Beyond Smashwords — My Plans to Upload Ebooks Directly to Apple & Kobo

| Posted in E-publishing |


In late April, I published my fourth Emperor’s Edge book to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. The book appeared in all of these stores within 24 hours. This is what you’d expect in this digital age. But what of other stores? Apple? Kobo? Sony?

When I started publishing in December of 2010, I decided to use Smashwords as my distributor to get into these other stores. That was, I gathered from listening to other indie authors, how it was done. Sony and Kobo didn’t have self-publishing portals and it sounded like a convoluted process to get into the iTunes store, so I didn’t research it much. Smashwords was willing to handle the distribution for free (well, they take a small cut of the sales, but they don’t charge an upfront fee), so I was content to let them handle things.  Most of my early readers were at Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Barnes & Noble, so I didn’t worry much about Apple and the others anyway.

Last Christmas, however, I decided to make the first book in my Emperor’s Edge series free at all of these stores, and that led to more readers at Kobo and Apple, in particular. Readers tried the freebie and went on to buy other books in the series. Unfortunately, these readers aren’t able to get new books as they’re published. It took my last ebook (Peacemaker) over six weeks to show up in the Apple Store, and I’m still waiting for EE4 to show up (it’s been over six weeks since I first submitted it to Smashwords).

Several readers have tweeted or written and asked where the heck EE4 is at Apple. They follow me online, so they know that the book has been out for a while. All I can tell them is that I’m still waiting for it to get from Smashwords to the other stores. Even though I don’t think Amazon needs the extra publicity, I’ve mentioned the iPad’s Kindle app more than once and suggested folks may want to buy the book from Amazon. Not everyone is interested in supporting the e-giant though, and I don’t blame them.

Smashwords is a very affordable service (as I mentioned, free until you start making sales), so I don’t want to complain about the waits and the customer service (you get what you pay for), but the fact that people want the book and aren’t able to get it in a timely manner has led me to take a second look at ways to get into these stores. Fortunately, there are some new options coming online.

Kobo’s New Self-Publishing Platform

I just uploaded EE4 over at Kobo where they are beta testing their new self-publishing platform, Writing Life. It’s due to go live for everyone at the end of June.

As many of you know, I’m a fan of having readers everywhere and not putting all of one’s eggs in the Amazon basket. Going the Smashwords route, things took forever to get into Kobo, if they made it at all (I have a title published last August that isn’t there yet). Now we’ll be able to get ebooks into the store within a day or two.

As with other self-publishing portals, the dashboard will allow us to see real-time sales stats and make changes to price, cover art, blurbs, files, etc. that will be reflected in their store within a couple of days. The royalty rates there are set at 70%, which means you’ll make more than if you went through Smashwords, and it looks like you’ll be able to run free-ebook promotions any time you like.

This may be a great new opportunity for indie authors, especially for authors hoping to expand their reach with international sales. Kobo is based in Canada, and I’ve honestly never seen a Kobo e-reader here in the U.S., but it seems to be making leaps and bounds in global markets.

I’ve been in touch with Mark Lefebvre, the director of self-publishing & author relations, over at Kobo, and I hope to be able to give you guys some more information on the program soon, but it definitely looks like a promising new contender so far. They have things set up to pay in U.S., Canadian, Australian, etc. dollars, so it looks like there won’t be any barriers for international authors.

More on Kobo’s Writing Life here.

Uploading Directly to the Apple Store

From what I’ve read, you’ve actually been able to upload directly to the iTunes store for a while, but there are some hoops to jump through, which makes it tough for a lot of authors. The biggest one is that you need access to a Mac because publishing is done through their iTunes Producer software.

I was all set to install this last month, but my Mac is too old to run the OS required for the software. I am, however, planning to use my next Smashwords payout (irony?) to buy a new Macbook Pro, so I can make this happen (and because the keys are falling off my old Macbook). For those of you who have no interest in purchasing a Mac, it may be worth finding a friend with one if you get to be in the boat I’m in.

