Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Apple Takes on Amazon; Smashwords May be Collateral Damage

Amazon pulled off two amazing coups a couple of years ago - they launched Kindle 3 at half the price of the previous version and they pushed their KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) hard.  In the process they attracted both the established publishing houses and the independent publisher - essentially guys and gals like me without publishing contracts looking for a cost effective way to self publish.

Their timing was perhaps a little late, from their corporate point of view, because a cheeky upstart from the west coast had started the indie ball rolling in time to gather enough momentum to not be stopped by Amazon's initiative.  What really differentiated Smashwords, though, was that it worked damned hard to act as the portal for indie writers to the emerging eBook shops such as Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo etc.  These bookstores hadn't shown a great deal of an appetite to deal with the indie writers piecemeal, but were more than happy to deal with Smashwords. 

And as the recipient of Smashwords assistance I can report that on the whole they do a bloody good job.  They make me jump through a hoop or two that Amazon don't, but then they are trying to make sure my books will work on a wider range of eReading devices and applications and, unlike Amazon, they don't have any control over those machines and Apps.  Apart from the documentary help and the firm but constructive advice they provide me when I publish with them, they provide me with an ISBN for each of my books, for free.  The only price I pay for this ISBN, which is normally a costed option, is that I state that my book is published at Smashwords - there's no difference in royalty rates, no request for exclusivity and no restrictions on publishing elsewhere - in fact Smashword's CEO, Mark Coker, positively encourages us indies to publish anywhere we can.

And it's that ISBN, along with certain specific formatting constraints, that gives my books access to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo (but I'm struggling to see any real benefit there right now - only two books on the Kobo site and one without its cover)!

Contrast that encouragement to publish widely to Amazon's attempt to bribe authors to deal exclusively with them, as I discussed in a recent blog.

But it seems that the mutually acceptable relationship shared between Smashwords and their 'Premium Catalog' partners is likely to be put under strain by Apple.  They've announced that they are expanding their iBook efforts by introducing the Apple equivelant of Amazon's KDP - my guess is that Apple have decided that the indie market is mature enough to work directly with and anyway, they have a track record of dealing with individuals on their iPhone and iPad App Store already - writers shouldn't be that much of a leap for them.

The details will be released at the end of January, but I expect it to come out pretty well fully formed.  Unlike the Amazon initiative in December I doubt this will be a bid for exclusivity. I think that perhaps Apple want more direct access to the source of the material they use.  They may or may not cut Smashwords out of the equation - cutting out isn't out of the question by any stretch - but even if they stay with Smashwords, once Authors sign up with them I doubt they will want to see the same book listed twice.  Smashwords will continue to provide ePub books through it's own portal that will work perfectly well with iBooks (they automatically find their way onto the iPad bookshelf), but my experience is that while my books are searched on Smashwords daily, purchases tend to come from the Premium Catalog bookstores, I'm guessing via the links on Smashwords.

I'll have to wait for the details to flesh out, but assuming I'm correct about the deal being non-exclusive, then I'm inclined to deal direct with Apple.  It may seem disloyal to Smashwords - I'll keep my books with them too, mind, but probably would need to turn off the Apple link in Smashwords for the reasons stated above.

If this initiative is only limited to Apple, then Smashwords will probably survive OK.  I note, though, that they are doing more and more traffic with Apple in recent months, so it will leave a hole; it just probably won't be terminal.  But if Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Sony follow suit then we may find Smashwords under a lot of pressure.  It's certainly hard to see how they could maintain their market presence under those circumstances, and if they do shrink significantly then that would be a real shame.


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