An interview with Nate Hoffelder
  • January 25th, 2018

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader

50 MIN
In this Episode

Nate Hoffelder is the force behind The Digital Reader, one of the best sources online for up-to-date information and analysis about the book publishing industry and innovation in book publishing and reading technology.

In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Nate about changes in ebook technology and e-readers over time, about why some devices and approaches have failed, what Amazon is up to with its physical bookstores, and other important issues in the industry, including the choice every self-published author has to make, about whether or not to put all their eggs in one ebook distribution basket.

This interview was recorded on December 11, 2017.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to the Backmatter podcast in iTunes or add the podcast URL directly.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

A Note About the Leanpub Backmatter Podcast

In the summer of 2017 we split the old Leanpub podcast into two distinct podcasts:

Frontmatter, which is a general interest podcast where you can listen to Leanpub authors talk with Leanpub co-founder Len Epp about their books and their areas of expertise, from data science to molecular biology, to the history of labor and management. And for those interested in the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a successful self-published author, at the end of each episode Len asks the author about how they made their book and how they are spreading the word, and other publishing shop talk.

Backmatter, a new podcast focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len interviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider's perspective on what's happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.


Hi this is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this episode of the Leanpub Backmatter publishing industry podcast, I'll be talking with Nate Hoffelder. Based in Washington DC metro area, Nate is a book publishing industry expert and consultant who works with authors by solving their tech problems, and providing a comprehensive array of WordPress services and support.

Nate manages the brand The Digital Reader, which was formerly a tech blog focusing on documenting developments and delivering commentary on the rise of e-readers and the digital revolution generally. Today the Digital Reader is a hub for news on current affairs in the publishing industry and technology, and is aimed at a global readership.

You can find the Digital Reader at and you can follow it on Twitter @inkbitspixels, and you can follow Nate on Twitter @thdigitalreader, which I highly recommend, as Nate is one of the most entertaining and opinionated voices out there on publishing and related matters, and just very funny. You can also find out more about Nate's work at

In this interview we're going to talk about Nate's career, his work on The Digital Reader, the big changes in the publishing world Nate has written about over the years, and what might be coming in the future. So thank you Nate for being on the Backmatter Podcast

Nate: It's good to be here. Thanks for having me Len.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you're from, and how you became interested in books and digital publishing.

Nate: Where I'm from, that's a little complicated. I've always been into books, I've always read science fiction. And I got into reading ebooks in the middle aughts, when we had to either load them onto a Palm PDA or had to buy a Sony Reader. I got into writing about ebooks and news around the digital publishing industry in about 2006, 2007, when I was a member of MobileRead Forums.

We were busy speculating about the Kindle, and I was looking for news on the Kindle, sharing related digital publishing stories. After the Kindle launched in late 2007, they brought me on as moderator, because I was one of the few people who had one at the time. And I turned that into a position as their News Editor. And eventually, in early 2010, I decided to go out on my own and start a news blog.

Len: And I gather from LinkedIn that you studied Computer Science in university. Was that part of a long-standing interest in technology and software?

Nate: Well, I thought I wanted to be a programmer, but eventually I realized it just wasn't for me. Upon reflection it urned out I'm much better at finding news and reporting on news. So I took the training I picked up at the university, and turned it sideways.

Len: And can you talk a little bit about the work that you do for others?

Nate: I mainly build websites, and I also do tech support. I can help developers figure out why their site is coming down or why it's slowed down, and so on and so forth. I've been doing my own tech support for eight years, and now I help others.

Len: As you indicated just a moment ago, you were there from the beginning of the release of the Kindle, and we've now just passed its ten-year anniversary. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it was like when the Kindle came out? What it was like to use it in, in contrast to other devices? You said you you started out with personal digital assistants, probably, I would guess, quite a few years before that. What was the impact of the Kindle like on you?

