For centuries, authors and publishers have relied on third-party retailers to sell their books to readers. Before the digital age, these were brick-and-mortar bookstores (which are still very much relevant today for print books). Then came the digital retailers: Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play, Kobo, etc.

These retailers play a crucial role in book discoverability: they’re the #1 place where readers go to find their next book. But naturally, they take a cut on sales in order to be commercially viable.

In the case of ebooks, that cut is usually 30% across all the major retailers. For print, it’s higher — especially in the case of physical bookstores, whose margin on book sales is usually around 55%.

That can feel like a lot of money to trade for “visibility.” And that’s how direct sales can come into the picture.

Here’s the gist: instead of relying on a third-party retailer, you can sell your books yourself through your website directly to readers.

The benefits of selling direct

The first benefit of direct sales is obvious: you make more money per copy sold. It won’t be 100% of the list price, as there are always taxes and payment processing fees, but it certainly is a lot more than 70%…

It’s not just about the money, though. There are many other benefits that come from selling direct, which can be even more valuable than the extra $ you gain:

  1. You own the customer data. When a reader buys your book on Amazon (or any other retailer), you have no idea who they are. You don’t get their email address, nor their name — nothing. When you sell direct, however, you do collect this data. Which means that you can immediately add them to your mailing list (prior consent), and even segment your list based on their purchase.
  2. You own the retail interface. Discoverability on retailers works both ways: while readers might come across your book while searching for another one, they might also find another book when looking for yours. On your website, the only books that readers will see are yours.
  3. You own the tracking. One of the reasons why advertising books is so complicated is that you can’t track anything that happens after the reader clicks on your ad and lands on your book page. Except, of course, if that book page is on your website — in which case you can use tracking tools like Google Analytics, Facebook Pixel, etc. You can even optimize your ads for conversion (more on that in a future email).

Direct sales are not for everyone

So why isn’t everyone selling their books directly through their website already? Because there’s a big tradeoff: discoverability.The great thing about retailers is that they enable authors to reach new readers. If a reader has never heard about you, they might still come across your books while browsing through an Amazon genre category, or through another book’s Also Boughts.

In contrast, you can be sure that the only readers that will come across your website are those already familiar with your brand.

In other words, you can only sell directly to existing fans or readers. If you don’t have a fanbase yet (or a sizable mailing list of readers), there is no point in experimenting with direct sales. You won’t have anyone to sell to!

Even if you do have a fanbase, there is an argument to be made in favour of sending that fanbase to a retailer rather than to your website — despite all the advantages of direct sales. That argument is the algorithmic visibility that retailers provide: the more sales you drive to an online retailer, the greater the visibility your book will receive in return (i.e. the exposure to even more readers).

Let’s say that you have 1,000 loyal fans. When you release a new book, you can either:

  1. Send them to buy your book on your website; or
  2. Send them to buy the book on a retailer (e.g. Amazon).

In the first case, you’ll earn a significant amount of extra money (at least 30% more).

In the second case, you might earn a significant amount of extra readers. These 1,000 sales will propel your book in the Best Seller, Hot New Release, and Popularity rankings (note: if you don’t know what these are, you need to take this free course on Amazon Algorithms). This will lead to more readers finding your book, buying it, and ultimately joining your fanbase.

So when should you consider selling direct? When you’re established enough not to care as much about retailer visibility. And, of course, when you’re already selling wide: if you’re exclusive to Amazon, you can’t sell the books on your website in the first place.

Bear in mind that, even if you sell books directly through your store, a big part of your existing fanbase will keep buying your books on their preferred retailer — since that’s what they’re accustomed to already. So you won’t be giving up on retailer visibility altogether, you’ll just reduce it a bit.

Excerpts taken from Reedsy Marketing Newsletter