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Kindle, Kobo, and Smashwords Compared!

I am about seven months (updated in May 2014) into having published five of my sixbooks to Kobo and Smashwords, and I wanted to share some nuances about the sites that you may not find elsewhere. This is NOT a complete comparison of the three sites, but instead is just a list of a few things I encountered on my journey in self publishing recently. This is a mega-post, so I have organized it into sections below in case you are interested in anything in particular and don’t have a lot of time to read the entire post. I hope it is useful to you!

Smashwords Kobo Amazon KDP

Instead of saving the punchline for the end of the post, let me say up front that the ultimate metric for any of these e-publishing sites is the number of sales an author hopes to realize. In seven months, my one full length novel all of my books combined sold 0 (zero) copies on Kobo, 4 (four) on Smashwords, and several more on Smashwords affiliate sites (Barnes and Noble, etc.), and substantially more on Amazon KDP. I’m not being secretive about my sales on Amazon or Smashwords–just lazy about looking up the numbers. The sales figures weren’t very high, even on Amazon, but I have done no marketing for any of these sites, so am not surprised to see relatively low numbers, since I am trying to focus almost entirely on writing some good stories that people will enjoy and developing a back catalogue first. Other than sales information, I have observed the following about these three sites:

Ease of Upload

All three sites are at least OK regarding ease of publishing. Amazon is the easiest after you get through the process for the first time and figure out how to preview your file to check for errors. One tip for indie authors out there is that if you are writing your book in MS Word, put all of the body of your work in a single style, AND I strongly suggest “saving as” a web page from Word before uploading to KDP.

I was having all sorts of strange, ghost-in-the-machine problems going straight from Word to KDP–mainly with paragraph spacing and indents, I believe. Saving as “.htm” and then uploading to KDP solved all of these problems.

Smashwords upload is pretty easy as well. You get a lot more keywords you can assign to your work, but I won’t get into that kind of things here, since this is about the EASE of upload, not comparing the actual quality surrounding their upload processes.

With Amazon, you wait maybe twelve hours on average for your book to show up and then it gradually integrates into the Amazon ecosystem over the next couple of days.

In Smashwords, I believe the book is immediately available on Smashwords, BUT it takes forever to roll out to the sites like Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Sony. Smashwords is essentially a middle man for these sites, and as such, there’s a lot of extra time added in to the process.

And, Kobo…Kobo’s process seemed awkward and foreign to me. I had a difficult time getting through it the first time. In Kobo’s defense, it could be because I was so used to the way Amazon handled book uploads that anything different just felt wrong. I was about to add some details on what in particular I didn’t like about the Kobo upload, but since I am unable to bring up the Kobo Writing Life (KWL) sign-in page (which happens often), I can only tell you that the way the site walked you through the different publishing steps was kludgy.

I had so many other problems with the upload process like categories that didn’t stick, that is hard to separate out the ease of upload part from the general frustration associated with my memories of uploading to Kobo for the first time. I will say that I imagine the next time I upload a book to the site, things will go much easier, since I am more familiar with its process.

Customer Service and Problem Resolution

I have used or tried to use customer service for each of these sites.

I had to use Kobo’s customer service a LOT when I first published my books (more on that later). They always got back to me and sent a customer service survey with each interaction. Their response times were pretty quick except for on my toughest problems, which took a LONG time on the order of weeks to solve.

They had to address the same problem several times, and I had to stay on top of them, but eventually, things worked out. Usually, they would tell me they had solved the problem but then add in that it might take a while before the fix rolled through their databases.

I will say that a real person from Kobo got back to me one time after I complained about not getting any resolution to my problem. I even recognized the guy from the Self Publishing Podcast I listen to. The personal touch was nice as he asked me to be patient, basically.

***KOBO Update May 2014*** I continue to be unimpressed with Kobo at least regarding my own personal experiences with them. Latest issue was the number of downloads for my perm-free title. One morning, the number showed as substantially less than the night before. After waiting several weeks, the Kobo rep emailed me saying that the had been experiencing a bug where free downloads were being counted twice and that the current number was the correct number of downloads for my book. All I could think about was how much this kind of “bug” would suck if one were dealing with paid purchases. I have NO indication that Kobo has a similar problem with paid purchases. I’m just speculating…

With Smashwords, a real person got back to me and worked through my issue, providing a solution to my problem.