Nate: It probably wasn't a huge impact. I mean it was a neat toy, and it had a number of features that you couldn't find on anything else. But I really only used that first Kindle for maybe three or four months, before I discovered Mobile Pocket, and how you could run Mobile Pocket on older Windows CE in mobile devices.

So the cool thing about the mobile devices then, is that Window CE was essentially a cut-down version of Windows, and so you could have almost the same features of a desktop OS in a pocket-held device, which was pretty amazing in 2007. So what I did was I started with Kindle, and then I discovered other devices to read on, and I started sharing details about the devices I was reading on. I think that's a good part of how I ended up with blog.

Len: Speaking of other devices for reading besides a Kindle, one thing that people might not remember, is that a few years ago, Amazon came out with a phone. The reasons for Amazon building it were pretty obvious, including the fact that whenever you buy something from an app on the iPhone, for example, 30% of your money goes to Apple - which is why you can't buy books in the Amazon app on your phone.

I was wondering what your thoughts are about why Amazon failed with its phone, which ceased production just over a year after it was launched?

Nate: It was a really expensive phone, and they didn't have a really good reason why anyone should buy it, or why you'd want to use those six cameras. It was really cool, but then what? There's [?], so no one really bought it, and eventually it was discontinued.

Len: Can you, can you talk a little bit about all those cameras, and what Amazon was going for with that?

Nate: Actually it was pretty cool. They had the usual front and rear cameras, and they had four cameras on the corners of the phone's face. Apparently the cameras were used to do things like recognize products, detect when you turned and tilted the phone, and it would recognize faces. I don't know - it's been a few years since I used a Fire Phone. Mine's in a box somewhere.

Len: I know that one of the cameras and identifying things are actually a really important part of Amazon's strategy - at least, their declared strategy going forward, for some of its stores. It's talked in the past about how it wants to set up technology so that you can just walk into the store, pick up whatever you want and walk out with it, and Amazon, Amazon will automatically know who you are, take payment from you, and take payment from you only for the things that you've picked up and walked out with.

Since you've got your finger on the pulse of these kinds of announcements, have you heard anything about that recently, or about its potential success?

Nate: I haven't heard anything recently, no. I'm still not convinced it's going to succeed.

Len: Why is that?

Nate: Well, all the recognition technology is a lot better than it used to be. But being able to see, but the tech just isn't there yet for doing things like recognizing someone the day, the moment they walk into a store, recording what they're buying, and then billing them for it. It might be there in five years, but we're not at that point yet.

Len: Do you think it's something that people would [use]? I mean, let's say tomorrow it was announced it's all working and it's perfect. Do you think it's something that people would adopt quickly, or would they perhaps be concerned just about general privacy issues?

Nate: I think the driving point would be the cost of labor. I mean, if minimum wage keeps going up, then the stores will adopt it, just because it'll be cheaper. But as for whether consumers will adopt it, I don't know? That's hard to predict. Stores are driven by basic financial needs. Consumers are driven by physical desires. That looks harder to predict.

Len: I've got some questions about bookstores and their bottom lines that I want to ask you in a few minutes. But before moving on, I have a couple more questions about digital reading. One of which is that, I think that when digital readers started being introduced, there was a lot of speculation that people would be reading multimedia content in their ebooks, and this doesn't really seem to have happened. Do you have any thoughts about that? And contradict me if I'm wrong please.

Nate: No, it hasn't happened. [?] We actually hear something about this every two or three years, where someone comes up with another great idea.

The one that I really thought was going to change everything was Blio, which in 2009, 2010 was supposed to be a competitor with Kindle platform. They were going to offer all these neat multimedia features that you couldn't find elsewhere.

And then about six months later, Amazon added them to the Kindle. Well, the Kindle apps on the iPad. But still, why didn't they go anywhere? It didn't go anywhere because the tech was being invented before the art form had been invented. People are reading the same books they were reading hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Just text on a page - only instead of a page, now it's text on a screen. Multimedia books look cool, yes. But it's- I'm stumbling on this answer, sorry.

