Releasing the electronic edition is one of those things that in an ideal world would be straightforward, but in the real world is often angled backwards. I decided from the beginning that I was going to release my electronic editions directly to all the major vendors—Amazon (Kindle), Apple (iBooks), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Kobo, and Google (Play)—rather than going through an aggregator. There were three reasons for that decision:
I am using an aggregator—two, actually—but I’m using them only for submitting to stores that I can’t submit content to directly, such as library sales channels, overseas stores, and so on.
In this article—the third in my series of articles on publishing the hard way—I talk about some of the fun problems I encountered while submitting content to those various stores and aggregators, from KDP’s preview showing white boxes where my letters should be to Barnes & Noble providing no way to submit content ahead of the release date. (Stay tuned for articles on other publishing subjects, including affiliate programs and print publishing. And if you missed the first parts, be sure to read Part I: Writing Over the Long Haul—What Went Right And What Went Wrong.)
The first vendor I approached was Apple. I applied for a book account, and heard nothing. Fortunately, this was a long time ago, and I wasn’t in a hurry. The better part of a year later, I wrote to their publisher services email address and asked what the status was. Apparently, my acceptance letter got lost, and without the ability to click the activation link, my account was in a sort of perpetual limbo. (Oops.) They resent the activation email, and everything magically started working. (This was made more amusing by the fact that it was a Mac.com email address, so the failed activation email probably only had a hundred feet to travel, inside a building, but again I digress.)
At some point in there, I also created accounts with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. (I already had a Google account; who doesn’t?) The account creation worked without incident. What happened next, however, left something to be desired; each of the vendors did things just differently enough to cause major headaches, specifically regarding preorders, Kindle’s online previewer, and Google’s terrifying user interface.
The biggest release headache was the issue of pre-orders. I explicitly did not want my books to go on sale (even with pre-orders) before the release date of the first book. On that day, I wanted the first book to go live, and I wanted the other two books to become available for preorder. It seems simple, but in practice, it went more like this:
Apple made it very easy when you first set up a title. If you check the “allow pre-orders” box, then it sets the pre-order start date in each territory. If that isn’t set, then the book isn’t available at all until the release date. Unfortunately, if you want to change it later, you have to change a lot of dates. But still, they’re the only ones that got this mostly right.
The best part of Apple’s system is that for every book that Apple sells, even though you actually buy it in the iBooks application, there’s a web page on itunes.apple.com that provides information about your book and contains links that (on Apple devices) cause iBooks to automatically open to the ordering page for the book. And depending on the query string, you can have it automatically open iBooks.
What makes this great is that they make that page available to you privately before your book becomes available for ordering. It isn’t linked anywhere, so unless you know the exact URL, you can’t get to it, and it doesn’t do anything useful (because the book isn’t really for sale yet), but it exists, and you know the URL. This makes it mindlessly easy to create links to your books ahead of time.
It really is a slick operation, on the whole, and with the exception of a few warts, it serves as a great example of what the book selling experience can and should be like from all of the other stores out there.
Kobo provides basic support for preorders. It is simple, and it works, for the most part. However, your book is either available for preorder or it isn’t. There’s no way to schedule it to be available for preorder at a later date (though you might be able to go back in and enable preorders on that date; I didn’t try). Either way, at least Kobo gives you the option of enabling or disabling preorders, which is better than any of the other vendors except for Apple.
Amazon’s KDP platform offers even less flexibility. Your book is either submitted or it isn’t. As soon as you submit it, the book is either on sale or available for preordering. If you don’t want the book to be available for preorder until a particular day, you have to wait to submit it until that day.
Worse, Amazon requires you to schedule your release date at least ten days after the prerelease date, for no apparent reason. During the preorder period, if you decide you want to release it sooner, you can’t. (Well, you can reschedule it earlier, but only if the new desired release date is at least ten days out.) And if you need to move the release date later for some reason, you get banned from doing preorders for a year.
I mean, I understand the need to avoid abuse, and to punish people who repeatedly abuse the preorder process by scheduling availability and then pushing it back, but for folks like me, it is a bit of a disaster. You see, I have remarkably little control over when Lightning Source decides to make my books available to Amazon. Even if the proof process goes perfectly, there’s still a window after I say “go” before it shows up on Amazon, and that window might be a day, or it might be a week and a half. I want to be able to tell Amazon “Go”, and know that they’ll go, rather than that they’ll go in ten days’ time. But with preorders enabled, I can’t do that.
