Should you self-publish exclusively on Amazon? That is the question many authors consider whenever they put a book out.
I was recently interviewed on Kevin Tumlinson's Wordslinger podcast about my reasons for being wide with my main series and author names. I do use KDP Select for some books, but prefer to keep most of my books on the other publishing platforms as well.
Transcript of the interview
Kevin: Hello, today we're going to chat with Joanna Penn.
Among other things, one of the things I want to talk about is her strategy for going wide and globalization and embracing new markets, but she also got some news to share about projects she's working on, so we're going to leap right into that. Joanna, thanks so much for being on.
Joanna: No worries, thanks for having me, Kevin.
Kevin: You're no stranger to this idea of going wide. What advice do you give people when they ask you about it?
Joanna: Well, first of all, this is definitely a personal decision and there so many variables around the idea of going wide and obviously things change all the time, so that's straight off what people should think about is advice changes over time.
But for me, going back to 2011, some people will remember the global financial crisis.
Like many people, I was laid off at that time. I was working as an IT consultant back then. My boss came through the office. I was on an open plan floor with about 400 other people and he came in with a stack of A4 pages and basically handed them out, and most people were laid off that day.
We were given a couple of weeks worth of income but I was a contractor. So there was no stability in any job, let's just face it. And what I realized that day and this is why going wide is quite a personal issue for me, is I realized that day I could not allow one company to control my income entirely.
I made a fundamental shift in mindset at that point to never allow one company to have that much power over my life again because essentially, like many people, I was like, “What do I do now? I've got all my bills and everything, everything comes from one stream of income.”
And that has made a fundamental difference to my life because I don't just have multiple book streams of income, I have probably over 100 streams of income now and not just from books but from various websites. Some of them are like five bucks a month, but some of them are thousands and so this is what's important.
For me, and of course, many people who are listening do have a day job. So maybe writing for them is a hundred bucks a month or fifty bucks a month or whatever, so their main income is not Amazon. But when people talk about going wide, the assumption there is the opposite is going exclusive to Amazon which is usually what people are talking about.
First of all, for me, so that was the first big fundamental thing; I will not let one company control my life.
The second thing that happened, and you probably remember this, some listeners might. A couple of years ago now, Hachette had a quite public battle with Amazon over contract negotiations and they – don't quote me on this and this is just my remembering – They either moved the buy buttons or they made it so that people ordering books had a much longer lead time, so they basically had control over that.
And some of the articles at the time said that in traditional publishing, about 80% of traditional publishing's book sales come through Amazon.
And again, I looked at that and went, “Okay, well, that's similar to me at that point.” That was quite similar, you know, 80% of my income worth coming through KDP for Kindle, and I just went, “Do you know what?” There is a reason Hachette, and there were some other publishers at the time over a barrel, and again, it's about giving up your power. This is definitely a decision for people who are who are more a mature stage in author journey.
For new writers who have fewer than three books, and/or who are not full-time writers and let's face it, if you have fewer than three books there's no way you're gonna be a full-time writer.
If you have more than three books in a series or if you're starting to make more money as an indie author, that's when I recommend people look at going wide.
Of course, the things I've just described or when you were at a point of not wanting all this money to come in just from Amazon.
I know it is a bit of a long-winded answer but I wanted people to understand the longer game over going wide. It's not just how do I make my rent this month and, of course, for some people, that's why KDP select in going exclusive is a good idea.
But if you think three years time, five years time, ten years time, do you want all of your income to come from one company and what if that company does change the rules?
I know I'm still answering your question, but I still have more valid points.
Kevin: No, we're good. I'm sipping coffee, drink, and eat some jelly beans, I'm good. We're good.
Joanna: Well, the other thing is the changing the rules. Now,
Now, obviously, I love Amazon. I just want everyone to know that, and I do make 50% of my book sales income does come from Amazon KDP.
I also sell on CreateSpace and Audible and I don't want to give that up to anything, so I'm not Amazon bashing and all. But they do change the rules, so we've seen with Audible. So the lucky Americans who got in with ACX first, got a very good royalty which they rapidly changed when they expanded to the UK and they changed the royalty rate, dropped it significantly for ACX.
The second thing they've changed recently is the Amazon Associates as affiliate payments. The percentage dropped, several percentage points. These are, and also obviously KDP Select itself.
We've seen what happens with the payments, the payments change every month. The payment per page, it didn't even used to be per page, it used to be per borrow and then the algorithms change, we have to agree that Amazon changes things all the time. And again, part of the reason we are indie authors is to be independent and if you're dependent on a company, are you truly Indie?
And again, part of the reason we are indie authors is to be independent and if you're dependent on one company, are you truly indie?
And secondly, how can you be in control of your future if you only have that one stream of income? These are a
These are a ton of reasons why I think people should consider going wide but only if they have more than three books, preferably in a series, because the other vendors right now, it is hard to get traction unless you have a number of books. There's my initial point of view.
Kevin: Actually, what I picked up on there is you're talking about a strategy, and something I recommend to people all the time, so it's very familiar to me.
The idea of, get out there so you can get into KDP select for your initial like three books, and leverage that time to write more books and then move it. That's when you go wide, is that about what you're saying?
Joanna: Yeah, definitely, and I think the other reason, so let's sort of flip that, that's definitely true for the U.S. and that is still the biggest single market, although I do my annual sort of, look at my book sales. And in 2016, the U.S. was only 45% of my book sales. The other countries have now started to outsell the U.S. together, so still the biggest single market.
But if you think about the rest of the world, what's happening right now?
As we speak, I don't know when this will go out, but as we speak, Amazon just bought souk.com in the Middle East. What Amazon does as a business is they're looking for the growth.
So what we're seeing in America is ebook growth has slowed or almost stopped so in some genres it's 70% digital when some genre's 30% digital. But the fact is, seven years ago, it was 0% digital.
The growth has happened and maybe it will stop altogether, maybe it will hang there. But Amazon just bought souk.com which is the biggest e-retailer in the Middle East, which is basically at 1% digital right now. So if you think that the rest of them, and then Kobo is in 190 countries. They've just done a deal in the Netherlands where they're looking at doing something, not KDP select as in going exclusive, but in terms of borrows and that type of thing.
We've got in the Far East in China, we've got a company like PublishDrive which is getting in there with these Chinese retailers. We've got Latin America, there are all kinds of things happening, India, where digital sales are currently less than 1%.
The growth in the next five years is going to be global
Then you've got to say, “Okay, so who's best positioned?
Kobo is owned by Rakuten which is Japan's largest e-commerce company. So if you think that the growth, the sales right now in America are still the most mature but the growth in the next five to ten years is global, how are you going to be best positioned for global?
And then you're looking at, “Okay, well, I want to be on the other retailers that in the countries where Amazon is not dominant.”
Even in somewhere like Germany, Amazon has 50% of that e-book market, give or take, but the Tolino has most of the other 50% and you can get on Tolino through Draft2Digital, right?
Kevin: That's true, yeah.
Joanna: But this is the other thing that I want people to think, and again, it's a strategy as what you're saying. But the truth is with the other markets, right now as well, the other countries, again, you're looking at a strategy. I'm 42, I'm fully expecting to be doing this for at least another 42 years. I would hope more than that. I'm kinda aiming for the over the century and all that.
But also, copyright lasts until 70 years after we die. Let's say it's 140 years time when my copyright runs out.
How can we say that the situation will stay the same? It absolutely won't.
How can we best position ourselves for that type of global expansion? And I think that is by building a readership in other countries.
Kobo have the best breakdown of country sales. I've sold books in 83 countries. They are for sale in 190 but I have to have sold in 83. So, I mean, that's super exciting to have sold books in Africa and Latin America and Asia and all these places where you just wouldn't expect to be selling.
That's the other strategic thing is, Okay, all well and good to be U.S. dominant right now, but what's the market gonna be in five years time? I might be the new Dan Brown of China, you know, or Paraguay, or over a random country that I could never have expected, and that can only happen if your books are actually there.
Kevin: Yeah, okay. Two questions then, and they're related.
One, are you doing translations for all these countries? And two, how are you marketing to these countries?
Joanna: These are all books in English. This is super important. On Wikipedia, the list of countries that speak English and it's pretty much everywhere. I mean, even like, I have a lot of German friends. Like in Europe, and again, this is something Americans forget. A lot of Americans speak Spanish, right?
Joanna: Soon it will overtake English. It's the biggest language in America. In Europe, most Europeans, I mean, British people are terrible. We're just ridiculous with languages but most Europeans will speak English as well. Many educated Europeans will often read in English, so in Germany, my book sales there are in English. This is really important too.
But there are also something like 120 million English speakers in India and they are the educated middle-class Indians with money. There's only 60 million in the U.K. So you're looking at twice as many English speakers in India than in Britain, the same in China.
If you think about the size of these populations and the number of who speak English, that may help to give people a sort of perspective on language. The other thing just, you know, I'm a bit of a futurist. We've got some, I mean, Google translates technology.