Len: Oh no that's fine, it's a tough one, because there are so many people who seem to want it, but it didn't really take off. My opinion about it, and it's just an opinion, is probably somewhat along the lines of what you were expressing, which is that a thing with multimedia content just isn't a book. I don't mean that as a condemnation of it. But it's just that trying to present something as a book invokes a lot of very deep-seated expectations in people. We obviously love consuming video and multimedia content all the time. But the circuits don't intersect

Nate: Yeah, video's gone so much, it's so heavily digital now that I think even DVDs are starting to die off in favor of streaming and downloaded video. And yet video's still a very distinct form of content from ebooks. And the two never really cross.

Len: I wanted to ask you, not that I'm asking for you to endorse anything - but what's the digital device you use for reading books most these days?

Nate: It really depends on what I have with me. Right now it's either my Fire tablet or a cheap Android smartphone.

For a while there I was reading on a giant 13.3 inch eReader from Onyx. But that was during a period where I was having trouble with looking at LCD screens. So I switched to only using e-ink screens for as much, as much like reading as I could. That was a great device for reading late night in bed, because I could just prop it up and turn the page every two, three minutes, because it had so much text on the screen. But it's not a very good ereader otherwise.

Len: Speaking of, as we were just a few moments ago, what are your thoughts on what Amazon's up to with its physical bookstores? You write about this, I think, every time they open up a new one. What do you think they're aiming to do?

Nate: At first I thought they just wanted the data. But now they have like 16 stores officially, and another one in Atlanta. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe they really are going to have the 400 bookstores, that we heard through rumor. I think they're actually moving into physical retail, just like everyone thought they would years and years ago.

Len: So Are you suggesting that potentially these book stores might end up including non-book stuff? Or just that this is just one dedicated arm - books - of physical retail?

Nate: I think it's just going to be straight books and closely-related products. But it's hard to predict. I'm looking forward to Amazon opening up their store in Georgetown, which I'll finally be able to visit. It'll be the first time I've been in an Amazon book store.

Len: And do you think that this represents a threat to independent bookstores? You wrote just this morning, I believe, a story about how independent bookstores seem to be experiencing a revival lately.

Nate: I don't because Amazon stores are - well, maybe it's a hard question to answer, because most of Amazon's stores are too small to do things like hold events. But then there's this store in Chicago, which I understand has an event space, in fact.

The real reason I don't think they're a threat to independent book stores, is that Amazon's bookstores are all small enough that they're strictly commercial spaces - they're not event spaces, while independent bookstores are frequently some type of mixed-use store. Say it's a restaurant, bar and bookstore. Or it's a bookstore which makes a strong effort to hold events, like readings and author signings, and so on. They're trying to bring the community into the store, which is something that Amazon isn't doing yet with their stores.

Len: That's really interesting that you invoked mixed-use stores. You wrote recently about the Canadian company, Indigo, has expanded into the US. And you wrote, "Indigo is a post-bookstore chain; they call themselves a cultural department store and attribute their success to growing sales of throw pillows, tchotchkes and other general merchandise."

Can you talk a little bit about that? Is that a good development for the publishing industry, that companies like Indigo are starting to sell other things in their stores? And maybe even moving towards a place where books are going to be just a minority of what they sell?

Nate: I don't know if it's a good thing for the publishing industry, but Indigo continues to make money, and continues to employ people. And this is good for Indigo at least. It's perhaps going to lead to them selling through books. It's probably not a good thing for the publishing industry though.

Len: I think people who are really into books can often be a little bit sarcastic about it, but as you say, these companies have to watch their bottom line, and they're trying new things.

You mentioned restaurants, and I wanted to ask you about Barnes & Noble, about which there seems to be a kind of steady drip of not so good news.

They recently announced they were closing a store, I believe in San Jose, that I read about in one of your posts, because the rent is just so high there. What do you think we're going to be seeing from Barnes & Noble in the next - I mean, I'm not necessarily asking you to predict, but there's been recent talk, not necessarily all that credible, about an activist investor leading a movement to take Barnes & Noble private.