With Amazon, you do get a person contacting you, but it’s a different person every time, even with the same trouble ticket. This makes for faster responses, but less ownership of your issue. I haven’t had too many problems with Amazon, but when I have had to contact them about similar issues, Amazon has its act together more and has obviously been at this whole online publishing thing longer than Kobo. I will say that I have had a few customer complaints where some Amazon reps are great, and others are not so great both in how they communicate and how they resolve my issues. A friend of mine swears that emailing a problem on a weekend, when they outsource their customer service, may produce worse results than submitting a problem on a weekday. I have no evidence of this either way.

Disassociating Your Name from Another Author

Unfortunately for me, “Michael Layne” is not as unique a name as I was hoping it would be in the publishing world. Specifically, there is another Michael Layne who published a book, through Smashwords and KDP. His book is very Christian/religious in nature AND has to do with running.

Problem.

One of my short stories is about running, another short story is about Hell, and my novel is called “Redemption.” I can see how perspective readers would be confused. Add to this the fact that if you searched on ANY of these three sites, both of our books came up together when I first started online self publishing. I figured that fans of the other Michael Layne would NOT be happy once they figured out that my books were anything but pro-religion, and I figured that anyone interested in my types of books could easily think that my stories were religion-centric and not give my work a chance.

So, I set about changing my author name to “Michael W. Layne” and trying to distance myself from the other Michael Layne and from his  book. When I checked with Amazon, they had an established process in place to disassociate the two of us. As soon as I asked them to do so, the other guy’s book didn’t show up as associated with my stories. Easy. Done. Part of this is because Amazon has a very smart search engine. And when you click on one of my books and then click my name to see other works by the same author, the link is smart as well. The link knows to take the viewer to my author page on Amazon that has all my books in one place.

When you click on one of my books in any other digital book store, and then click the link that says “see other works by this author,” the link is NOT smart. It simply feeds my name into their search engine and displays the results. So, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Sony, and Kobo still lump the books from the two Michael Laynes together even today. If you go to my book’s page on Apple, everything its still hosed, even after adding in the middle initial. One book is by Michael Layne, the other two are by Michael W. Layne, and they don’t seem to link to each other. Sigh. Part of this is because, for some reason I cannot fathom, only Amazon has author pages! Such a simple idea, yet none of the other sites have them.

When I decided to try distinguishing myself by adding my middle initial, I found out that NONE of the sites have a space for a middle initial. Smashwords took care of adding my middle initial after a simple email requesting that they do so. With both Kobo and KDP, I had to make my first name “Michael W.” and my last name “Layne.”

The results of this were…OK. Not spectacular.

If you search for Michael Layne, the Kobo and Smashwords affiliates (Apple, etc.) will bring up both books by both of us. If you search on exactly “Michael W. Layne,” you get just me. But really? Who does that? Answer: No one. If you search for Michael Layne or Michael W. Layne on KDP, my books come up front and center, probably because the other guy’s book hasn’t sold very much in a while. Just a guess. Search for me on Smashwords itself and my books come up with no problem.

Misclassification and Being Found

Kobo, for some reason, classified each of my books as religious fiction within a week of them being posted. I believe it was something to do with them thinking I was the other Michael Layne. It took forever to get this fixed. The would fix it, and then the books would go back to being religious fiction again, and I would email them again. I repeated this process several times. Eventually, they got it right. But it was too late. What do I mean?

Let me break this down for you. If you are an unknown author, Kobo does not present ANY REASONABLE WAY for readers to find your book through browsing. They let you add keywords, so someone could find you that way, but really the only time you stand out on Kobo as an unknown author is when you first publish your book because at least you show up as a new release and will show up close to the top of a given genre if someone lists their search results by publication date. Of course, this is only a small window, and my window was spent with my books being classified incorrectly. I tried to explain this to Kobo. They did not care at all and explained to me that I had to do my own marketing and that Kobo was not a site designed to help authors market their work. I definitely felt like I got screwed.

Smashwords doesn’t really have any special ways for people to find your book, but people seem to view my page often enough, so there must be something inherent in their ecosystem that works towards potential readers discovering new authors.

But KDP? Tons of ways for people to find your book. Amazon tries very hard to potential buyers the the book they are most likely to purchase regardless of price or publisher, whereas Kobo, and every other site still operates like a normal book store where big time publishers pay for space on the “front shelves” of the site. Kobo supposedly has some team of people who look for books they think will sell that they feature on their site. Since my books have not been selected by this team, I cannot speak directly to this.

Maturity of Search Engine and Overall Ecosystem

The Kobo search engine has some serious lag issues. For instance, before I decided to publish to Kobo directly, I had published Running Club to Kobo via Smashwords. When I published this same story to Kobo directly, I opted out of the Smashwords edition being sent to Kobo. Once that rolled through, there were TWO versions of Running Club showing up on Kobo: the one that was directly published to it and the Smashwords edition. Within a few days, the Smashwords edition linked to an error page, asking the viewer to let Kobo know if they kept seeing the page. It took close to a month to get the ghost version of Running Club off of Kobo. When asked about this (repeatedly) I was told that the search engine had to roll through and update, and that soon the ghost edition would be gone. Eventually, I received an email telling me that Kobo’s search engine was relatively new, immature, and that it still had some bugs.

