Thursday, December 8, 2011

BigAl’s Alternatives to Amazon (or B&N)

For some time, I’ve intended to write a few non-review posts and have kept procrastinating. Recently I’ve read some blog posts touching on two of my planned subjects that served as the push I needed. This is the first of these.

As Anne Allen points out in a recent blog post, Amazon has a near monopoly, at least where purchasing eBooks for Kindles are concerned. The same is true of Barnes & Noble for Nook owners. Although Anne’s post is on a different subject (and it’s well worth reading both it and the follow up if you haven’t already), this “monopoly” is what I’ve wanted to talk about.

I’m a big fan of Amazon and they have received the vast majority of my book-purchasing budget for many years. This isn’t likely to change any time soon. They provide the best selection, superior customer service, and excellent prices. But they also have an unbelievable percentage of the book market in the US and close to a monopoly on books for our Kindles. Quoting Anne Allen’s blog post, “… the truth is: monopolies are always scary.”

This could also be scary for authors. In a recent guest post on Joe Konrath’s blog, bestselling author Barry Eisler made the case that if this were to become a problem, competitors would enter the market, forcing Amazon to remain competitive. The fact remains, some authors are also nervous about Amazon’s position. Whether an author or a reader, having all your eggs in one basket is unnerving.

I would suggest the old saying about an ounce of prevention is pertinent here. There are a limited number of alternatives to Amazon for Kindle owners, but supporting those that exist by occasionally using them for your eBook purchases will help keep them viable. These alternatives have some tradeoffs. You lose some of the convenience of purchasing from Amazon, but there are also some benefits. I’ll discuss both in more detail below.

The downside to any of these alternatives is the loss of that convenience one enjoys when purchasing from Amazon. With a single click, you can purchase and have your eBook “instantly” delivered via 3G or Wi-Fi to your Kindle. Use of an alternative involves setting up a new account the first time you purchase, downloading the eBook file to your computer, and side loading it onto your Kindle. While relatively quick and simple, especially after you have experience with this, there is no denying it falls short of the almost instant delivery Amazon provides. Amazon’s archive also means you don’t have to be concerned with keeping a backup of the eBook file in case of accidental deletion. However, there are advantages to using some of the alternatives that help offset this loss of convenience.

Amazon alternatives fall into three categories: alternative sources for Indie books (both self-published and small publishers), sources for free (public domain) books, and other places to purchase books published by larger publishers. We’ll take these in reverse order. This guide isn’t comprehensive. My aim is to raise the issue and point you to some potential Amazon alternatives.

Large Publishers

There is an excellent argument that, for books in this category, there is no compelling reason to look for an alternative source. The publisher sets the eBook price and retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble can’t discount. The publishers are a quasi-monopoly and some think they are engaging in monopoly pricing. Sticking with Amazon or Barnes & Noble for Kindle and Nook owners makes sense for these books. (If you don’t understand why all sources charge the same price, Google “Agency Pricing.”) However, there are some alternative sources if you’re interested in finding them.

Almost everything in this post applies more or less equally to Nook owners and anyone who has any other major eReader as much as it does Kindle owners. This section is an exception in that it much of it doesn’t apply to Kindle owners. As Kindle owners, we believe we have the most reliable and easy to use eReader on the market, backed by the best customer service in the business, but the Kindle has one quality that is a definite negative.

While most eReaders use the ePub format, which is as close to an industry standard as currently exists, Amazon uses a proprietary format. A DRM (digital rights management) or copy protection scheme is available for the ePub format (called ADE or Adobe Digital Editions) for use by anyone. It appears that many large publishers have decided not to offer Kindle format eBooks through other sites beyond Amazon. I suspect this is because of issues with DRM. For those with other eReaders, there are two possibilities. The first is the publisher site.

For romance readers, Harlequin offers eBooks directly from the publisher. I should note that this site does have eBooks in the Mobipocket format, which might have been compatible with the Kindle, but they are discontinuing this format as of the end of 2011.

Another publisher with eBooks (ADE format) available for purchase directly from their website is Simon & Schuster.

Many other publishers may have the same capability on their websites.

There are also other sites that sell eBooks from the major publishers for non-Kindle owners. One such site is, which has books from many large publishers available.