Some of the things that are coming and there's a book that's just come out recently called “The Fourth Transformation” by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel which I'm pretty excited about, which is about augmented reality. I see a point where, I mean, they already have it where you can speak into this headset and the other person can hear it in their language.
Could the universal translation technology replace translation by people?
I see the same thing happening with books and probably non-fiction first because it doesn't have nuance, but I'm pretty sure it's gonna happen where you can put on your augmented reality glasses, for example, look at a book in English and read it in German. I think this is gonna be a massive change in the translation market.
Now, it's probably 10, 20 years off, but again, we're talking about big scale technologies here. I think there's a lot of things coming that will mean language is not such a barrier, but for now, just write and publish in English.
No need to go down the translation reach, and in fact I have tried self-publishing translations and they've been pretty dire. They've cost me money and the main thing is you can't market in another language. I've gone back to trying to license my rights to traditional publishers in other languages. What was the other half of that question?
Kevin: How are you marketing to these other countries?
Joanna: Let's assume we're doing marketing in English. It's what people might have forgotten is that the internet is global. If I look at my traffic for thecreativepenn.com or JFPenn or the audience from my podcast, again, it's not all English-speaking countries.
I have listeners to my show in China, I have listeners to my show in Africa. I have got one of my readers for JFPenn which is my thriller name, is in Rwanda, which I just love. He's a professor in Rwanda University, you know, and that is really cool.
What you've got to think is, people all over the world are doing exactly the same type of searches on the internet, they're on Twitter, they're on Facebook.
There are all the things that we are on in the West and other things, obviously, but people find us in the way that they find us.
Also, if you think about this with something like Kobo and think about my reader in Rwanda, for example, he doesn't have Amazon in Rwanda but he can get Kobo. Kobo doesn't have where you can choose not to pick DRM on your e-books, so people can buy them in other countries. It's much easier to buy them that way.
That's what's exciting about the marketing. What you've got to think is, “Okay, I'm not just marketing to people who are so much just like me, who live in, you know, you live in an RV in America.” You know, have a flat in Bath or, people who are aged, are married, whatever, white, you just can't assume that.
You just have to put yourself out in the world and the people who are interested will find you.
Like religious conspiracy thriller, my guy in Rwanda loves that stuff and he will probably be a better market. In fact, I know he's a better market than people who live around the corner here in Bath who are very literature-focused. So that's what you've got to think about marketing.
Just keep doing the stuff you're doing but consider that people will find it from all over the world.
Kevin: I love every single thing about that strategy. I especially like that I don't have to worry about translations because that was a heartburn of mine that I've been working on, because it's expensive.
Joanna: Yeah, but it's so funny. I'm British but I do hear this only from Americans, this assumption that selling abroad must mean translation and I don't really understand why that is. But it's definitely something that seems to be an issue, but it would be great if we could blow the horn on English speakers globally.
Kevin: We're gonna let everyone know, you don't have to bother. And I agree with you and I think that that technology that you mentioned, by the way, is much closer. I know that Google acquired and I can't remember the name of the company, but they acquired that company that does that visual translation of like science and that sort of thing. I mean, and that's right there in the same territory. I'm pretty sure that's coming.
Joanna: Yeah, it's pretty amazing. I mean, if people listening, if you Google ‘Universal Translator', you'll see where the technology is and it is pretty amazing. I agree with you.
It's just that a lot of this stuff hasn't quite filtered down, and of course, amazingly the book reading and writing side of people are not quite up with technology. Often we shy away from technology but I'm pretty excited about that. I know the publishing industry probably wouldn't be. But I think it's pretty exciting.
Kevin: To be clear, the traditional publishing industry.
Joanna: Yes. It's interesting how many people are worried about. The other thing I think is interesting and, again, Amazon is at the forefront of things and the other thing that's just happened this last week is Amazon Cash and this is a big deal.
Why Amazon Cash is a big deal
The reason America was first in digital sales is that America was first with online credit cards and debit cards. And then, of course, we have them in Britain and Canada and Australia or New Zealand, but many people in India, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, don't have a credit card or debit card. They may not even have what is “a proper address.”
They might not have a bank account, so Amazon Cash, to me, will open up the idea of online sales in other countries and I hope the other retailers will follow suit, which is that someone who wants to buy stuff online can go top-up their account with cash, and then will be able to buy online with the cash that they've paid into that online account.
I'm also excited about micropayments in India.
In India, you will see people enrol who have not much at all. They still have a cell phone. There's a $5 smartphone in India now, you don't need just a standard basic Nokia or whatever.
But what you can do also with these micro payments is pay through your telecom providers, so there's micro-reading, micro-payment starting to happen in these other cultures.