Barnes & Noble just plays such an important role, at least for American book publishers. Where do you see it heading?

Nate: Down and leading to an eventual surprise bankruptcy. And then someone's going to buy it, and maybe revive it? Or maybe just sell it off in parts.

Len: And why do you think the Nook, their e-reader failed?

Nate: I don't know. That questions always bites me, because it was doing great right up until holiday season, I think in 2012, then after the holiday season it imploded - [or was that] holiday season 2013? It was really doing great to this one holiday season, and then boom it was dead.

I've I wondered if perhaps Barnes & Noble had shot itself in the foot by closing down Fictionalize, and driving away people, and that just offended readers until they went and bought somewhere else. But I don't know how many people actually used Fictionalize, so that might be entirely unrelated.

It is fascinating, the way they've never been able to revive Nook, because you'd think they would have found a solution by now, but - weird.

Len: Tt's always puzzled me. On that note, you wrote recently about Pearson, I believe, making a move with one of its services, to basically delete everybody's books and cancel the service, if I recall it correctly? And they were partly doing that because they were moving away from the DRM-free nature of that service. Is that what happened there?

Nate: Essentially I think it's fair to say they just stopped selling ebooks entirely. Theoretically they would been able to, if they wanted to, to keep selling ebooks, only use DRM. Theoretically they could have copied everyone's accounts and moved them sideways, and let you download DRM ebooks. But they decided just to drop them entirely.

Len: Do you think that from a high level, it's a good idea for companies like say Amazon, or if they're in the ebook business, like Pearson, to use DRM?

Nate: I don't think it's a good idea or a bad idea. I can't say that it has any net positive though. But removing it also doesn't have a net positive, so it's kind of a wash. I remember Macmillan tested it with Tor Forge books, and so far as I know, Tor Forge is the only one that has actually gone DRM-free, and of Macmillan imprints. On the other hand there's Poland, where the market is almost entirely DRM-free, because they need to support the Kindle, and Amazon will support them. And so all the sellers there are selling DRM free ebooks, and it seems to be working for them.

Len: That's interesting. I'll look to see if I can find some articles about that, put some links in the transcription of this interview.

Speaking of Macmillan, about a year and a half and ago I think, it was announced that they bought this ebook distribution service called Pronoun, that many of our listeners have probably heard of, and maybe even used. And recently Pronoun announced that it was going to cease operations.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what Pronoun was, wow it became what it became, when it was purchased by Macmillan, and why it was so important to its constituency of authors that used it?

Nate: Pronoun was an odd company, I mean both for its history, and for the service it was offering when it was shut down.

The thing about Pronoun is that it got its start in 2009, when it was called Vook. At the time it was a publisher of enhanced ebook apps for the iPad and the iPhone. This was before the iBooks app.

So they had the bright idea that they were going to do things like sell an enhanced copy of Sherlock Holmes. And in 2009 the company expanded to making similar enhanced ebooks for the Kindle app on iPad for iBooks, and so on and so forth.

Then they pivoted to making those apps enhanced ebooks for other people. Then they pivoted to distributing enhanced ebooks. Then they pivoted to just distributing ebooks. And then they reformed into Pronoun. That is one company that encompasses all the ideas that don't work in digital publishing.

Len: Can you expand on that a little bit? What do you mean by that?

Nate: Well, every year to 18 months they pivoted to a new idea, from making original content, then making other people's original content, then distributing content. And then eventually they re-organized to Pronoun, and they were going to distribute the content respectively for free, and pay authors all the money. And then they got bought out by Macmillan, and continued to operate, before eventually shutting down. It's an odd company.

My current thinking is that Macmillan wanted Pronoun for the tech, not so much for the service, which is what it looked like at first. Because Pronoun did have a number of interesting tech, including an automatic ebook [former ?] that worked great, and a powerful management system that some authors told me was pretty nifty. And analytics, Macmillan's also interested in.

