From the Self-publishing trenches: The Voice of the Little Prawns

Much discussion went on this week about this post, where Smashwords founder Mark Coker asserts that authors are being played like pawns by Amazon.

Like awesomely witty writer-friend Dalya Moon, I cannot see the word “pawns” without reading “prawns” and so the term Little Prawns was born.

Little Prawn = any author who publishes independently through large ebook retailers

Is Amazon playing authors? Absolutely. In his post, Mark riles against the KDP Select program (which, for the un-initiated, offers authors five days in which to promote their book for free in a 90-day signing period as well as inclusion in the Kindle Owners Lending Library, in return for exclusivity to Amazon). In other words: Amazon is luring writers away from the other sites.

Why would Little Prawns sign up for such a restrictive deal?

Well, being largely bottom-feeders, the Little Prawns are opportunistic. There was a time that setting your book free offered enormous benefits, but trying to make a book free on Amazon was both unreliable and time-consuming. So, Amazon listened to the voices of the Little Prawns, and introduced this program. Genius. At that point in time (last December) getting reliable free days was price-less. Most of us sold 99% of our books on Amazon anyway, and nothing was lost by withdrawing from other sites.

Poor Mark was deluged with remove requests, followed by angry letters to the extent of “Why hasn’t B&N/Kobo/Sony/Apple removed my book yet”. Those retailers were in no hurry to comply, or even reply, and I would assume that Smashwords bore the brunt of the exodus. Not fun.

Amazon, of course, did this for their own bottom line, and much as I respect Mark, I have no doubt that anything he does is done with one eye on his bottom line as well. And you know what, the Little Prawns are the same. Over the months, Amazon fiddled with the algorithms of the post-freebie sales boom to the point where being in Select wasn’t worth it for many authors, and they started to withdraw from the program. One could argue that Amazon was never interested in the Little Prawns anyway, and didn’t want them in the program and therefore reduced the benefits of having free days. I am not entirely sure what benefit a traditional publisher or bestselling self-publishing author would get from the program, and I would argue that its effectiveness is diminished with every title withdrawn from it. Privately, people have been wondering why Amazon hasn’t put the program to sleep, but they probably have issues of pride to deal with, or have other plans.


Around the middle of last month, something changed substantially for a lot of Little Prawns, including myself. Where I might see an odd trickle of sales from B & N, I suddenly saw a creek. And! Kobo! Kobo launched their new Writing Life site in late August, and suddenly in mid-September, books started selling there. You know, the Little Prawns are a connected lot (it’s a matter of survival for us), and as soon as people reported about the clean Kobo interface and, lo-and-behold, sales there, the Little Prawns voted with with their little pattering feet.

However, a product of Kobo’s launching of a writer program was that people were unticking the Kobo box on the Smashwords distribution options.

I can’t imagine that Mark would have liked this trend.

The message here? Amazon is playing the Little Prawns, and if they like the bait, they will come. Kobo is playing the Little Prawns, and they liked the offering, so they came. The Little Prawns themselves are continuously assessing and re-assessing their best bets. They will have a foot in each camp, and they will let themselves be played only if the risk seems worth it and not too dire (few people would, for example, sign to be in the Select program for a year, but three months? For a book or two out of a stable of 16? Why the heck not?)

Meanwhile, all these sites need to listen to the voices of the Little Prawns. Not just the ones who sell, but the ones who buy (and they’re often the same), and, most importantly, they need to act on the opinions of the Little Prawns and offer them a reason to continue to do business, a reason that is better than “I hate Amazon”, because that is only going to appeal to limited number of people. They need to make the experience better for sellers and buyers. Or they WILL lose market share, even if they’re Amazon (or maybe especially if they’re Amazon).

So here are my wishes for each of the main sites:

As a buyer: get rid of those hideous delivery charges based on locality
As a seller: cheques? WTF? CHEQUES??? Who the **** still uses CHEQUES? You are the biggest retailer, open a proxy office in major countries and let people be paid by direct deposit (and this will take care of those hideous tax wrangles as well)

As a buyer: the site design hurts my eyes. Give me a decent search engine
As seller: I’ve never had any trouble with the meatgrinder program, but I wouldn’t mind being able to upload an EPUB file

B & N:
As a buyer: can’t buy. FFS stop being so US-centric. Improve your search engine
As a seller: STOP BEING SO US-CENTRIC! Also, get rid of meaningless troll reviews

As a buyer: give me a better search engine
As a seller: so far, nothing bad to say

Overall, I think retailers could lure sellers with subscription-based programs that market to genre readers. They could hire some editors to develop a quality-assured/recommended catalogue. They could, you know, actually engage with their content. Every site, including, or especially, Amazon, should be constantly on the ball about what the Little Prawns are saying, because once you have a stampede, it’s hard to turn around. And certainly, whining about the competition is not going to do that.