Free Books

Although there are many places you might legitimately find eBooks for free, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and some titles from Baen Books (a publisher of science fiction), this section is for books in the public domain. (Books no longer under copyright, which can be copied at will.) Many of these are available free from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and other sources, but the most extensive collection is at Project Gutenberg. If you’re a fan of the old classics: Dickens, Twain, Poe, Shakespeare, Thoreau … the list goes on and on, this is a great place to find those books at a price that can’t be beat.

Indie Books

Most Indie authors don’t sell eBooks directly from their website, instead providing a link to Amazon or B&N. However, there are exceptions and I expect this to become more common in the future. Along with offering multiple formats to satisfy the needs of most readers, an eBook store integrated into an author website is generally going to mean more of the money you spend will actually make it into the author’s pocket. While not every reader will see this as an advantage, I see it as a positive in encouraging my favorite authors to write more. The other advantage is that books obtained this way are normally DRM-free. Lack of DRM does not give you the right to give the book away or send a copy to your friends, but it does have advantages to the purchaser. (A good subject for a future post.)

Here are a few Indie authors who have set up stores as part of their website:

Joe Konrath has an eBook store integrated into his website, which also has books from two of his fellow Indie authors, Barry Eisler and Blake Crouch.

Eisler also offers the option of buying some of his books directly from his website (along with links to the major eBook sites).

The primary alternative source for Indie books is Smashwords. Although a large part of Smashword’s business is as a distributer for self-published authors and small publishers, they also have a retail operation. Smashwords is how most Indie authors get their books to the major eBooks stores except Amazon and (for many US authors) Barnes & Noble, so most Indie books are available there. Although they don’t have tools as extensive as Amazon to discover books, they’re an excellent alternative if you’ve already identified a book you want to purchase. (Since mid-June Books and Pals has included links to a book’s page at Smashwords if it is available there.) Smashwords is an especially good alternative to Amazon if you live in one of the countries where Amazon charges a $2 per book delivery fee, since Smashwords does not . There are two major advantages that Smashwords has over Amazon. The first is that it has multiple formats available. If you have more than one brand of eReader or own a Nook eReader, but also read eBooks on your smartphone and prefer the Kindle emulator, this gives you a way to be able to read a book in both places. It also helps protect your book investment if you decide to change eReader brands. The second advantage is that all books purchased from Smashwords are DRM-free.

What do you think? Should we be concerned? Does spreading our eBook purchases among multiple sites make sense?


Andrew Ives said...

In UK, there is now the Kobo eReader on sale from Asda (a supermarket) and WH Smith (a book/stationery store): and I think it is fairly likely that after Xmas, the supermarkets will start to stock eBooks as they did with iTunes. The largest supermarkets could certainly challenge Amazon.

I also recommend for all your free eBooks, in many languages and formats. I've used it for a few years now.

Donna Fasano said...

Readers can also purchase e-books through A Writer's Work.

I wrote for Harlequin for over 20 years so I know a little something about putting all your eggs in one basket. It's not something I would recommend to any writer.

Walter Knight said...

China does not have Kindle yet, but they read billions of E-books on their cell phones. Do not worry about Amazon's lead. The battle could still go either way, depending on new technology.

I am just greatful Amazon broke the Monopoly of the New York publishing establishment, allowing me my small small slice of pie, and a chance to make a living writing.

BooksAndPals said...

@Andrew and Donna: Thanks for the other links.

@Andrew and Walter: Outside of North America the market is much different. From what I've read I think the Kobo is, if not the leader, at a minimum a strong challenger in many countries. But my suggestions are aimed more at someone who has already purchased their eReader. I'm probably also being North America centric although where you live doesn't matter once you're committed to a specific reader. I think Amazon's dominance is much less of a problem outside the North America. Mark Williams did a good blog post about this a few weeks ago you could find with Google if you haven't already seen it.

I agree, Walter, that Amazon and the Kindle has been a positive for both authors and readers. More choice with readers purchases spread out among more books is a positive trend that I expect to continue. But I also think keeping the alternatives that are out there viable is still a good idea.

Joansz said...

Amazon's latest monopolist gambit is a ploy called Kindle select for direct publishing, where the author gives Amazon exclusive rights to the author's title for at least 90 days in exchange for being able to earn royalties in in their new Kindle library lending program. I bet a lot of authors will opt in. Then I wonder how easy it will be to end the exclusive rights after the 90 day period. This raises plenty of alarms with me.

Google Books has both free (out of copyright) and purchase ebooks using ePub format.