Len: So it may have been something that they ultimately wanted as more or less a kind of acqui-hire anyway, and they just thought they'd give it a shot to see if it would get any traction or become profitable in some way - or just see what might play out.

Nate: Yes.

Len: Another service that happened to a couple of years ago now was Oyster. If you recall that story, I was wondering if you could tell people about that, and what happened with them? Because that was a really interesting effort on the part of some tech savvy people to set up a business.

Nate: Oyster, along with Scribd, was one of the two companies that were going to challenge the dominance of Kindle. These two companies offered an unlimited subscription reading service. You're going to read as many ebooks as you wanted. Scribd managed to hang on, because they're international. And they eventually cut back on their service.

But Oyster was US-based and they started out with supporting just iPhone and iPad. I guess they just ran through all their money, with an idea that just didn't work out, and eventually sold out to Google. As far as I know, Google's never done anything publicly with the stuff they bought from Oyster, but all this tech was is probably behind the scenes somehow.

Len: I haven't seen anything public that they've done with that, either.

Nate: Really though, it isn't Google's first ebook hire. They also in 2010 or 2011 bought ETI - Ebook Technologies Incorporated. And they never did anything visible with that. But eventually I guess they just used the tech in the Google Play Books.

Len: And what did ETI do?

Nate: I don't know, it's kind of hard question. I know that they developed a software running on the Eookwise-1150, and I know they're a third-party little ebook software developer, but from my impressions, most of their business was with corporate customers. So it's really kind of hard to say what they're doing, because no one really wants to talk about their trade secrets.

Len: One question I wanted to ask you is about reading serial fiction on phones and micropayments, something that's, as I understand it, huge in China, but hasn't really caught on to the same degree elsewhere, including in particular in North America. I was wondering if you have any thoughts about that?

Nate: Well I'm still doubtful that's really huge in China, given how unimportant it is in the US. It could be just different markets, but I've never really understood the appeal - I can do serial reading just by closing the ebook app I'm in and opening it up again next week and returning the story I'm reading. I mean I don't understand. Of course, what's interesting is that it does have some traction in the US market.

Len: We're about to reach the end of 2017, and I was wondering what you think was one of the most important or exciting developments that you wrote about on the Digital Reader this year?

Nate: I don't know. It's actually been a pretty quiet year for ebook news. So most exciting? I'm excited by the new Kindle Oasis. It’s got a little bigger screen and so it's the kind of e-reader I've always wanted. In fact, it's kind of like a couple I've had before, only now with the Kindle.

Len: And it's the bigger screen primarily?

Nate: Yeah, the seven-inch screen. Anything above a 7-inch screen or an 8-inch screen, it's closer to being a hardback-sized screen, than the 6-inch Kindle, which is more like a paperback. And being able to hold it in one hand, it's a really cool feature.

About three to four years ago I bought a ebook reader called the Pocketbook inkBOOK, or InkPad, actually. And that had an 8-inch e-ing screen and a one-handed design. It was a really nice device. The software wasn't quite there, but it was really nice hardware.

Len: Speaking of events in 2017 as well, you wrote recently about currently what is still a proposed new tax plan in the US, and how it might potentially affect authors. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that issue?

Nate: Congress is currently working on changes to the US tax law. It's going to essentially raise almost everyone's income tax, aside from the very wealthy are going to get a tax cut. It's really hard to say how it's going to affect authors, but it looks like we're going to be losing a number of deductions, which as an independent professional, I also use. And so I'm a little unhappy about that.

Len: One thing I gather is that one thing one can do, if one's an independently operating professional, is set up a pass-through structure. I wanted to ask you, given all your interaction with self-published authors - is that something that they conventionally do in the United States?

Nate: Not that I know of. I know of a handful of authors who have, but I've never really polled them on their business organization or accounting practices. But I think most do not. But I could just be missing all the data.

