Do you have a Kindle alternative?

A book is a book is a book is a book. But an e-book? If only it were that simple. Once you’re ready to send your long form non-fiction into the new media galaxy, you will be presented with a smorgasbord of publishing choices – each with benefits and limitations. Eventually you will choose from them. It will be a very personal choice.

Before I hung up my shingle as a writer I worked in the digital industry. In over decade with that sector I learned that technologies come and go and that with each new development a new set of complications occurs. (If you’re interested, I wrote an article about this quagmire).

When I made my choice of publishing platform I went with the monolith, the dominant: Amazon. It was not only among the most popular formats, but also could be accessed through platforms beyond the Kindle. Readers could download it to their iPad or iPhone Newsstands (via the Apple store) or install a plug-in for their standard browser. Still the question came from a few readers, ‘I don’t have a Kindle. Do you have an alternative?’

The idea of an alternative ignited anxiety. I knew that if these readers couldn’t download a plug-in for their browser they needed something as simple as an attachment in an email. I wondered how I could control my copyright once I’d sent someone an attachment. How could I stop them from uploading my e-book to an Internet site, or forwarding it to others? (Whether they did it deliberately or not).

At first I looked into online systems developed to address this very dilemma. These systems manage the entire sales and copyright cycle. Users select the ‘digital goods’ they’re seeking, pay and get an electronic copy that is smart enough to control how the recipient distributes it (well, most recipients anyhow). This was exactly what I needed, but there are set up costs. And I’m just a writer, already behind on this particular venture.

Payment gateways (like Paypal) can be set up very quickly and with no cost. Paypal can even be used to sell digital goods automatically. (ie. Once the user has paid, Paypal will provide the digital file directly). But alone, a payment gateway like this couldn’t help with copyright control.

I pondered for weeks. How I could get my essay to this handful of readers? Eventually I came up with a simple, manual solution, which is based on an automated system I’d read about.

Once I have a payment receipt from Paypal I make a PDF of the article with the recipient’s name and email address in the footer, then email it as an attachment.

With their personal details on every page of the e-book, I hope a reader is deterred from passing the file on. And if the PDF does accidentally appear on a website, I’ll know where it came from. It’s not going to stop someone who is genuinely determined to undermine my copyright, but it should at least make some people think about it.

If you’re going to follow the same route that I did, make sure you understand the fine print in your Amazon agreement. Mine stipulates that the Amazon price has to be 20% less than anywhere else (even my own site). I didn’t notice this at first, but when they adjusted my Amazon sale price without telling me I soon realised my mistake. Still, it’s worth having the alternative: with the Paypal / PDF model you’ll get closer to 80% of the sale price (verses 35% on Amazon – depending on your pricing).

I will say one other thing about people who ask for an alternative. Of the half a dozen who have asked, none of them actually bought a copy via me. So if the idea of making fiddly PDFs doesn’t appeal I wouldn’t worry too much. Truth be told, I think most of them were hoping that I’d give them a copy for free. I have no problem giving out review copies, but I’m too determined to gain an income from my writing to give free copies willy-nilly. If I must do that, I at least ask the reader to make a donation that supports the community that my article is about.

Things I wish I knew: self publishing

Here's a list of the things I wish I knew when I decided to publish my long form non-fiction article as a Kindle Single (I will update this regularly!):  

1. What constitutes being accepted into the Kindle Singles 'imprint'

  • I pitched my article to the editors at Kindle Singles, and a few days later I got a generic email from Amazon telling me how I could publish my work on Amazon.  I took the generic response to mean that Singles was not as exclusive as I'd thought, and that publishing a Single must be a matter of implementing a particular setting when I uploaded my work. It didn't.Once I had published to Amazon I searched again and again for the setting. And then followed up with another email to the Singles editors. I was told then that my story was rejected. A little cheeky of the team at Amazon I think, but a little foolish of me too.

2. Uploading to Amazon is not the difficult part. Not by a long shot.

  • So many writers ask me about uploading my article to Amazon, convinced that it is really technical and complicated. It's not. It will take you 20 minutes (if you do it wisely - which basically means keep your format simple. Mine was Times New Roman font, double spaced, indented first line of pars - no pictures). This video shows just how easy it is: difficult part - as *all* writers who've published will tell you - is the promotion. I thought I knew and understood this before I started... but there was (and is) still a lot to learn...