So for me, that is a sign that developing country or what we call developing countries will be moving on to digital sales, just using different payment mechanisms.
Kevin: Yeah, that technology and it's funny, and I think you were the one I stole this from, because I talked about it all the time. You mentioned and I think this may have been at Smarter Artist or something or one of the other things you appeared at, but you mentioned that in India and I think Africa and a few developing areas, they skipped the computer revolution basically and they jumped right into mobile technology.
And now, with micro-payments and you've also got the micro-funds that they never actually hold in their hands, it's all virtual. And opens the maket up to buy books and people can run like Kickstarter-type campaigns where you can provide a digital library, that's what I think.
I think we're going to see more and more about that sort of thing in the future, very near future.
Joanna: Oh, yeah, definitely because people will always buy stuff. The question is, how do we do the different currency? So, right now, I might be making about two pounds or, you know, $5 or it's probably about $2 right now the exchange rate. Yeah, it's about $2.50 with my Indian sales.
But think about the potential in India, it's huge and it's only just started. So, this is what I want.
I think people really struggle with this type of long-term thinking.
I've really noticed this amongst the author community. People are like, “Oh, yeah, I've got like a book but I'm gonna sell these books today.” And I'm thinking how is this going to impact your business in a year's time, five years time, ten years time?
We're starting to see now a lot of the discussion on how robots in America, it's not immigrants stealing your jobs, it's robots stealing your jobs. And the same in Britain; society is changing and I think this is another reason I want to almost hedge. I mean, again, we're talking about currency here, the global state.
I'm doing very well with the pound being weak because I get money in U.S. dollars. Those authors in America who earn in pounds in the U.K. are making less money.
These type of global shifts will mean that it's better to have an income in multiple currencies because, in some way, you're hedging against things changing.
What if sales in America, what if that is the limit? What if 70% is the limit? How are we going to share that out? Then the pie is not just America, that's the point. The pie is much, much bigger.
I guess the same many things I'm excited about which revolve around the global industry, the global book buying public expanding. So you've just got to think, okay, so India is nothing right now in terms of digital sales. But imagine that it's like America was in 2011, where the Kindle would just come out.
People were like, “What is this? No one's gonna read on this.” That's just not gonna happen. And yet, the whole industry, a whole industry is growing up around this. That's what I want people to think.
What if 70% of Indian book sales were digital? What if 70% of Chinese book sales were digital? How can I have a piece of that?
Kevin: Yeah, now you're back to multiple streams of income or at least the basics of that. With all these different emerging markets coming online, you may not see a ton of money coming in from each one right away but I do like the fact that there's gonna be this trickle that could grow at any time.
I don't mind in my books maybe selling for, you know, a bit less in India. Frankly, if it means that I'm establishing an audience there, there are quite a few people in India.
If I can get a big chunk of those, any given percentage, really, of the Indian population reading my books, I'd be very happy.
Joanna: And again, just coming back to that multiple streams of income, isn't it better instead of getting a $100 from one company, you're getting $10 from ten companies, ten streams of income because then if you lose one you only lose $10.
Whereas if with the other one if they change the rules, we've seen it with a lot of the people who were doing well in KDP Select Version 1, there was a massive shift in who then was making money when they changed the rules. This is the thing, “Okay, so I need to protect myself.”
I left my job in 2011. My husband left his job in 2015, so, you know, we're making a whole living on the internet. We were actually talking the other day, what are potential threats to our livelihood? What could take away everything and really the only thing now is the internet and I'm like, “You know what? If the internet goes, a lot of people are in trouble.”
Kevin: Well, that's what NASA is going to say, “If you've got that problem, there are probably bigger problems to worry about,” so income isn't gonna be an issue.
Something you said triggered this because I typically describe the multiple threads of income or streams of income in terms of what I call the Lipton Tea method, which is funny. Lipton tea actually sources tea leaves from hundreds of different places to make their tea products. Right?
So if there's a blight or drought or anything that affects any given region, their tea remains consistent all the time. They've always got the same product.
It's the same sort of thing with this diversifying your income, like if there's drought in the form of…Amazon just changes their rules again and now you're making less money or whatever, you don't have to worry about that because you've got all these things compensating for it.
Joanna: And that makes it more specific to people, as well. Remember the year of the Trump election? Which is so quite close…
Kevin: How can I forget.
Joanna: Yeah, so 2016 in America, there was a huge downturn in book sales over the summer of 2016 and into September. People thought it would recover but it didn't and the reason why is people were watching the TV all the time, and they were like, oh, my, instead of reading they were like, “Oh, my goodness, what's happening?”