Len: It's a curious thing, I mean, in the world of advice to self-published authors - once I thought about it, I was surprised I'd never seen it, that the tax side of things is something that people don't really talk about all that much, even though it could potentially be pretty important.

One of the curious things about the book publishing industry in general is that it doesn't really make headlines all that much, except maybe with the odd store closure or store opening or a big move by Amazon. But one of the things that does make the headlines, is when news is released about print book versus ebook sales data.

And often, unfortunately, at least in my opinion, even the big papers seem to misinterpret this data pretty badly. In particular, what they do is they'll take data from just a segment of the book publishing world, and then make declarations as though we know this applies to the entire book publishing world.

I was wondering if, for our listeners, you could maybe explain a little bit about what's going on there?

Nate: The problem is the news media's far too invested in getting a story out right now, so they take the latest sliver of data from just one month or from one quarter, and then make proclamations about the home market being up, being down and so on and so forth. When, as you said, it's not just that they're taking from one segment as you say, it's also that they're taking from just one single report from the AAP or one single report from Great Britain's Publishers Association.

What's really frustrating about this, as you know - as a numbers guy, what I find really frustrating is that, that they could, if they wanted to, understand what's really going on, yet they don't bother.

Len: I find it frustrating myself as well, in particular to see news organizations that you might associate with normally a high quality of work - somehow when it comes to the book industry it often seems that - Matthew Ingram once used the delightful term "digital schadenfreude" - is there every time there's an opportunity to represent what's happening with digital reading as being backwards steps, and there seems to be just a deep desire for good news about print book sales generally.

Nate: With some publications, it's true, yes. The Guardian. The Guardian wants to convince us that ebook sales are down, and they'll take every opportunity they can.

All this was back in June, but when the Publishers Association in Great Britain, when the PA released their annual board, The Guardian cited that data five times in 15 days. And I'm not kidding, I actually found all those stories and counted. They cited it five times to convince us that ebooks are dying.

But for most news organizations, it's not that they want to proclaim ebooks are down, they just want to do the quickest story right now - and boom, done - move on to the next story.

Len: This gets to the heart of something I wanted to talk to you about, with respect to ebook and digital reading as a practice. I remember back in the day, in the early 90's, when people started to talk more about reading on computers and what it meant, there were courses on things like hypertext, and it was around that time that at least I first started noticing a certain - maybe we'll call it a genre of writing about reading? That invoked a negative contrast between reading on screens, versus reading on paper, with a negative contrast in favor of reading on paper.

And it was maybe just last week that I saw so yet another article in The New York Times, where someone was talking about how real reading involves this sensory experience where you sniff the paper, and touch the paper, and hold the paper.

I was wondering what your thoughts are about that? Is is that a contrast that we're just going to have to live with forever? I mean it's 2017, and people are still saying, "It's not real reading unless you're sniffing at the same time."

Nate: Yeah, I've always enjoyed those. Because I know that the people who are saying that this is not real reading, unless you're sniffing the paper, are typing up that report on a computer, and they're getting their news on their smartphone, when all this involves reading. So I guess it's not really reading. There's an inherent contradiction between what they're doing, and what they're proclaiming. I just enjoy that thought.

Len: Me too. Do you have any thoughts about where this comes from? I mean what, what's the psychological complex behind a resentment that drives this digital schadenfreude? People get really worked up about their paper.

Nate: I just see it as, a lot of ideas - I don't know if I would call it a complex, just preferring to stick to what they have, the the old stuff, rather than considering how the new might be better.

But I think it's how you described it - that these are people who are mistaking the food for the plate.... I'm of view that it's the content that matters, not the material the content is on. That's why I like ebooks so much.

Len: I couldn't agree with you more on that. One thing I found curious is that often people who talk about the smell of the paper, don't seem to really be interested - there's something beyond simply the reading, and what the writer is writing about, that seems to be at stake for them in the act of reading itself.