That’s why Amazon’s entire approach seems way too heavy-handed to me. If such draconian measures were truly necessary, then every vendor would be doing the same thing, rather than just Amazon. (Okay, maybe their submitter pool just has a much higher bozo rate than everyone else. I guess I should give them the benefit of the doubt for now, but it’s still quite annoying.)
There’s one other quirk that also causes some headaches for folks who list ISBNs in their books. Kindle editions don’t typically have an ISBN. Instead, you use an ASIN (Amazon Standard Item Number). The problem is that an ASIN doesn’t get assigned to eBooks until they appear on the store. Thus, if you want to list the ASIN where you would normally list the ISBN, you basically have to make the book available for sale, then as soon as it goes live on the store, grab the ASIN, modify the book, and try to resubmit it before anybody downloads it.
It is a little easier if you make the book available for preorder. In that case, although people might have samples with your placeholder text, at least they won’t have the actual book. It might be the case that an ISBN will be used as the ASIN if you provide one—that is true for paper books—but I haven’t tried. If so, that might be a good reason to burn an ISBN. With that said, there really should be a way to get an ASIN assigned to your book before it becomes available for sale or preview.
Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press made it impossible. They don’t take preorders at all from Nook Press users. I’ve read some secondhand reports that they might start allowing this for Nook Press users, but Barnes & Noble’s official documentation still says you can’t do it, and I saw no evidence that you can do so. In fact, I found that I could not even submit books with a release date in the future. So quite literally, your only option with Nook Press is to push the button on the release date.
Google does support preorders, with some caveats. More in the next section.
Because of all those limitations, I initially prescheduled my books for release only on iBooks and through various minor channels using Smashwords Direct and Draft2Digital. I pushed the button on all of the other primary channels the night before the first book’s release date, at about 11:00 P.M. Pacific time. Then, I watched as things started going live, updating my website as they did. The following morning, I picked up the stragglers. (In the case of Nook Press, I submitted only the first of the three books.)
Google has a tendency to design very pretty user interfaces. Unfortunately, they also have a tendency to forget that there are real human beings that have to use those interfaces, and they don’t always design things based on how a customer will react up on seeing them. I can think of no better example than the Google Books interface.
When you submit a title, you specify a release date. This allows you to make books available for preorder. Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent preorders. The bigger problem, however, is that if you are logged in with your publishing account, the “buy” button is replaced by a “Read” button, with no hint that this behavior is because you’re the publisher. The natural assumption, then is that the “Read” button will take you to a sample, so most users react in horror when they find the entire book there, presumably being given away for free for anyone to read.
When this happened to me, I naturally panicked and disabled the title. Know what happened next? The book disappeared from my publishing dashboard. Gone. Not disabled. Gone. I swore at the possibility of entering all that info again, but at least I knew that I wasn’t giving away my book.
So I started to set up the title again, and when I entered the ISBN, it told me that there was already a book with that ISBN, and gave me back the existing book record. I was able to edit it, thankful that I didn’t have to retype all of that data. Everything was generally fine from that point on, but the book did not reappear in my publisher dashboard until I enabled it for distribution again on the release date. (Why?)
Because Google Play wouldn’t let me schedule a release without making the book available for preview, I had to wait until the night before the release to submit the book. That’s the moment when Google chose to tell me that it can take up to a day for them to actually approve our books. Now I can understand the need for an approval process. Apple has one, too. But unlike with Apple, where the approval process begins the moment you submit the content to iTunes Connect (and where you can mess with metadata afterwards without triggering a content re-review), Google’s approval process doesn’t begin until you activate the book for sale on their store. Wait, what? (Note that Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press has this same problem.)
For the first few hours, I could see the title if I searched for it by ISBN, but the “Buy” button was disabled. Eventually it started working... except in the UK. When I searched for the book via Google UK, I got a “No eBook available” message from the Play store even though I had released it for sale in all territories. My emails to Google asking for assistance in the matter were never answered, though they apparently did fix the problem after a couple of weeks (unless it fixed itself).
And then, there’s Google’s discounting problem. Google Play likes to sell things at a discount so that it appears that users are getting a better deal from their stores. Unfortunately, most of us authors and publishers are caught in the middle between Google’s wholesale-ish model and Apple and Amazon’s agency model. If Google discounts their price below what Amazon charges, Amazon automatically price-matches it, and we lose a chunk of profits from our Amazon sales (which dwarf sales from Google for most folks). This makes Google Play a very expensive channel to do business with unless you do what everybody else does—charge a higher price through Google Play so that the discounted sale price from Google will be the same as the price on Amazon and Apple.