Bradley Convissar said...

The advanatge to pointing people towards Amazon is that the more people who buy from there, the higher your book ranks. teh higher your book ranks, the more people get exposed to it when they look at best sellers in a specific category. The more people who see it, the more people may buy it. If a majority of your sales are from your website, or Smashwords, or another independent site, the less chance Amazon shoppers will find you. And let's be honets, people just love to fart around on Amazon and will buy $1 books a whim

BooksAndPals said...

@Bradley and Joan:

I'd had this post scheduled for several days. When I woke up this morning and heard about the new KDP Select program I thought it occurred to me that my timing was lucky, in that this discussion is especially timely today. I'd been hearing rumors that something like this was coming, but now we know exactly what it is and have a better idea of what it means to authors.

Mark Coker (the CEO of Smashwords)has a post about KDP specifically that makes some of the same points I was making with this post. ( )

The flip side of this is what Bradley points out. Amazon makes it easier for readers to discover Indies and success breeds more success there. The KDP Select program gives an Indie author more tools to be discovered by new readers. If I was an author I'm not sure what I would do.

Those of us who are readers that like to read Indies have a horse in this race too. For Kindle owners (or those who use the Kindle apps on applicable devices), I think my suggestion of spreading your purchasing dollar around, especially to Smashwords, makes even more sense. Unfortunately we're going to find that some of the books we could previously buy from other venues are no longer going to be available there.

The issue is more serious for owners of non-Kindle ereaders. They are likely to find that Indie authored books previously available to them are no longer. Many authors are going to make the decision to opt into KDP Select because they sell very little at B&N, Apple, and the other major bookstores. Whether this is because the owners of those devices are less Indie friendly or because the bookstores make it less likely to find and Indie book is unclear to me. I've heard both and suspect it is a little of each.

If it is the bookstores this should serve as a wake up call to them. More and more bestselling authors are choosing to go Indie. IMO, they should be embracing Indies and doing what they can to promote them so that when an author is making the decision as to whether or not to opt-in to KDP Select that the perceived loss of income from these other stores is enough to make them think twice. For many, it isn't.

M Pax said...

Just got an email from Kindle Direct about giving them exclusive rights to work for 90 days. So, they're moving closer to a monopoly.

Parts of it are attractive, but then I own a Nook, which would mean I couldn't download my own book. Which would be a bummer.

Bradley Convissar said...

People keep on saying, I have a Nook, I can't read Amazon exclusive stuff. I have an iPad. I ahve this, I have that. Well, most smartphones out tehre have Kindle programs, and everyone with a PC can downlaod a Kindle program. So if there was something on a Kindle you were dying to read, but owned a Nook, there are many other ways to read it.

BooksAndPals said...

@Bradley: There are very few books that I'm dying to read that much. For those who primarily read ebooks on their smart phone or tablet computer then I agree. (Having not seen the Nook or Kindle apps in action on these I'm going to assume they are about equal.) There are sometimes non-fiction books on a specific subject that I might use an alternative. I might be willing to go that route for one of my most favorite four or five authors. But I doubt I would for most books. I'm sure I'm not a typical reader, but I suspect there are more who feel this way than don't.

But his also supposes that we're talking about a book the potential reader is aware is available and decides they really want it, then goes looking for a way to get it. Very few books are purchased on that basis.

Joansz said...

In order to buy an ebook from Amazon, you need an Amazon account. In order to buy an ebook from B&N, you need a B&N account. In order to buy an ebook from Smashwords, you need an SW account. The main difference is that with SW you can't order and download directly to the ereader like you can from Amazon and B&N. I hope SW is working on a way to enable this feature. I think that would make a big difference for some customers.

Bradley Convissar said...

My dirty secret? I don't own an eReader. i still prefer paperback books. But I do liek to read and support my fellow Indie writers, so I read all my indie stuff on my Droid X. I love it. Who needs an eReader? I read when I'm waiting in line at Target, at a restaurant, in my car... I also have a Nook app too, if I ever want to read a Nook Book. Point is, all of us tech savy people have a way to read whetever we want

BooksAndPals said...

I'm not sure about the Nook, but for the Kindle SW could do this now although it would have some downsides. To do it they would have to use the two email addresses Amazon has for each Kindle.

The downsides are:

It would require setting up a Smashwords email address as authorized to send documents to your Kindle. Since this would be visible to Amazon they could decide to change their TOS to not allow it. (Maybe one reason SW hasn't done this.)