9 comments on “From the Self-publishing trenches: The Voice of the Little Prawns

  1. My very strong feeling about Mark’s guest post, and many earlier statements by him is that 1. Smashwords is hurting. 2. It’s the fault of gullible authors who don’t know where their self-interest lies. And I say this as a former avid supporter of Mark and Smashwords. I turned to Amazon only when Smashwords failed me, with regular sales dropping to virtually no sales, and petty problems cropping up at publication time. I haven’t used Select yet, but I will try it out with my next book. If it works, I’ll use it to introduce each following book, but I won’t commit any book to it permanently. Is it unrealistic to believe that other writers are perfectly capable of making similar informed choices? I don’t think so.

    • Oh, yes, Smashwords is hurting, and has been dealt a further blow by the new Kobo site. However, for Mark to behave in this way sounds childish, even though he is right about many things. “Right” is never intended to be a commercial proposition, though.

      On the other hand, while he has no doubt been working tirelessly for his business, it hasn’t appeared that way to his users. The website has remained stagnant, the EPUB promise shoved under the carpet. He probably discovered that his money came from being a reseller, and now that Kobo is pulling a rug out from under him, he’s feeling even more nervous.

      On the other hand, if he offered sellers a new site and enhanced features that other sites don’t, I bet a lot of people would come back.

      For ideas as to what he could do better, he only needs to become a member of the Kindleboards.

      • I haven’t left Smashwords, and probably won’t unless things get much worse. But its only real value to me right now is the ability to offer an introductory discount coupon to my blog readers when I publish a new novel.

        I agree that Mark should pay more attention to what people are saying, and Kindleboards is probably the best place for that. But, for the moment, I think he’s in denial. I’ve also been wondering how much his traveling to publicize Smashwords and self-publishing is affecting the site. It needs his hands-on attention again.

      • I can’t see any reason to leave Smashwords. At the moment, they’re my only link to B & N, which is my biggest-selling site. But I haven’t sold on Smashwords direct for months, and the moment B & N decides to open PubIt for international authors, they’re dead.

        The best thing Mark can do now is to assume that PubIt *will* open to international authors, and find a way to get people back to the Smashwords site by offering something that the other guys don’t. This is the strength of Kobo: simple site, no BS if you’re not from the US (both as buyer and seller).

  2. I gave up on direct loading to B & N because it took so long just to make the $10.00 minimum payout. So I let Smashwords handle it now (think I’ve had one sale there in the last few months). It would be great for the non-US authors if Pubit opened up, but yeah, it will be another nail in SW’s coffin. I’m still holding out on Kobo because I don’t have the patience to deal with the glitches. Tried once and gave up, so maybe next year. Self-publishing is changing too fast for Mark to keep repeating the same lines without taking any real action. The newest competitor, if they succeed, is a brand-new site — Gumroad. I know one writer who’s using it and I’m waiting to get his report on it. I bought one of his books there and it was a dead-simple process. The charge to sellers is 5% plus $.25 per sale. It isn’t just for writers, but it could be another good way to go.

    • Haha, I’m trying to see this business in a realistic way. There are far too many people out there suggesting that this self-publishing gig is a big pot of money.

      • I don’t think the succeeding is nearly as important as the faith that at least you’re growing or getting closer to succeeding. A lot of people are happy with coffee money daily, but when the algos shift and the coffee money disappears … that’s not so good. 🙂

      • I agree. It really depends on what your goals are and for many people making a living from writing isn’t their primary goal. That said. I’m on my last ever freebie day in Select today and won’t be enrolling again unless something changes substantially. I’ve always disliked the artificality of tricking people into buying. Those buyers don’t stick around.

        I’m working with mailing lists and two websites of my own now, and listing a lot of different purchase options. It takes absolute ages to build up any kind of sales on many of these sites, and I’m not going to throw that away in favour of a quick buck.

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