Ebook publishing platforms are a joke

Over the last few months I’ve been preparing the launch of my ebook publishing experiment and taking notes on the process.

Studio Tendra, the first publishing experiment itself was launched a couple of weeks ago and, Heartpunk, the first book series, is off on a good start.

The first issue became obvious very early on and my experience over the first few weeks confirms it: existing ebook publishing platforms are a joke.

It doesn’t matter if you’re going direct through Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo’s Writing Life, or iTunes Connect. It doesn’t matter if you’re using an aggregator or a distributor. They are all a complete and utter joke that show a complete disregard of even the most rudimentary basics of online commerce.

(Many of you know that my day job over the last few years has been managing web projects for small to mid-sized software companies. Not as many of you may realise that that involves a lot of work on ecommerce platforms.)

From what I’ve seen, there is no difference between the self-publishing platforms and the aggregators in this regard. They all seem to concentrate first an foremost on self-publishing as identity production, as a social network and role that authors inhabit and pay no heed to publishing as a business.

Here are the absolute basics of what an ecommerce-oriented ebook publishing platform should provide, above and beyond the tools available in the existing platforms.

The publisher needs access to the following data, both in aggregate (all of their books), on a per book basis, both worldwide and per region.


An overview of all of the traffic sources. What social network actually generates leads? Which review blog generates traffic? Forums? Without this information the publisher can only monitor traffic from venues they control (even affiliate tracking codes can only be used where you control the link). This includes internal platform traffic. What category page generates traffic? Tags? User discussions? Review overview pages?

Conversion rates

For every facet of data you give to the publisher, they need to know what the conversion rate is. What blog review sells the most? What social network sells the most? What page on the publisher’s own website sells the most? What search keywords sell the most?

Upselling rate

How many people buy an ebook after sampling? How many people download a sample after coming from a specific review and go on to actually buying the book? How many people go from downloading one of the free books to buying a non-free book?


You should be able to segment all traffic and conversion rate overviews based on segments such as:

  • People who have bought a book from this publisher.

  • People who have downloaded a book from this publisher (but not bought).

  • People who have sampled a book (but not downloaded or bought).

  • People who have previously visited a book page for this publisher.

  • New visitors.

Search keywords

The publisher needs to know what keywords lead to the book, both internally (search in the platform’s store) and externally (Google, Bing, etc.).


Most platforms don’t allow images or markup in book descriptions or, if they do, they don’t document it.

These are the basics. These aren’t advanced needs. These are what you need to know to run an ecommerce business, which is what every single publisher has become has become in the age of ebooks.

The reason why there isn’t more of an outcry about this leads me to believe the following:

  • Platform vendors are largely correct in their assessment of self-publishing as being more about identity and social networks than business.

  • Publishers don’t understand analytics, focusing instead on useless in-book analytics and context-free sales data, instead of directly actionable information.

The in-book analytics fad is especially inane. The data you can get from those services is so self-selected, skewed, and disconnected from context that there is absolutely no way that you can discover actionable facts from it. It’s noise that will get misinterpreted as truth.

Sales data – dollar values based on region – is also pretty useless. It tells you after the fact that something, somewhere, that you might have done might have possibly resulted in these sales. It’s about as actionable as a random number generator.

Nice to know, of course. And it gives you an indication of the general trajectory of your business. But it doesn’t tell you anything you can use.

You can get most of this data by concentrating on selling direct, but it’s difficult for a publisher to get traction in direct sales because the buyer often loses access to the services that platform vendors have implemented to try and boost their unique value proposition. It remains to be seen how effective this lock-in is. I suspect that non-fiction publishers might have more luck.

(And yes, I do know that all of the above applies to the app stores as well. This is one of the major reasons why the app stores are a gold rush where success is more of a question of luck than of hard work.)

I suspect that the first publishing platform to offer these ecommerce features will immediately get a massive advantage: its publishers will earn money that is out of proportion to the platform’s actual marketshare.

Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of having a marketshare in the single digits but it does change the longterm viability of the platform.



davidcaruso1's picture

why are they considered a joke? I like the epub format for my nook, id much rather have that than lugging around an actual book... i guess some people do worse jobs at converting the text into etext perhaps? never gave me a problem. <a href="http://boca-raton-cpa.com">Boca Raton CPA</a>

great article

elwoodcock's picture

This is an excellent article. It would be fantastic to have access to the data you describe. I suspect the reasons I don't are a) it would be expensive for vendors to implement and b) the people using the service who want this functionality are not very powerful. People like me, dipping their toes into publishing, not making much money, not having a voice, not being heard.

Also, I think a lot of people using epublishing are still reeling from the fantastic opportunity it presents to finally get their work out to readers; they feel grateful for what they receive, and haven't yet started to b*tch about what's missing.... (I know, doesn't usually take long, does it??)

  YES! Agree with you on


YES! Agree with you on 99.9% of this piece, Baldur. However, I disagree with your belief that there isn't an outcry from publishers. From my experience, publishers do understand the importance of analytics, as do platform vendors. 

Publishers are desperate for this information, but platform vendors are in such a strong position they see no reason to provide it. From Amazon and co's perspective, keeping the publisher in the dark keeps them weak and reliant on Amazon. If the publisher had access to advanced analytics, it would make it easier for them to leave the platform and work out how to bring existing customers along with them.

I don't want to turn this into a plug, but I work for a startup examining these exact issues right now. It's called Bkclb (www.bkclb.co) and we're trying to work out the best way to construct a platform providing publishers with the kinds of analytics tools you're mentioning. I'd encourage publishers who are frustrated with existing platforms to get in touch. The more we speak with publishers to get a handle on how they feel, the better we can develop tools that will actually suit the way they want to do business.


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