I think it's related perhaps to a display. I mean putting on a personal display. For example, one thing that people often find frustrating, is that - well, think about the the common image of a lawyer who wants to look smart, or a politician wants to look smart, they sit in front of a bookcase. Often behind a desk. There's something about the invisibility of the ebooks that you're reading, that presents itself to them as a kind of lack, or something that's been taken away.

Nate: It's kind of books for reading as a status symbol. And since you can't have that with ebooks, they don't like ebooks.

Len: Yeah, exactly. I'm not saying this as a criticism. It's just so different, that when people like that sit down to read, there's this whole ritual that's coming along with it. I think it's just different types of people.

For me personally, when I'm sitting down to read, I'm really interested in what I'm reading - the subject, and perhaps the linguistic aesthetics and the intellectual aesthetic that you can encounter - say, the difference between reading Henry James or Mark Twain. But the aspect of that experience that involves paper and smells just really doesn't mean anything to me.

In fact, I prefer to read hands-free. And if you're doing research, all that paper in the book gets in the way. And it brings with it an expense and a scarcity that violate my desires for having access to more words.

Nate: Oh yes.

Len: If there really is that difference between people, then I guess we are going to be just stuck with this difference forever.

Looking ahead, is there anything you see technology wise coming in the next year, that people should be looking forward to or dreading?

Nate: I'm not so good at making those kind of predictions. I don't see anything coming, no. At least not in this area. I have my concerns about, say, Kindle Unlimited. But aside from that, no.

Len: What's your concern about?

Nate: Well the problem with Kindle Unlimited - some publishers hate it, because it's such a huge trend in the market, and they don't want to have to go up to that much control to Amazon. But my concern is that Amazon keeps losing the bout with scammers, who keep finding new ways to cheat their way to the top of the Kindle Store's bestseller ranks.

They know how to figure out how to cheat Amazon out of money. My concern isn't Amazon so much as the indie authors, who keep getting caught up in Amazon's actions against the scammers. From what I've seen, it's being hit worse and worse.

Len: This is a really interesting topic. It's a bit in the weeds, but it's actually very important to self-published authors who are part of Kindle Unlimited.

So, Kindle Unlimited is a subscription service, and authors - and please correct me, Nate because you I'm sure you understand this better than I do - but authors make money from a collective pool made available by Amazon. And then, with this collective pool, Amazon has to decide how is it going to divvy that up amongst the various authors who've put their books up on the service. And that in itself brings all kinds of crazy complications on questions of fairness. The solution that Amazon has currently lighted upon, is to base payments on page reads.

And so this system, with all of its other problems, invites scammers who just love thinking about ways of gaming systems like that. One of the tricks that they use is, they'll put a link to the back of the book in the front of the book, or at least they used to, and then what Amazon would do is, they would count the pages read by the highest numbered page that had been looked at by the reader. And so by putting a link from the front of the book to the back of the book, scammers could make it look like someone got 400 page-reads from that single action.

Nate: Yes, that's the problem. Amazon almost has a solution to that, because it doesn't quite work yet, but the new solution is to actually count the actual pages being read, rather than the location in an ebook. Amazon had released that as a change to Kindle Unlimited, but pulled it back because it wasn't working.

Len: And another one of the problems - and this isn't necessarily based on bad decisions by Amazon, it's just inherent in the system - is that because there's money at stake, and this is not just true for Kindle Unlimited, but it's also true for people gaming the system to get on the bestseller lists and things like that - one consequence is that Amazon has to be constantly policing the negative behavior, and legitimate authors can get caught up in that net.

Nate: Yes.

Len: Can you think of any examples of that happening relatively recently? I think there was something about Goodreads?

Nate: Over the past few months, Amazon has adopted a policy of, whenever they think someone is cheating in the Kindle Store, they'll de-rank a book. They'll strip the ranks so it won't show up in the bestseller list.

