chop and change amount you earn from page reads and affiliate commission. I’m not bashing Amazon, I love them. But they, like all the other conglomerate beasts are just that – a corporate giant that could buy presidents if they wanted… So if they decide to screw indies, we are all fucked, but especially those writers who are exclusive.

Image Credit: Data Guy and Hugh Howie, Author Earnings Report Feb 2017

There was a wobble in the market last year as indie sales took a turn for the worse when it came to percentage of market share (which may or may not have been linked to less reading in election years and Amazon’s own imprint growth). While I’m no analytics expert, I can read a table. From the looks of Data Guy’s report, the market seems to have settled. The light blue bars at the top are largely uncategorized indies, who say, publish under their own imprint.

When you take that into account, indies hold anything from 30-40% of the market share, and we’re still gaining ground and still squeezing the trad publishing share. And actually, as you read through the report, Data Guy even says:

*As a side note, in comparing these new US retailer market-share breakdowns to our data from October 2015, indie market share has grown a little since then at Apple, Kobo, and Amazon (even after Amazon’s sharp 2016 May-Oct indie drop). At B&N, However, indie share has actually contracted (leaving indies there with a reduced slice of the now much-smaller B&N pie).” Data Guy Author Earnings Report: Big, Bad and Wild International Report Feb 2017

And on that note, Data Guy discusses this very question – Wide or Exclusive?

While the total payout to authors who are exclusive to Amazon is over three times the size of payouts to those who are wide, half of that payout is from KU, NOT actual retail sales, and the thought of that makes me sad because I want to sell books not pages.

There are a few things to consider being exclusive, like the impact of the downturn last October when Indie sales on amazon dropped by nearly 10%. If your entire salary is from Amazon then a drop of 10% is never good.

And what of the impact elsewhere? If your indie and exclusive, you limit your ability to get Bookbubs, as well as your ability to market in other countries – Canada and Australia are smaller pies yes, but still not insignificant, and if you aren’t selling your books on the platform half of the country reads on, you’re only limiting your sales potential.

BUT, we can’t ignore exclusivity because as Data Guy says:

“KindleUnlimited has grown into a Top-3 ebook retail channel in its own right; KU is now paying indie authors twice as many dollars as Barnes&Noble’s Nook is paying to all publishers combined.” Data Guy Author Earnings Report: Big, Bad and Wild International Report Feb 2017

Does this answer the question as to whether you should go wide or stay exclusive? Umm, no.

I think I’ll try a combo, some titles wide, some exclusive and tailor that to what I think will do best for each of those strategies. At the end of the day, we can only learn through trial and error. But it’s a difficult decision and one I still don’t have the sodding answer to.

Are you exclusive? Or are you wide? and what’s the reasoning behind your decision? Let me know in the comments below.

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52 comments

  1. Wow, that’s interesting! I published one poem book over Kindle Direct Publishing (because I was curious to check it out). Then I published my quote book from last year over create space and Kindle Direct Publishing. The reasons were that I don’t need to spend money and that kind of books is easier done by myself. I always prefer to have at least a print version. (As I said, the poem book was a result of my curiousity.) But the I’m Free books and all other self-development books I would only give a professional publisher with a wide net of marketing possibilities and also that the book is really made professional!

    1. Well I agree about books needing to be professional but I think there are plenty of services around now and with enough investment anyone can create professional finished books. but it’s great to know that you’ve tried both options, I like you, will probably try both at some point just to see.

      1. I have to admit that I also would prefer a professional publisher at least regarding the language. Another professonal pair of eyes to look over it! That’s for sure one big reason for me which is not important to many of those whose first language is English but also the network the professionals can offer is a great thing…. but it costs money… so, it is a compromise!

  2. I’ve only ever published through Amazon and the reason is KU. When I’ve run a free promotion, with one exception I’ve more than made my money back through KU pages read, with the boost to sales from my other books and increased sales of my first book post promotion being pure profit (not that profit was the point of these promotions, it’s all about visibility, but not losing money helps).
    If I went wide, I would have access to a new audience but I’m not sure it would replace my KU income. That said, I’m only one voice. I know of other authors who sell well across a broad platform.
    The best thing advice I’ve been given is to try different approaches and see what works for your book and your audience.

    1. That’s really interesting, not everyone says that to me (about pages read) there seems to be a real mix of experiences, which makes it super hard to know what the answer is, and of course there isn’t a right answer! ANNOYINGLY.

  3. I commend your discern, Sacha. There are authors (and I know many of them) who don’t even ask the question: they just go exclusive with Amazon because 1. everybody does it and 2. they pay a lot.

    But there is another question we should ask ourselves: do we really want to give Amazon all this power over us?
    If we only follow the money, more and more authors will go exclusive with Amazon (besides, Amazon is working hard because it will become ever more difficult for an author to say no to exclusivity). Just a reminder: going exclusive means not working with anyone else.
    Potentially, this means there may come a day where we won’t need to decide whether to go with Amazon or not: there won’t be any other possibility.
    Do we really want Amazon to have this kind of power over us?

    1. I’m so sorry it took me forever to reply, I have been absolutely snowed under. Anyhoo, lol, thank you. I completely agree – one of the things I hate about being ’employed’ is that I am completely beholden to the organization and I don’t want to be. If I am ever lucky enough to write full-time I don’t want to be beholden to amazon in the same way.

  4. I am wide, but I don’t sell much anywhere, although recently I’m selling as much (or as little) in other places as I am in Amazon. I publish my books in English and Spanish (I also do translations, in case anybody is interested), and there are bigger markets in Spanish that of course, that report doesn’t even look at, for instance. I have some of my books (the first ones on both series) available free, and the amount of downloads I get in Spanish from a place like Mexico (that although now has a dedicated store in Amazon, it seems to sell more in other places) in other sellers not covered at all is much higher. (Check Street Lib for an example of an aggregator that distributes to much newer markets https://www.streetlib.com/home). The US market is highly competitive and perhaps there’s something to be said for getting into developing markets early and getting the proverbial foot in the door. But, who knows… (My contention is that doing what everybody else does, unless you can do it much better, is unlikely to get impressive results).

    1. That’s really interesting about Mexico, I’ve seen a few authors report that their English language books are selling well in countries that aren’t typically English speaking – there’s a growing market in China and India I believe.

  5. Very interesting Sacha.. I have never been Amazon exclusive and the key for me has been being on Smashwords Premium catalog which means books are available at Barnes & Noble, Apple ibooks and others etc.

    Premium Catalog (Reaches Global Retailers and Libraries): Once your book is accepted into the Premium Catalog, we automatically distribute it to major online retailers. Notable retailers in the Smashwords distribution network include Apple (operates iBooks stores in 51 countries), Barnes & Noble (US and UK), Scribd, Oyster, Kobo, Yuzu, Blio and Inktera (formerly Page Foundry). Our industry-leading library distribution reaches OverDrive (world’s largest library ebook platform serving 20,000+ libraries), Baker & Taylor Axis 360, Tolino, Gardners (Askews & Holts and Browns Books for Students), and Odilo (2,100 public libraries in North America, South America and Europe).

    Source https://www.smashwords.com/distribution

    I also have my own selling website that allows me to discount my books, particularly the ebooks and still make more that I get from Amazon.

    1. Now that is fascinating, I am going to hop over and have a look at the article you sent. Sorry I am so behind with comments – you may have seen I decided to take a blog break so I can catch up, I am just so behind and I want to get my books out, so trying to finish up everything on here so I can switch off. But this is super interesting, I am going to geek out over smash words now! Thanks for the link xx

  6. I have nearly all of my books on as many platforms as possible. Mainly because I don’t like being slave to Amazon’s algorithms. Only my Westerns are exclusive, because that’s how my publisher does things. But I make next to no money from page views etc., so I’m still skeptical about KU.

    1. I hear so many mixed reviews about KU that frankly I have no idea what to make of it. I think I’ll have to write something just for it so I can see what happens.

  7. Mind. Boggled. I’m exclusive to Amazon but have been debating this a lot lately. My non-fiction sells much more than my fiction so I’ve toyed with the idea of going wide for one genre only to see if it makes a difference.

    1. Now that’s fascinating because I assumed that non fiction wouldn’t do as well on KU because it’s prolific fiction readers. Will have to do more research me thinks

  8. I’m wide. I tried the exclusive thing. All that happened was I gave away a shedload of free books and got nothing in return. I don’t believe in exclusive. Or free. At least, I want to be in control if I decide to do free stuff. Not be controlled by Amazon’s rules. I think your idea is right… experiment and find out what works best for you. Sadly, there’s no secret formula to success, no ‘one size fits all’. Besides, call me old fashioned, but I like to sell books, not pages. No author makes money by the page. If the reader chooses not to finish a book, that’s their decision, the author shouldn’t be penalised for that.

    1. Yes I completely agree I want to be in control of whether I give away a ton of stuff or if I charge the earth. I don’t much like the idea of being paid by page either feels wrong to me

      1. Yeah. Do artists get paid by the brush stroke? Musicians by the number of notes they play? Why should we be paid by the page? If they want to do that, lets publish by the page, not the book. No. In all other spheres of work, people get paid for the total sum of the work they produce. Or they get paid by the hour… I’m all up for that! If writers got paid by the hour, we’d all be raking it in. Even being paid by the number of words written would be fairer, like when you get paid for an article submitted to a journal or newspaper, you’re often paid a rate per 100 words, for example. But to pay us according to how many pages a reader reads??? Ridiculous. Just no.

        1. lol, did you enjoy your rant here?! :p I agree wholeheartedly, but I also think the free book tactic to entice readers is good too, and I know that’s different to being paid by pages read, but I think if you have a few books then giving the first away for free if (and only if) it results in subscribers who then buy more is a good thing. I know in reality it doesn’t always work like that, but when it does bingo!

  9. I went Amazon exclusive within the first year of publishing. Although, now I have my first book perma-Free and on Smashwords. The reason I went exclusive is because I wasn’t getting any traffic on the other sites. I promoted just as hard, but the only ‘sales’ I got was during free periods. The worst was when a bunch of people proudly told me that they downloaded the sample from Smashwords. Amazon was showing all of the exclusive toys and benefits at this time, so I figured I had nothing to lose. Didn’t seem like anybody outside of Kindle was interested. Of course, I had a few Nook and Kobo requests AFTER I did the switch, which shouldn’t have surprised me.

    1. How long ago was that though? The thing is with all these things we try, is that the market is changing so freaking fast, it;s almost impossible to keep up. I know a few people that are now trying facebook ads in the style they first had success with 4 years ago and its working again despite not having worked for the last 3!!

      1. That was 2013 and I didn’t go free with the first book until last summer. I’ve heard Facebook randomly became viable again, which is strange. Never had any luck there though. I’ve noticed that once something works, everyone flocks to it and then you get saturation. So it loses its luster fairly quickly.

  10. Excellent research and assimilation of what it reveals. This is exactly what writers who want to publish should be doing. Research your industry, genre and sales potential. Know who your target audience is. Then set up a plan of tactics. Measure the results, look at the research again, repeat or commit new tactics. That’s the ongoing cycle of marketing in a nutshell. Great post!

  11. I’m exclusive, Sacha. A big part of it is that I’m lazy and Amazon makes the whole process easy, including marketing (and you know how fun marketing is). I’m sticking with it until there is a really good reason not to. 🙂

    1. Well I don’t have the answer, but I sure am looking for it. So I am happy to learn from any and all. I like the sound of easy! But I also like the sound of not being beholden to one company *scratches beard* hmmmm

  12. I don’t have to make this decision yet, but if my book were to come out tomorrow I think I would go KU for one 90-day period to take advantage of the extra promotion that goes with this and hopefully get some traction, and then go wide because hanging everything on one company doesn’t seem like a sound long term business strategy (especially when Amazon incessantly changes the rules), and because I want everyone who wants to be able to buy my book to be able to do so.

    1. Yeah I have to say, I’ve considered doing that too. Trying it for 90 days to see what happens. It’s hard to gauge though as the peak of sales is usually 90 days then it drops into oblivion so it may. It be 100% reliable after one 90 day period. But anyways, I love an experiment and I like you want to try and see.

  13. I’m with Diana. I’m exclusive. I’ve thought about diversifying a few times after reading several opinions and takes from others. I believe Nicholas Rossis is in our camp too after numerous studies. From my findings, there aren’t many reviews to be had on other sites, and reviews do help sell books, and the giant has that going for them. Contrary to what some say, giving away free books a few times a year builds readership for our other books and garners reviews, and reviews are where the gold sits. That’s my two cents. <3 🙂

    1. Hmmm. Yes, I think that’s true too. Most reviews do come from Amazon or Goodreads. But perhaps that then means that reviews aren’t the main driver for sales on the other sites? I heard that Kobo prefers books that have been on their system for over 9 months, so I wonder if that then means that unless you’ve been on there a while you’re never going to sell books? It might be like Amazon’s favouritism to those in KU. I’m with you on the free books – although I have some views and ideas about what I am going to do for me. But I think it’s a great tactic to grow you’re audience -it’s just a pain when you only have one book!

      1. True, it’s harder with one book. But I understand you have that all planned out, coming out with a few books consecutively is really a good plan so the reader who enjoys has something to fall back on without having to wait another year. 🙂

  14. I was exclusive, then went wide (for 6 months) but have now gone back to exclusive after reviewing my sales data. Amazon is better for me – at the moment. I struggled to get any traction on the other platforms but definitely open to going wide in the future.

    1. I know a few people that have flip-flopped between the two. I think it’s the only way to do it – experiment, however, I also know it’s way harder gaining traction if you’re not exclusive, so I guess it might take longer to get that traction.

  15. I totally can see why you are taking some time off if you are blogging with this level of detail. Very eye opening. I’m beginning to consider going back wide again as well once I have these pesky WIPs done.

    1. Major overwhelm. Sigh. But thank you <3 means a lot. I think I'll end up experimenting - although the pain of having to be in Kobo and the likes for so long before you see the return is painful. But short term pain for long term gain?

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