So even a political event like that can change the volume of people's books. It doesn't even need to be Amazon changing the rules, it can be things happening in the wider world like Britain, we've just had Brexit so we mentioned the exchange rate changing there. I know people in Britain right now who have lost jobs and things that now going to be lost because of Brexit.
Now, an individual cannot control a situation like that. All we can do is try and protect the future we want and the current state of what we want. So I know, again, a lot of what we're talking about is future state but just coming back to going wide, Mark Lefebvre would say, from Kobo, and if the Apple guys ever spoke in public they would say it. It takes at least six months to a year, I would say, to build up an income stream from the other sites. So for example, I do my Nook sales through Drive2Digital and I do that because Nook press is such a pain. Now maybe Nook would've gone by the time this goes out, who knows.
But what you've got to think is, “Okay, so how about if I give myself a year, let's say, to grow my audience at Kobo, at iBooks, at Nook, at some of these other retailers?”
I'm about to publish with PublishDrive specifically to get into the Chinese market. Even if I'm making two pounds a year, I want my books to be in the Chinese market, just in case. So there are things that I'm doing that are a bigger picture for a world away, and then I'm just assuming that things will come up where it will be like, “Oh, hey, you know, well, Dan Brown does have a book coming out this year, 2017,” as we record this. He doesn't write very often but he has a book coming out and he was massive in China.
So again, something that I'm looking at going, “All right, how can I position myself just in case,” and this is not a, I must get a BookBub to sell more books. It's a just in case, putting some effort in for the longer term so, yeah.
Kevin: That's brilliant and I think that's exactly the right way to approach it.
I feel like I need to rush right now and go to PublishDrive and get into Chinese market.
Joanna: I mean, there are other options. I was at London Book fare a few weeks ago and I had a meeting with PublishDrive and I specifically asked them about China.
Because at the moment, Amazon is in China and all, I think they're really struggling and this is the thing. Because Amazon is this big American company, there are some places that are much more open to Kobo or other local sellers.
What's interesting about PublishDrive is they're out in Hungary. So there is absolutely no issue with the Chinese dealing with people in Hungary. So, stuff like this is so interesting when you think about it globally.
PublishDrive; I'm not on there yet, so I can't recommend it to people. But obviously, Draft2Digital is normally the first place people will go, or Smashwords, when they start to look at going wide and then looking a bit further.
PublishDrive does Google Play which, again, still has a market for some people but I also have a ton of Eastern European and Asian e-book vendors which Drive2Digital doesn't have, and neither does Smashwords. So, I think that's the thing is to start thinking about the ecosystem of self-publishing being bigger than what it has been over the last few years.
Kevin: I agree. And it's an evolving market and Draft2Digital of course is picking up new vendors all time, so just to put that out there.
But there are lots of avenues to explore, almost too many. But it's worth it, it's worth it.
I think we've covered everything pretty well and I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me, and I know this is a little different than the normal tack we've taken with a podcast in the past, but I'm hoping this catch is on. Thanks so much for being on.
Joanna: No worries, Kevin. If people are interested, I have my own podcast at thecreativepenn.com, that's Penn with a double N. So, come on over there, if people are interested.
Kevin: And you can also check her out at thecreativepenn.com and you've got your books are available on JFPenn.com.
Kevin: Now, what's Curl Up Press? Give me the 30-second rundown of Curl Up Press.
Joanna: At the end of last year, we were like, “Okay, we want to sell rights to foreign publishers and mighty brand websites being thecreativepenn and JFpenn. We wanted to do it in a more professional way, so Curl Up Press is a small press set up for Joanna Penn and J.F. Penn's books, and we are licensing foreign rights out of Curl Up Press and we're also now working on IngramSpark to do print books.
So again, another way of going wide, I used to just do CreateSpace but now I use IngramSpark and have a much further reach with print books, which surprisingly people are still buying a lot of print books.
Kevin: I bet, yeah. I don't even think about 'em anymore but, yeah, you're right.
Joanna: It's an interesting thing when you start thinking about multiple streams of income, print is actually a significant stream of income for many people especially non-fiction authors. I sell a lot of books in print for non-fiction, so using IngramSpark it's a lot cheaper for me, the author, but also a lot more booksellers, libraries and retailers can get the print books that they will not order from CreateSpace but I think print sales are probably a whole another discussion.
Kevin: Yeah, we'll have you back, you can come back. We'll talk about print. That will be a good conversation.
Joanna: All right, well thanks for having me, Kevin.
Kevin: Thank you, and everyone, you can find all this information and more in the show notes. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.