The other obstacle is that you need to buy your own ISBN. Once I’ve actually gone through the process, I’ll write up a post on what all is involved here, but I don’t think it’ll be a major hurdle.

Apparently, you can also make your ebooks free any time you like at Apple, so I’m looking forward to playing around with sales over there (since that first free ebook is what took me from $X a month at Apple to $XXX a month).

A Goodbye to Smashwords?

Though, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, I’m not planning to use Smashwords to distribute to Apple and Kobo with future books, I’ll still make sure my latest titles are available there. I know there are quite a few international readers, in particular, who enjoy downloading ebooks from Smashwords (there are no extra fees for them to buy there).

Smashwords also has some perks that make me wish the outfit had made more inroads into the ebook market on its own merits (as a seller and not just a distributor), such as the ability to issue coupons, to offer affiliates a greater percentage of the sales price, and the fact that authors receive a higher royalty rate there than at any of the other stores. Their store interface has never been user friendly, though, and I know it’s rare that I make sales there when I haven’t specifically directed folks to my book links. The times are changing, though, and we may see less and less of a need for a distributor.

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Comments (42)

The new Kobo platform sounds interesting. I can’t wait until they roll it out. The two Canadians I know both rock the Kobo rather than the Kindle. In regards to Apple, good luck! I hear it’s a rough ride to get your content approved. Are you going to try and use iBooks Author?

Thanks for the comment, Paul. I’ll post an update on Apple as soon as I get a chance to try things. I’m going to stop at the Apple Store this week and see if my CPU is fast enough to upgrade to the latest OS. My Macbook is 4-5 years old, so I’m not sure. The thing plugs along fine, though, so it seems like overkill to buy a whole new laptop just to upload books.

In your case, it probably makes economic sense to buy the Mac, jump through the hoops, and publish directly. However, for most writers it is just too darn cost prohibitive. I wish Apple would take a cue from the other tech titans and make the process easier. They are getting killed by Amazon, B&N, and possibly Kobo soon in the eBook world. Please let us know how it goes and good luck.

I’ll see how much of a hassle it actually ends up being. I’m going to post an interview tomorrow with a lady who’s doing this, and it sounds like you only need the Mac for uploading the ebooks, not for checking stats and using the dashboard and the like. One might be able to use a school or friend’s Mac.

It is a shame that Apple places that obstacle in the road though. I had no trouble putting a podcast on iTunes back when I was a PC person, so I’m not sure why this should be different.

Thanks for sharing this information. I just got my first book up on Kindle and was planning on tackling Smashwords next. Now I’m thinking that it might not be worth the effort.

But, is Apple the only one besides Smashwords that will let you do a free promotion? (without being exclusive like Amazon requires)

I haven’t tried to do it on their new dashboard yet, but I’m sure I read in a press release that Kobo is going to allow this too.

FYI Kobo. I’ve been using Kobo for almost 2 years and it works very well. I use the Kobo App on my iPad to read my books. The only downside is you cannot purchase through the App. Glad to hear you’re exploring this option!

Thanks for commenting, Gary! I just checked and EE4 is already live over there (less than 24 hours). Looks like things are off to a good start.

Asking as a reader who has never done any investigation into this at all –
Is there a main reason you can’t sell the ebooks as a download directly from your website? Obviously Amazon & BN & iTunes are going to lead people to you, but for the people who are eagerly awaiting something that isn’t being published quickly enough elsewhere?

It’s popped into my head to wonder before.

When I’ve researched online stores, any vendor who sells to international buyers is responsible for the VAT owed for purchases to folk living in countries where that applies. I’m an author, myself, and don’t care to mess with that.

As a reader, my preferred vendor is Smashwords. 🙂

You can, Maria, and that’s something I will probably add someday. I have yet to see someone’s setup (including those on small press sites) that I didn’t think was clunky, usually requiring a third party (i.e. ejunkie) or the author/publisher to manually email the person the book, so I have a feeling I’d have to throw a lot of money at a programmer to get something I consider decent.