2. Marketing is not predictable

  • Don't count on any personal networks to help you promote your work. I'm not just talking about your friends and family, but rather associations that you might have (that are relevant to the story or your career - I include writers' organisations here). Plan to go out wider to markets that better fit your niche. For example, my article was recently included on a website that listed stories about disaster. This created a little bump in sales.
  • When you first promote the story to your personal networks, ask them not to buy but instead to promote your work to their networks. You'll probably get a better result this way.
  • If you manage to get yourself onto the radio or TV be shameless. Make every statement refer back to your book and where viewers / listeners can buy it. This is wayeee easier said than done. I haven't managed to do it yet, but in my daydreams it goes something like [Interviewer] 'So, where were you when the earthquake happened?' [Me] 'Well, Joe, I write about this exact thing in my essay - which by the way, your listeners can download via my site - that's p-e-p-i,' etc. ] Also, if you do insist that your project is mentioned, insist that it's mentioned at the bottom of your interview, not the top.
  • I haven't tried this yet, but you might want to offer a free copy to the first x number of listeners / viewers who contact you directly.
  • Put a link to your article in your email signature. I took my time doing that. I have no proof that it results in sales but it does result in people talking about my article. Which is a start!

3. Pricing is a quagmire. Royalties aren't always what they seem to be.

  • Beware: if you publish to Kindle, and you want to sell on other platforms, your agreement with Kindle may mean that you have to mark up your price 20% on other platforms.
  • You'll only get 70% royalties if you sell in  markets with an Amazon presence. So if you, like me, sell to a mostly Australian audience (with no Amazon) via the .com site you will mostly get 35% royalties.
  • Better to be telling everyone you've dropped the price rather than increased it. Also, better to make hay while the initial launch goodwill-sun shines. So start your pricing high and then go lower if you need to.

4. Don't rush the title

  • I was really struggling with the title of my piece, and when I did finally settle on one I was really happy. That is, until I realised I liked it because it was a popular a one for stories about earthquakes. The wonder of modern technology is that I can change it. But I want to keep it consistent. Don't rush into a title. See what else is out there with the title that you like.


Heh - just a short list of regrets - what things do you wish you knew?

Getting it out there

In 2011 I found myself experiencing a very newsworthy event. I was in Northern Japan when the triple disaster hit (just in case you missed it, there was an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown). I was aware of opportunities to report from Japan during the disaster, but I knew I had a good story, and I wanted to give it time.

I eventually researched and wrote a 6,500 word piece, which I hoped to publish to raise awareness at the time of the anniversary. I broke the golden rule of knowing what publication it was for before I started writing. But because there was so much popular interest in the event, I was confident I could find a venue. Plus I wanted an international audience (so would publish online).

6,500 words is a long article - but the Internet is a big place, and I had structured my article so that it could be published in two parts of 3,250 words. I had no reason to think that pitching opportunities would be limited. In fact they were.

I spent days searching for publication venues. All I wanted was an audience for my work. I found many publications for non-fiction work but the vast majority – be they big or small, popular or boutique – limited their online word counts to 1,000 words. Those publications that had longer counts (eg New Yorker, Harpers, Vanity Fair) expected maturity in their writers (big names).  In the end, I found but one publication I could pitch to (I pitched, and got nothing back).

Writers know that sometimes we have to shelve an idea. But I had spent a lot of time on this article, and many people were interested in the experience. I couldn’t let it die on the basis of just one pitch! I considered publishing it on my own site to have it out in time for the anniversary.

But my site was just brochureware. I didn’t have an audience, and if I was going to self-publish I had to get an editor to review the work first (and this would cost me money). I would not only be giving my work away for free, but also spending money to do that. Self-publishing on my site would put me well out of pocket. (And anyhow, what’s that about? A fledgling publishing their own work? Where was the editor to validate and guide me? How could I get an audience for my work?)

I had to explore different avenues to get my work out there, and I did this from the perspective of an emerging writer. In the next post, you’ll get an overview of what I uncovered.

How important do you think it is to have an editor 'validate' your work via the old 'pitch' model?