In short, Google Play is a real headache, and I understand now why many folks avoid it entirely. It’s also a mostly untapped market, though, and I’m hoping that it will eventually mature just as iBooks has, and that folks who publish their books in the Google Play store will be rewarded for being early adopters. Time will tell.
So there I was, ready to submit my Kindle edition for sale via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). I uploaded my files, having already thoroughly tested them using their Kindle Previewer app, and expected to have no problems. But when I got to the end, it gave me the option of using an online previewer. I tried that, and found that every letter in every font had been replaced by a rectangular box.
I initially believed that my fonts were getting stripped out as a number of other folks have experienced. So I spent a lot of effort trying to hack my CSS rules in a way that would make Amazon happy. This yielded no real improvement. (I later discovered that the “missing” fonts were a false alarm; in fact, I had run into a bug in the tool that I was using to extract the contents of the MOBI files to see what was inside them.)
Eventually, I resorted to commenting out large swaths of my CSS, waiting up to half an hour for my single-chapter test book to upload to KDP each time (Did I mention that KDP is embarrassingly slow?), until I finally discovered that the text-rendering:geometricPrecision; CSS style that I had specified was breaking those models of Kindle, at least in the online previewer. Curiously, the downloadable previewer did not show those problems for those same devices, at least on OS X, though Amazon’s customer service reps said that they did see the problem in their downloadable previewer—presumably on Windows. I have no idea whether the problem is a previewer-specific bug or a real bug, however, so I decided to disable it out of an abundance of caution.
Oh, and remember how I said in the previous article that I had come up with some fascinating trickery to get white-on-black text to behave on Kindle devices, where most devices would show it in white-on-black, and a few early devices would show it as black-on-white? Well, when my book actually showed up on Amazon’s store, their look-inside-the-book feature rendered the text as black on black. Fortunately, they managed to quickly fix the bug. Still, this all comes back to the issue of consistency. Kindle really needs to do better in that area, and the KDP side of things is no exception.
The only big problem I had with Kobo’s store was that I inadvertently omitted the ISBN from one record. Curiously, Kobo’s software wouldn’t let me correct that problem. I ended up having to create a whole new book record and leaving the old one deactivated. I’m not sure why something so minor should be impossible to fix. I mean, if I were using DRM, and that DRM were tied to the ISBN, that would make sense, but... I’m not, and it isn’t.
In the grand scheme of things, that was minor, but it was still kind of annoying.
I previously mentioned that the prerelease process on iBooks was a little clumsy because of the need to change a bunch of date fields. Sadly, that’s not the only thing that was clumsy. Their search system leaves a lot to be desired. For example:
Their non-search capability is even worse. Despite having an option to supposedly show “All Paid” books in a genre, it really doesn’t, even after you click “See All”. None of my books are listed there. (Books are listed alphabetically when you sort by name, so it isn’t hard to verify that my titles are all missing.)
When I asked Apple about this, they basically told me that “All Paid” doesn’t really mean “All Paid”. In fact, they decide based on a “proprietary algorithm” (translation: number of sales) whether your books are visible even in what their app pretends is a list of all the [insert category here] books on their store. I think if authors realized that fact going in, a lot fewer first-time authors would even bother with Apple’s iBooks Store, because frankly, a book with no visibility is unlikely to ever be purchased often enough to gain visibility. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, and Apple’s very design is working against you.
Other stores, by contrast, at least theoretically show your books in their listings, even if you’ll never be able to find them in practice (because of the sheer magnitude of their catalog) except on the first day of release (maybe).
Apple seriously needs to redesign their category scheme to be a closer match for the categories and subcategories that authors specify in the metadata, instead of lumping multiple categories into a single store section that can’t accommodate all of the books in it.
The bottom line is that every one of the stores had at least one serious problem in its design, and many had several. If you’re planning to submit to these stores, you need to be aware of their warts so that you can plan ahead to minimize their impact on your sales. For example, submit to Google and Barnes & Noble in late afternoon the day before so they'll be available on the launch date.
I hope this info is helpful. Keep reading in the next part, Part IV: Affiliate Marketing (Hello? Is anyone there?), where I dig in to affiliate programs.