For those who have a Kindle that is no WiFi enabled (the 3G only K1 and K2) they would have a small charge for each book from Amazon. (Those with WiFi would not.)

For the 3G only eReaders I don't think there is any other way to do this. For WiFi enabled eReaders it might be possible to find a way that doesn't involve going through Amazon. I'm not knowledgeable enough to know for sure.

BooksAndPals said...

LOL at your dirty secret, Bradley. :)

Not everyone is tech savvy, but I suspect a large part of the population is, especially those who have made the switch to ebooks. At least they are enough to handle the tech aspects of reading ebooks on their smartphone. The question is if they want to read that way. Some do and some don't. Just as you prefer reading on paper, many who have made the jump would vastly prefer reading on their ereader to the alternatives. I'm in that category because reading on an ereader, to me, is just like reading a paper book only better. I don't like reading on my tablet because it is like reading on a computer, which I don't like for prolonged periods.

In any case, we're in agreement that if someone wants to read a book bad enough and it is only available from a single vendor that the tools to do so are there.

Joansz said...

One gal pointed out on the Indie Writers facebook group that she is legally blind and needs to enable text to voice on her Nook. This latest from Amazon would lock her out of some books.

Bradley Convissar said...

And if you aren't using Smashwords to distribute to Apple and Sony, then people with those readers get left out... you can stretch and stretch and stretch and always find a certain popualtion that will be left out in any given situation. As authors, we have to do what we think is best for us, and you know what... soemtimes I wonder is BN does what it can to push the Indies down. At the risk of sounding liking a conspiracy theorist... I do relatively well at Amazon, but reaaaaal flat at BN. A lot of people do nada at BN. And sometimes you can't help but to wonder if BN, at the behets of the Big 6, push down the Indie's to prop up tard published books. Why should I be selling X amount at Amazon but literally, 1-2books a month at BN. They do very little for us Indie people in terms of help with exposure, so you knwo what, we owe them nothing. And I wonder if they go out of their way to keep us down.

BooksAndPals said...

The possibility of B&N doing that is there, Bradley. I've heard others theorize that was the case. I do know one Indie whose sales are split evenly between SW, Amazon, and B&N, but most say non-Amazon outlets account for a trivial amount.

It does make you wonder. I think part of it is that Amazon's tools to discover or stumble on to a book are better. B&N might also weight things differently so an Indie's chances are lower there. Whether it is something they do because they want it to work that way or just differences in their system or customer base doesn't matter. If the sales aren't happening then a chance to do even better at Amazon might make sense, at least in the short term.

Some Indies do well at B&N, but they seem to be the exception, so I'm not going to find fault with an author who chooses to opt-in to KDP select.

Alessa Adamo said...

Thanks for the post. I like having posts other than reviews from time to time. I see a couple comments about the new Kindle Select, which requires at least 90 days exclusive rights to Kindle. I for one am not going to go for that. I want as wide a distribution as possible. I also have my own website, but you can't buy through it. I simply link to all the retailers. Maybe someday I'll take that next step.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Alessa. I like doing them too and it was my intention to do a lot more of these, then I got buried in books and you know what they say about the best laid plans. :)

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Peggy Ireland said...

Amazon is head and shoulders above the competition in the discoverability race. As a writer and as a reader I find the struggle to identify new books more of a problem than actually purchasing them. This is one spot where Smashwords and Apple could make significant improvements.

Kris Bock said...

Just saw this on another blog:

“A year after the launch of Google eBooks, indies have become a vital and fast-growing part of the e-book market, thanks to their creativity, marketing savvy, and knack for matching the customer with the best book for them — print or digital. The IndieBound Reader app gives independent bookstores a home on the most popular mobile devices, making it easier than ever for customers to shop local when they shop digital.” - ABA's Technology Director Matt Supko,

It's available on the Android operating system, and they say it will soon be available on the iOS systems as well. (Per Darcy Pattison's Fiction Notes newsletter.)

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Chris. That looks like an excellent alternative for some. I should point out that Indie in this case is talking about Indie booksellers (non-chain B&M book stores) and includes both paper books and eBooks. It has the advantage of supporting a local merchant rather than a large corporation. is the place to go for those who would like to know more.

mensajes movistar said...

I am just greatful Amazon broke the Monopoly of the New York publishing establishment.