This costs sales, and it also costs sales, publicity and so on and so forth. And the problem is, I've heard from way too many authors who insist they weren't cheating at all - Amazon just tarred them by mistake. Right now, what we don't know is whether Amazon can't identify the scammers or if maybe the scammers are using those authors as camouflage? And Amazon hit the camouflage, rather than the scammer. It's a problem.

The real problem with Kindle Unlimited is that it's only going work so long as everyone thinks it's honest, and everyone thinks that Amazon treats authors well. Once that changes it's going to die.

Len: Right given the risks and problems involved in getting into, let's not just say Kindle Unlimited, but any kind of subscription service - is it something that you would recommend authors think hard about before they get into it? Or is that just a convention that we've all got to accommodate ourselves to?

Nate: It's worth considering. Kindle Unlimited I think is over 170 million dollars a year now, at the market. I think it's over 200 now? That's an awful lot of money, and it's all being paid out directly to the author, or whoever uploads the ebook to Kindle Unlimited. And that's a lot of money there. So yes, they should consider it.

Len: Speaking of money and channels, one of the perhaps unresolvable questions for self-published authors is, should I put all my eggs in one basket, or should I put all my eggs in many baskets? By that I mean, the question is: if you've got a book that you've written, or multiple books that you've written, you've got to pick a marketing strategy. Should you put them all in one place and direct all your marketing towards that one place? Or should you put your book up for sale in many different places, hoping you get more attention that way? What do you think about that?

Nate: The Amazon-sponsored answer is that yes you should put all your eggs in one basket. Sorry, just a joke there.

Well David Gaughran has shown us that, if you do go exclusive with Amazon, you can get all the reviews in one place, get all the sales in one place. And you're going to achieve a higher rank if you go exclusive.

I still don't think it's a good idea though, to put all your eggs in one basket. I think authors should go wide. Because you don't know where you're going to find an audience. And if you limit yourself to the Kindle Store, then you're missing out on the chance of selling a lot of books through iBooks or through Kobo, or Nook, for example.

Nook isn't selling near as many ebooks as it was three years ago. But it still has a sizable erotica - it sells a lot of erotica ebooks, I'm told. That's what I've been hearing from authors.

Len: I didn't know about that. And when it comes to putting up your book or your books in many different places, do you have any particular thoughts on things like Facebook advertising and stuff like that? Is that is that something that you think authors should spend time looking into?

Nate: Advertising is almost de rigeur now. It's something they have to do if they want to make a lot of sales. Because if they're not advertising, someone else will be. And so it's a keeping up with the Jones's problem. So yes, they need to look into advertising.

Len: My last question, before we go, is, as one of your followers on Twitter, I know that you are an animal lover, and you have a number of different pets. People may have heard the dogs and parakeets in the background during this interview. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about that personal item? What pets do you live with?

Nate: We have three dogs of our own. We foster with a dog refuge called, Forever Home. So right now, I also have a mom and her seven puppies.

Len: Oh wow.

Nate: Yes, it's a little messy, and it's little crowded, but they're so cute. I also have several birds. A cockatiel called Conrad and a cage full of parakeets. And as you may know from Twitter - I also have a bearded dragon called Puff.

Len: A what, sorry?

Nate: Bearded dragon. I rescued him from a pet store.

Len: And do you have spiders as well?

Nate: Yes, I keep a few tarantulas. I'm just going to leave it at a few, otherwise no one will want to visit me again.

Len: I'm curious, I'm not a spider fan - do you take them out? I assume they live in an aquarium or something like that?

Nate: They live in their own aquariums, yes. And I don't take them out. It's just too risky, because if they get spooked and they jump, and they hit the floor, they go splat. So I don't handle them.

Len: Well, Nate, thanks for sharing that, I really appreciate that. And thanks for sharing all your thoughts on my relatively random assortment of questions about digital reading and the book publishing industry. I really appreciate your thoughts and your time.

Nate: Thanks for having me, Len.

Len: Thanks.

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on January 25th, 2018
  • Interview by Len Epp on December 11th, 2017
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough