Examining Kindle Direct Publishing distribution route as the choice for publication of academic materials

This blog post was written by Laurence Patterson.

The eTIPS project, sponsored by Jisc, is a collaboration between The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), and Edinburgh Napier University (ENU). eTIPS saw two eTextbooks authored, formatted, and completed by academics and others. The two eTIPS eTexts published offer universal interest for undergraduates and postgraduates, discussing student preparedness for research and project work.

Both texts were published, as Kindle eBooks, through the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service, and made available, as a result, across the Amazon international network. This short blog post is not about Amazon itself, which is addressed in previous writing. Created in 2007, the KDP platform, in general terms, offers a relatively simple authoring process, a cost-free membership for publishers, and an effective audience each, potentially titles are made available to millions of readers. Because of this, KDP has become the world’s leading electronic distribution service, used by millions of self-publishing authors and smaller publishing houses alike. 

Publishing a Kindle title offers few complications. After creating an account, one would assign metadata to the item before uploading the cover-art image and formatted text, set a price, click PUBLISH and, within half a day the record appears on Amazon. Changes can be applied iteratively – an updated version visible for readers to download within another six hours. Royalties are paid, as standard, based on the number of times a Kindle title is paid for and downloaded by the reader over a thirty-day period. Generally, sales data is good, if rather limited. The KDP system allows publishers to see how many copies have been purchased, at which Amazon store and precisely when. For most people, this is probably sufficient.

A publisher would not create any content on KDP, then – the cover art, and the edited content are produced ahead of time. Kindle Direct Publishing offers only the route, to allow the title to appear across the Amazon network. 

There are downsides. Formatting for Kindle and, specifically, for the .mobi filetype that is recognised by Kindle readers, requires text and images are formatted in precise ways, that metadata and cover art complies to guidance, and that content is appropriately presented and targeted. That .mobi filetype is, indeed, proprietary, and is likely to be unusable outside the Kindle/Amazon service. Additionally, publishers are required to register for tax indication before receipt of royalties, to complete a comprehensive registration process, and to address any content issues (for example, by uploading a revised file), where Amazon discovers them.

The relative ease with which a title can be published through KDP has infused its popularity – tens of thousands of new eBooks are made available, each month, on Amazon – and the majority are distributed through Kindle Direct Publishing. This offers significant risk for a publisher – how discoverable is their eBook, how resilient, and how profitable to use KDP? For eTIPS’ books, sales and royalties remained low, but grew, over time.

That issue of ‘profit’ may be a contentious one for a University wishing to write, and to distribute, effectively, academic content. If an institution’s primary motivator is the development and distribution of content in a way that aligns with the ‘open’ agenda, a commercial path such as Amazon is ill-advised. KDP to not permit publishers to make a title available for free, permanently. Amazon’s philosophy is not in this direction. The Smashwords platform could cater, however – titles don’t have the major distribution reach there, that they might do on Amazon, but at least publishers can upload simply, put a ‘free’ price on, and copy and paste a download link for everyone to access the item. For institutions wishing to establish a traditional University Press, for example, which intends to return a profit on distribution, the Amazon route is one to look at.

In recent years, KDP has taken steps to move forward in the marketplace. Opening online stores in Japan, India, Australia and China, its spread is larger now than it was two year ago. It has developed a simple suite of promotional tools – countdown, unlimited – to help the publisher gain further reach for their Kindle titles but require that titles are not published anywhere other than through KDP, when those tools are used. Some suggest that this exclusivity clause is responsible for the relatively poor performance of competitor distributors, like Smashwords, or Nook, Apple iBook, or Barnes and Noble.

A University that wishes to investigate in-house content creation must consider, at the outset, the distribution path for that content, that is most appropriate to their needs. Is there a desire to make a profit or not, and is the intended readership local or international? What resources do you have at your disposal – for example, are you able to create and format to the specifications of KDP, with a minimum of support?

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