Why you shouldn’t sell your ebook on Amazon

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After struggling to deal with the ecommerce juggernaut’s painful customer service and lack of control, both Hillman and Law ended up regretting not putting more effort into selling their ebooks on their own website. Here’s why Hillman and Law wouldn’t do it again — and why you shouldn’t sell your ebook on Amazon, either.

Reasons not to sell ebooks on Amazon

It’s difficult to stand out among infinite bookshelves

Look up the definition of monopoly — exclusive control of the supply of or trade in a commodity or service — and you might as well find Amazon’s logo, at least when it comes to publishing.

There are more than 6 million ebooks available on Amazon today, with nearly 7,500 published every single day. “I think self-publishing now is more accessible than it’s ever been,” says business educator and coach Alex Hillman.

Hillman wanted to make sure his latest nonfiction business book, The Tiny MBA, had the best shot at success, so he chose to launch through Kindle Direct Publishing. “I wanted to get this book in the hands of as many people as possible,” he says. “Even without a book deal, I could add my book to the infinite bookshelves.”

Sure enough, Alex’s book quickly shot to the top 10 in its category on Amazon shortly after it was released. With thousands of options on Amazon, that’s no small feat. Increased competition makes it that much more difficult to reach your target audience, and it’s unlikely someone will “stumble upon” your book by browsing.

Take a scroll through the ebooks page on Amazon and you’ll see what this looks like in practice. There are hundreds of options, just on page one.

Amazon bestselling ebook example
Amazon’s business book bestseller list includes hundreds of business books. Image via Amazon

All of these options may be great for consumers, but it makes it challenging for authors to stand out from the crowd. You’ve put so much effort into your book that it deserves to be seen (and purchased!) instead of vanishing in a sea of infinite online bookshelves.

You lose control of formatting

When you upload your files to Amazon, you’re also ceding control of what the formatting is like. Every author has to choose between a fixed format like a PDF, which displays the same way it would be printed, regardless of device, or a reflowable format like HTML or plain text, which changes how it looks based on screen size or font choice.

With Kindle Direct Publishing, you can upload a Word Document or use Amazon’s KindleCreate to create a KPF. But after that, things can go awry. You’ll have to be careful about the design or template you use. This is important not only because it makes your book pleasant to read on an e-reader format, but can also determine how accessible it is and whether or not it adapts to multiple devices.

“I chose an upload format that would preserve our formatting because I wanted control of what it looked like,” says Hillman, whose book features a series of vignettes, and so isn’t a traditional type of business book. “Because the book is designed in a particular way, I thought, let’s preserve that.”

Hillman converted his PDF files into KDP Files using Amazon’s KindleCreate. But it wasn’t until launch day that the first error message rolled in:

“I tried to download The Tiny MBA to my Kindle Paperwhite, and it gave me an error. Do you know what’s up?”

Errors with The Tiny MBA's Amazon customer experience
After buying Alex Hillman’s ebook on Kindle, customers experienced errors downloading the book. Image via Stacking The Bricks

Cue the panic. “People got an error on their e-readers like Kindle Ink,” he says. “Official Amazon hardware, super popular. They couldn’t download them because it was a fixed layout book. A fixed layout only works on certain devices…and once you upload it as a fixed layout, it’s stuck as a fixed layout.”

For Hillman, it felt like Amazon wiped out all of the hard work on the formatting, and then made it impossible to fix. That ebook format only works on Kindle Fire and the Kindle App, not the e-readers themselves. “There’s no warning that says if you choose this type of file, it won’t work on people’s devices,” he says, frustrated.

You lose touch with your customers

What bothered Hillman the most wasn’t the formatting issue. It was the customer experience. He didn’t expect everything to go perfectly — what launch does? — but he did expect to be able to address anything that came up. With so many errors and no way to fix them, Hillman had a customer service nightmare on his hands.

The main thing I found so frustrating is that our customers were having a terrible experience, and Amazon refused to do anything about it. Amazon owns the customer relationship, which means there was no way to say, “Here’s the correct file.” All the customer could do was request a refund.

Losing control over the customer experience is what tipped Hillman over the edge, prompting him to pull the book from the Kindle store and sell only from his website. “I don’t want to have more customers, if those customers are not my customers, who I can’t provide the customer experience that I want to have,” he says.

With Amazon, you don’t own the customer relationship — they do. Hillman’s customer support issues brought up larger concerns about the customer journey. If something does go right, then there’s no way to capitalize on that business relationship.

When you sell a book on Amazon, Amazon retains the customer. I have no information about who the customer is, which means I can’t have a long-term relationship.

Law found the same issues, especially since he plans to make his book a series. “Getting people to buy your book in the first place is a huge challenge. But there’s no way to know who actually bought your book, outside of the percentage of people that leave a review,” he says.

Ryan Law's novel The Green Priest
Ryan Law’s novel The Green Priest. Image via Ash Tales

If he wants to follow up to announce news of the second book available, or to promote his short stories or podcast, he’s out of luck.

You’re reliant on one platform for distribution

When Apple launches new products, you know about it.

Whether you watch their keynote, read a news article, receive an email, or see people chatting about it on social media, they’re getting the word out on every possible channel so they can sell as many as possible.

When you’re dependent on Amazon, you don’t have that same kind of marketing flexibility for your ebook. With Amazon, you’re locked into specific book deals based on whether or not your book meets a certain criteria, like being less than $9.99. “The ebook market is essentially the Kindle market, which is kind of crippling. Your typical margin with Amazon is 35% or 70% depending on the type of plan you choose. That’s a huge amount of money,” says Law.

“If you put all your eggs in one basket of a platform that you have no control over, like Amazon, you’re gambling,” says Hillman. “But you know, as far as gambling goes, the house typically wins, not the players.”

Amazon makes sure that for you to truly reach as many people as possible, you’re making a trade-off that benefits Amazon. While Kindle Direct Publishing is a non-exclusive partnership, to tap into Amazon’s full reach requires signing up for KDP Select, which is the only way to get the ebook on Kindle Unlimited.

While The Green Priest is still available for purchase on Amazon, Law doesn’t use it as his main distribution channel. “I use an independent distribution channel,” says Law. “You have email addresses you can use to contact people or follow up with them. You get a whole feedback loop Amazon doesn’t provide for you.”

Owning the entire customer journey matters because it gives you more control over your sales cycle, and more options for established authors when it comes to selling. “A big part of that was the fact that I have a successful podcast,” says Law.

To succeed, you have to promote your ebook wherever you can — and having the flexibility to match market needs can make a big difference. You can…

  • Offer a sample for free, or give your ebook to well-known influencers or reviewers so they can read it and promote it
  • Guest post or find other traffic sources for your ebook, from email newsletters to social media or forums like NoiseTrade Books
  • Grow your email list with the 10 person rule

“Having your source of distribution before you even start writing makes the writing so much easier,” says Hillman, who uses his email list and social following, among other channels, to reach his audience. “If the goal is sales and distribution, you have to know who you’re writing for. Build this into sales systems you already have.”

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