Also, I’m sure that a lot of what people like about e-readers is the one-click purchase with wireless delivery to their device. Even with snazzy programming, that wouldn’t be something I could replicate with a web store on my site.

Thank you for the suggestion. It is on my mind!

I see what you mean about the one-click settings. My husband and I use our kindles for a lot of audio/video time wasting as well, so we are constantly using the usb cord to transfer files from the computer. I had forgotten not everybody feels the need. 😛

I guess I’m one of the only people who buy preferentially at Smashwords… so Yes, please, keep selling there ! As to why Smashwords ? Because 1) they keep the ebook “in their cloud”, 2) you get 82% and 3) they’re the undedog…

And thanks for the great books !

(And more reasons on my blog )

I prefer buying from Smashwords, too. Get the most recent update to the book you bought in whatever file format you need, without worrying about DRM biting you someday? Yes!

I only buy from the Nook store when it’s something unavailable on Smashwords. (I have a Nook.)

I have problems with Nook : B&N won’t sell to me since I don’t have an US IP address, whether the ebook I want has worldwide rights or not…

I wish more folks gave Smashwords a try! So far many of the SW fans I’ve met are authors themselves.

I’ve gotten a few of my friends hooked, but they read very few e-books. (Er, mainly mine.)

I noticed the publish direct system starting at Kobo and was considering going direct there for future novels. I make sales at Kobo too, but it does always take forever for my titles to show up there through Smashwords. Although I suspect the slowness is more the fault of the receiving retailer than SW. Smashwords sends its new content regularly but Kobo and Sony always take along time to do anything with it. Maybe Apple does too, but I’ve had good luck with my novels showing up there fairly soon after publication.

I do wonder what this means for Smashwords as a business. The whole idea of being a distributor, not a storefront, makes sense only if they are considerably easier for writers to use. The fact that you have to use a Doc file with them when you can use an ePub with everyone else, and the delays in updating material to their partner sites (who aren’t necessarily motivated to cooperate, especially once they start offering direct services to writers) are going to make it harder to justify going through them.

I like Smashwords, too–especially the coupon feature–but “Give us 10% and we’ll make life more difficult for you!” is just not going to work as a pitch.

Good luck with getting that ISBN number. Working with Bowker (the sole provider of ISBN numbers) will likely be the most difficult thing you have to deal with.

I helped a retired lawyer with a memoir featuring his exploits in the OSS both during WWII and as a spymaster in post-war Berlin. We were working about 5 years ago and it doesn’t look like Bowker has changed it processes at all.

First, there is the very heavy price you pay for ISBN number in small quantities. A single ISBN costs $125, 10 cost $250, 100 cost $575. And each different version (Kindle, iBook, B&N) would technically require a separate number. The good news is that, as you know, Kindle and B&N don’t require an ISBN number. And a physical book, in each separate physical format, requires its own ISBN number (hard cover, trade paperback, MM paperback).

And then there are the requirements when registering the book and its ISBN with Bowker. Since I haven’t had experience with that in the last 5 years, I’ll not say more than that it wasn’t pleasant (though some of that was likely because of my inexperience).

I’ll look forward to your article about dealing with the ISBN issue. Don’t give up on it. It definitely can be done, but expect some bumps on the way.

Just as a note, JR Holmes, different countries deal with ISBNs in different ways. Bowker is the ISBN agency for the US.

Other countries have their own agencies. I’ve heard that not all countries’ agencies charge for ISBNs.

Thanks for the warning, JR!

I just did a short email interview with another author who is doing Apple direct, and it doesn’t sound like she had much of a problem with Bowker, so maybe I’ll get lucky! I write lots of books, so a block of 10 wouldn’t go to waste, and $25 a book doesn’t seem that expensive to me.

For the ebooks I’ve already done through Smashwords, it seems like those ISBNs ought to work (in fact, I wonder if it’s allowed to have two different ones for books). We’ll see how it all plays out. Thanks for commenting!

If you paid the $10 to have the ISBN registered in your name, you might be able to use it, but my understanding is that you aren’t really supposed to. (Different editions & file formats are each supposed to get their own ISBNs.)

If you got the free ISBN, my understanding is that Smashwords is the publisher/distributor of record, and you can’t properly use that ISBN elsewhere.

Granted, I’m someone who currently is using all free ISBNs and intentionally isn’t buying any, so my understanding may or may not be correct. 🙂

You are exactly correct that re-using the ISBN of a previous ‘edition’ is forbidden (though I’ll bet you can get away with it on a small scale).

Heh, and the only reason the Smashwords “edition” is any different is because they make you put Smashwords Edition at the top. 😛 Seems like it’d be confusing, in the grand scheme of things, to have lots of ISBNs floating around for the same book. I’ll definitely look into buying my own.

And, astonishingly on this particular point, Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer blog is starting a on-line publishing workshop.

As part of this effort, he is using the video tutorial for getting ISBN numbers as an introduction to the workshop and is doing so completely free.

Though I have no experience with that tutorial, you certainly can’t beat the price.

Lindsay, it’s a strong point in favour of direct placement of ebooks on Kobo etc if you can edit the product description and get near real-time sales updates. I have trouble keeping a handle on my sales through Smashwords channels as the data lag is so long and lack of control over channel product presentation is frustrating.
Not being in the US (I’m in Ireland), I can’t place my ebooks direct on B&N and I’ve found them the slowest to catch up via Smashwords distribution. And I don’t have a Mac so that’s Apple direct out for me.
On ISBNs, I bought 100 (yep, who am I kidding but it was a bargain!) via Nielsen who do the UK & Ireland ISBN administration.

Hi Lindsay,

I’ve been reading here for a while though I haven’t commented in a while–your posts are always smart and highly encouraging for someone who’s just wading into the e-book publishing world. I’m planning to go direct to Kobo once their program kicks off, but Apple sounds like too much hassle to me, especially since Smashwords just announced that they are going to near real-time metadata changes for Apple. It sounds like shipment speed may still be out of their hands, though. The announcement is here if you didn’t see it:

Thread on Kindleboards about how nothing’s changed, despite that rah-rah blog post:,117122.0.html

I always like to back the little guy when it makes sense. For instance, I choose independent coffee shops instead of Starbucks, because the coffee is usually better at these little places that roast their own beans. Some of them offer organic milk and more milk-alternatives. The baristas seem to stick around longer, and you often get a more personalized experience. You don’t mind paying more to support an independent when it’s better than the big dog at some things, and you enjoy your experience.

Smashwords isn’t better at anything. Navigating their store is a joke, and if you’re an author… I’ve always gotten responses to emails promptly from Amazon. SW contact us page currently says you can expect a 10 day wait on requests for help.

SW has only made it because it’s been the only option for those wanting to get into stores that don’t have author dashboards, but if that stops being the case, I think a lot of authors will bail on them.

I have seen the post, thanks, Rachel. I’m not sure what to think of it, as nothing’s happening quickly on the Smashwords/Apple front for books I’ve published this year. I feel like we’ve been hearing for a long time now how Smashwords is going to be hiring more people, and things will go faster, and so on. If anything, they’re quite a bit slower than when I first published with them in December 2010. More people using the service, I’m sure.

Yeah, after I posted I went and checked out my own books at Apple and up–there are still changes lagging way behind. Growf. It still doesn’t make sense for me to go direct to Apple, but I’ll be really glad if/when these changes really do kick in.

Coming from Canada, I can definitely say I am excited to hear about Kobo’s new self-publishing platform. All e-readers can be bought from the big tech stores (Future Shop, Best Buy, etc.), but the Kobo is the only one I’ve seen available (and heavily promoted) in a bookstore. Chapters has the monopoly on non-indie booksales in my city. Granted, my city is a small city–but when I visited Ottawa, the Chapters there was also very, very large. I own a Kobo myself, although I’ve seen every brand of e-reader here.