NO such problems with Smashwords or with KDP.

Conclusion

Overall, although Amazon seems to have gone through some recent changes with regards to how they promote books (although I can’t prove this), they are far and above still the best place for an unknown author to be. Kobo claims to be there for the independent author, but really I think this is only for indies who already have an established audience. And Smashwords is OK on its own, but is still used by most indies primarily as the gateway to get into sites like Apple and Barnes and Noble. Amazon presents a richer, more complex online ecosystem with more opportunities for newbie authors, and it has more established processes for different problems that some of we authors encounter. I hope that some of this is helpful to someone out there on your self-publishing journeys.

Peace, and write on!

Mike

6 Comments

  • Fiona Cooke Hogan on May 26, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for this informative post Michael. I’m putting my free book on Draft 2 Digital at the moment and want to also put it on Kobo and smashwords. I have a book of short stories on Amazon since October and I want to direct some interest via the freebie book, so I will also upload said book. Good stuff here

    • Mike on May 26, 2016 Reply

      Great, Fiona! Glad you found some of that useful. And congrats on the publication of your latest story, What Happened in Dingle! Good luck with everything.

  • Rebecca Bogart on Dec 22, 2014 Reply

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for a very informative post! I am considering listing my nonfiction book on Smashwords – found your post via Google search. I am definitely going to check out some of the online forums you mention.

    • Mike on Dec 22, 2014 Reply

      Hi Rebecca! I’m really glad you found the post useful. Good luck with your books on Smashwords! – Mike

  • Bobbi JG WEiss on Jul 19, 2014 Reply

    I’m not new to publishing, but I am new to self-publishing. Your article has been helpful, as I’m putting my first self-pub novel onto Kobo directly today. Wish me luck! And I wish you luck in your endeavors! –Bobbi

    • Mike on Jul 19, 2014 Reply

      Hi Bobbi,

      I took a brief look at your web site. Wow! You certainly are not new to the publishing world at all. Very impressive. I’m really glad that you found some usefulness from my blog entry re Kobo and the other sites. Personally, I have found them pretty frustrating, mostly from a technical standpoint. They have really come across as just not having “it” all worked out yet. The one think I hope you took away from my post that you should remember is that Kobo is a place to self-pub your work, but it is not a site that promotes your work at all, unless you are one of the big time writers. I have heard from interviews that they will seek out and promote books with a higher price tag than not–ones that they believe will make more money for them and the author.

      If you are new to self-pub, you may not be hooked into a couple of podcasts that you should listen to for really good info. The first is the Self Publishing Podcast. This is a cast with three authors who work together to write, self-pub, and promote their works. They are on something like #120 or so and have become a bit ridiculous and very self-marketing, but their earlier podcasts have some good infer for indies. The best podcast out there for self-pubs is the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast. I know that, by the name, it sounds more amateurish, but turns out that the opposite is true. Whereas SPP is very sophomoric and also fun, the RSPP provides an interview with a different indie author each week and also people who do covers, editors, etc. I would say that all of the RSPP episodes are really worth listening to for ideas and tips about self publishing.

      Finally, re Amazon KDP, which I assume you are also self-publishing to?…If you are not tied into the Kboards community, you should at least take a look and know what is there. Go to http://www.kboards.com, register, and then go to “The Writer’s Cafe” segment of the site. It used to be filled with self-pubbed writers from the most unsuccessful all the way up to the ones making in the hundreds of thousands and even Hugh Howey (millions). Lately is has turned a bit cruel and vindictive with certain authors posting bad reviews if they don’t like your posts, etc. However, I still go and read the posts because they are ALWAYS up on the latest and greatest thing re Kindle publishing.

      Ok, and really this is the last thing, I promise…KDP Select was once the best ticket in town. Then Amazon changed its algorithms, and Select lost a lot of its teeth. Just this last week they started a new program called Kindle Unlimited that looks like it will be a game changer, and is ONLY available to authors who pub exclusively with Amazon through KDP. I note this, because KDP losing its teeth was the only reason I decided to pub via Kobo.

      I’m not an expert, but if there are any questions you might have, please feel free to reach out.

      Hope your Kobo upload experience was OK today and that you have already had tons of sales!

      Mike
      mwlayne@gmail.com

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