Which online retailers do the best job of helping sell your eBooks?

I thought I would share some potentially interesting information about the effectiveness of various online stores in driving eBook sales, based on my personal experience over the past months.

If you’re not a regular reader of OJR, last summer I wrote about my first effort in eBook self-publishing. I’m a big believer in eBooks because I see them as a medium where readers have proven that they are willing, even eager, to pay for content. Forget about chasing pennies from paywalls. Go where your readers are buying eBooks by the millions, instead.

Newspaper publishers have been publishing books for decades, but the printing and distribution costs have limited those efforts to only the most highly popular subjects, such as national championships by the local sports team and blockbuster investigative works. But eBooks lower the cost of production and distribution substantially. Now, many more long-form investigative works, ongoing columns and popular long-standing can be converted to eBooks, with good profit potential.

Adding eBooks to your repertoire provides you another revenue path to supplement advertising, underwriting or whatever else you’re using to bring in revenue today. I’d encourage publishers to look beyond repurposed content, and consider how original eBook content might fit within your news product mix. Find the right story, and the demand is there. From paying readers this time.

If you’re interested in getting started with eBooks, please click into our archives and take a look at my three-part introduction to eBook publishing. Today, I’m going to refine my original advice by letting you know what I’ve learned from selling eBooks through several popular online bookstores.

When I started, I submitted my eBook to four retailers that would accept works from first-time self-publishers: Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and Google Books. I linked to all four stores when marketing my eBook to the readers of one of my websites. (The book was a collection of stories from that site, re-edited and with a few additional chapters.) I signed up for the various retailers’ affiliate programs, not only so that I could make a few extra cents from each sale I referred, but also so I could get some information about how many sales were being driven by me, through my website, and how many were bring driven by links on the retailers’ stores.

The results humbled me. After the first day or two, the number of sales I referred dropped to a small fraction of the overall sales of the books – less than 10 percent. Which is great – exactly what you’d want to see. That shows that eBook publishing can expand your market, and bring your work to an audience and customers you’re not already reaching.

But I also found that the retailer-driven sales I was seeing were far from uniformly distributed. Within a month, it was clear that almost all of my sales were coming from just two stores – Amazon and Apple. So I did some clicking around to see if I could find out why.

One of my favorite nuggets of advice for any business person is to put yourself in the customer’s position and take note of what you see and how you’re treated. So that’s what I did. I went into each store as a customer and tried to find my book. The easy way to do that would be to use the stores’ search functions, and those turned up my book almost instantly.

But anyone who’d be searching for the exact title of my book would have heard it already. If my book was to reach a new audience that wasn’t already familiar with my work, those readers would have to find my title by browsing through the site – not by searching.

That’s where I found my explanation. Google Books has little presence on the Web, and generated almost no sales for my book. (Google has no affiliate program that I found, but when I stopped linking to the Google Books version of the book from my website, sales dropped to near zero.) Browsing through Google Books’ homepage really didn’t get me anywhere. Like Google itself, this is a search-driven interface.

Barnes and Noble bills itself as the world’s largest bookstore. And while Barnes and Noble sells millions of eBooks, it banishes self-published authors into a virtual ghetto called “Pub It!” Titles published through the Pub It! store aren’t displayed in BN.com’s category bestseller lists, and unless a reader decides to click the Pub It! link on BN.com, he or she would never find my book from browsing the site. Again, once I stopped linking to the Barnes and Noble version of the eBook from my website, sales through BN.com dropped to near zero.

It was a different story on Apple and Amazon, neither of which discriminate against self-published books in their listings. The initial push from orders from readers of my website helped move the book onto the bestseller lists in the Travel category in Amazon’s Kindle store and on Apple’s iBooks store. That made it easy to find for readers browsing through both retailers’ stores. Additional sales from browsing readers also helped move the book up the charts, and my book topped out at number 2 in the Travel category on iBooks. (Apple’s iBooks store offers significantly fewer titles than Amazon’s Kindle store, meaning there’s less competition to get onto the bestseller lists for publishers who can make it through Apple’s stricter tech standards for submitting a new title. But still… number 2! I’ll take that.)

Unfortunately on Apple, you need to stay on those category bestseller lists to keep moving product. Apple lacks the recommendation features readers find on Amazon, meaning that once you drop off the bestseller lists, there’s no easy way to browse to your book any longer. So, yep, even though I still link to Apple, sales have dropped to just a few copies a week now.

So, as an independent eBook publisher, I say, thank goodness for Amazon. With Amazon’s recommendation engine pushing my title to readers of books similar to mine, sales of my book on Amazon have remained healthy four months after it debuted. And Amazon offers bestseller lists in many different subcategories that drill down much deeper than “Travel,” allowing would-be customers to browse to my book even after it has dropped down the main Travel bestseller list. Amazon mixes eBooks and print books in category bestseller lists, too, exposing my book to readers who don’t think to look exclusively for eBooks, too. That gives it a sales edge over Apple, which sells only eBooks.

(Of course, Apple has its own advantage, since it has now barred direct sales of books on iOS devices through Amazon’s Kindle app. If you want to buy an eBook through an iOS app, you’re buying an eBook through the iBooks store. Of course, the workaround is to just use the browser and go to Amazon.com. That’s what I do.)

Now, will my experience apply to you? I don’t know. But I hope that this might help you prioritize where to focus your energy in publishing your first eBooks. My advice is… make Amazon your top priority. Getting on Apple can be worth the effort, too, at least in the short term. Once you have an Apple-compliant ePub file, it’s really not much extra effort to go ahead and submit it to Barnes and Noble or Google. (Though you’ll have to wait much longer to show up on Google – nearly two weeks in my case. Barnes and Noble had me up the next day.) But don’t expect much from those stores.

Looking forward, this experience convinced me that I don’t even want to consider buying a Nook. For eBook reading, I’m going all-in on Kindle. Why? Perhaps Barnes and Noble is trying to protect its relationship with the print publishers that stock its chain of brick-and-mortar bookstores by minimizing exposure for independent titles. But I want to see the full universe of available eBook titles when I go shopping for books online. And I want to be able to browse deeply into many various subjects to find title that might appeal to me.

My experience as a publisher and a consumer of eBooks shows me that Amazon is doing the best job of providing that now, by far. Which leads me to suspect that other consumers will feel the same way, ultimately powering Amazon to a dominant position in eBook and reader sales. That’s something for publishers to be thinking about.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Thanks for this excellent article. With your permission, I’ll be quoting you by name during my talk on the e-book world at the February Geneva Writer’s Conference. Your conclusion about amazon’s directing readers without prejudice is really worth highlighting.
    Dinah Lee K

  2. says:

    You do not mention Sony or Kobo. Also, you do not mention sales abroad, such as in Europe and Asia. Europe levies a large VAT tax on ebook sales, but ebooks are still cheaper than print ones even with the extra tax. I believe that Amazon’s Kindle is probably still the best on the issue of selling your ebook in a translated version in foreign countries. Your comments would be appreciated.

  3. says:

    I recently started searching in the sites provided by Google for “eBook Retailers” and found several places where my eBooks were listed, without my having submitted them.

    This was not a case of pirating – it was because when first starting in the business, I wasn’t very selective with the distributor I chose. They gave my books out to several affiliates, and then a year later, the distributor went out of business.

    This left my 8 titles with retailers who had no knowledge of who to pay royalties to… and I have no idea of how many websites are out there who are also selling my ‘royalty-free’ titles, and thereby diluting my over-all earnings for each title.

    Bottom line: stick with the big guys.

    Gene Grossman – http://www.MagicLampPress.com