I am so excited for the launch of Kobo’s Writing Life! I didn’t want to use Smashwords, even though it’s a distributor all self-publishers are “supposed” to love, because they make you mark your title page with “Smashwords Edition.” I won’t even wear shirts with tiny logos on the front pocket; I’m certainly not going to mark my book up with someone else’s company name. Especially when that company didn’t do a darned thing to produce it. So I’ve only been selling through Amazon and B&N and whoever gets the paperbacks through CreateSpace.

Regarding Apple, though, I have my reasons for disliking them as well. Those ISBNs are a big hurdle for me as a newbie who, after a massive promotional campaign just to eek out some visibility, has sold a grand total of five copies for the effort. But if I want to switch to Lightning Source for my next print book, which I’m seriously considering, I’ll have to buy them anyway. To add to JR Holmes’s price listing above, publishers can also get blocks of 1000 for $1000. It only costs CreateSpace or Smashwords a dollar to slap an ISBN on it, whereas it would cost us $5.75 at the very least, and more likely $25 per. Bowker is ripping us little guys off, no matter which way you look at it.

It almost makes me want to start a black market for ISBNs. I don’t think reselling would be illegal, just unethical. Devious investors could buy them up in bulk and sell to desperate indies for $10 a piece. The writers get a discount, and I’d make a killing :p

Er, the “Smashwords Edition” is just a way to specify how the file formats were created, so if there’s a problem, you can easily track down if it’s your side or the Smashwords MeatGrinder.

I may be misunderstanding you, but I don’t see what putting two words on the cover page could have to do with troubleshooting.

I believe Smashwords forces you to put their name on there, at least in part, to track whether you’re using their meatgrinder versions elsewhere. I received a cease-and-desist email last year because I’d uploaded a Smashwords version to Amazon and they found out about it somehow. I only did this because they weren’t able to get books into Amazon and I didn’t know how to make my own mobi files at the time.

In Bowker’s defense (and I hesitate to phrase it that way), they are a legal monopoly (in the US) with regard to ISBNs similar to ICANN’s ability to assign IP addresses and control the domain name system. They prefer to deal with large blocks of ISBN numbers and have structured their prices to favor that (heavily). Bowker would have absolutely no problem with you buying large blocks of numbers and re-selling them. This is essentially what Smashwords is doing with their ISBN offerings.

I don’t think I’ve ever had any sales at Kobo (or Sony or Diesel) but maybe it will be different if we can upload our ebooks on our own over there. I know that only some of my titles have actually made it into their store from Smashwords.

I would love to know if anyone knows of any Kobo book blogs like Kindle Nation Daily where authors can advertise.

I don’t want to load another book onto Smashwords again. I find them to be condescending toward authors in their written materials and statements. Their insistence on the Meatgrinder and Word when it’s easier to generate an ePub and mobi directly confounds me. Let it go, Smashwords, let it go. I’m sorry you’ve invested a lot in this craziness, but let it go. The incredibly slow payments, reports, and book uploads.

I won’t upload my novels again. I like to use graphical headers for each chapter and those are a nightmare with the Meatgrinder. They make it so hard for me to give the reader a nice book. Unfortunately, as my books move off of Kindle Select this means no Sony but I’m looking forward to Kobo direct.

My short stories, I don’t want to buy ISBN’s for them, not really, but I guess I’ll have to for iBooks.

Hoping Sony gets with the program.

Cool on the Kobo upload roll out. My next release is end of July. I’ll also be uploading to B&N directly for that one.

I don’t have a mac, so will continue to rely on Smashwords for iTunes, and I do like them for the coupons & the fact I can get copies of my book in any format to give away and distribute for free. I don’t have the issue of being as popular as you yet. 🙂

Smashwords still has its perks. I don’t make many sales there either

Hi Lindsay! Wanted to let you know that I nominated your blog for the Inspiring Blog Award! Check it out on my blog:

[…] Fantasy author Leslie Buroker blogs about a similar issue in a post titled My Plans to Upload Ebooks Directly to Apple & Kobo […]

A great way to get into Apple is to use It’s FREE and quick to publish. I use Smashwords to build the file, then flip to and load. There are less file requirements at than there is at Smashword to get into the extended distribution.

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