December 29, 2015
The New Self-Publishing in Japan: Seven Things You Need to Know
By Kathleen Morikawa
Since February 2013, I’ve called Zon (aka Amazon) home. Most of this galaxy’s self-publishers do. It’s a planet all our own where we try to survive, thrive and keep our books alive. Zon has many rules and many residents who try to skirt, ignore and overcome the rules. It’s a place inhabited by those who excel at the publishing game, those who don’t even know the rules of the game, and those who aren’t ever going to win the game but play anyway. In short, like most of the cosmos, it’s a crazy place; but we all kick around and try to make the best of it.
If you want to move to Zon and get in on the game, it requires very little money to take a seat at the table. Chances of winning big are small, but the game is virtually free if you can do e-book conversion yourself. For the rest of us, a modest e-book conversion fee is well worth the chance to play. Formerly, I resided on a flashing comet called traditional independent self-publishing, the completely do-it-yourself approach. (I wrote about that experience in Self Publishing in Japan: What you Need to Know to Get Started, 2006, now out of print.) It’s lovely to be out of there. It was a perilous place with distribution, accounting and merchandising hazards ricocheting in every direction. In Zon’s new, easier world of self-publishing, the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service for e-books and the CreateSpace platform for producing print-on-demand paperbacks makes the climate for independent writers relatively warm and pleasant.
Zon is not the only planet in the self-publishing universe. Smashwords, Nook, Kobo, iBooks/iTunes, Torino in Europe and subscription borrowing services are also places you might want to visit. Who knows they may even be more livable or more fairly governed planets than Zon. Yet for newcomers to self-publishing, Zon is a very good place to start. Although figures vary, Amazon still maintains the lion’s share of the e-book market with its user-friendly site, worldwide distribution through its thirteen stores, and free apps so that even those who don’t own a Kindle can buy and read books on their computer, iPad, or other device. KDP also pays 70 percent royalties on most sales of books priced between $2.99 and $9.99 in all Amazon stores except Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico. If you enroll in KDP Select, KDP will pay 70 percent royalties on sales from the amazon.co.jp store. More on Select later.
These are powerful reasons for experimenting with Amazon first. Make no mistake, it is still a daunting world out there for independent self-publishers, but the struggle is a lot easier than it was a decade ago. Traditional publishers may still be the best route for some people but e-books are now a viable alternative. The flip side of all this is the ever-increasing competition. With almost 4 million e-books and more than 30 million paper books on Zon, the task of marketing your creation is more daunting than ever. A self-publisher is a start-up entrepreneur and everything will depend on your skills and creativity—both literary and business.
The rulers of Zon make reams of publishing advice available themselves and a whole cottage industry in e-book self-publishing guides has arisen. Some of that advice is spot on, some is not. The purpose of this article is to map out a few pitfalls and crevices Japan-based self-publishers might stumble into as they settle into life on Zon.
This article will not tell you how to win at the game because I certainly don’t know and the truth is nobody really knows. Zon is an ever-evolving planet and its rulers, like Cinderella’s fairy godmother, can revamp it all with a wave of the wand at any time, and they often do. Self-publishing being the ultimate the-buck-stops-here profession, all players need to continually monitor the Amazon Community forum to keep up with the speed of change. As soon as you arrive on Zon, wander over there. It is the place where both long-term residents and newcomers to the planet Zon hang out, interact, overreact, provide mutual assistance and advice and try to fathom the mysteries of our self-publishing universe. There are also almost 6 million general questions on the searchable KDP Community Forum. You’ll find almost everything you can think to ask has already been asked and some questions have even been answered. For any specific problems or issues with your books, always e-mail KDP Support directly. They usually provide an answer within 24 hours. CreateSpace has both email and telephone support services.
So how does one officially take up residence on Zon? First you sign up for KDP and CreateSpace accounts. Then you upload your book and launch it into orbit. It should go live 12 to 48 hours after that. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but even simplicity has its complexities, especially if you live outside the United States. Below are seven things you need to know and consider if you are publishing from Japan:
1. Opening an account
To do it all in English, it’s advisable to open the KDP account on amazon.com rather than on amazon.co.jp. The process is pretty straightforward and KDP will allow you to have up to three pen names per account. The process does require providing your Social Security number for tax purposes. Those without one can apply for an ITIN or EIN number instead. Details can be found at https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A1VDYJ32T5D3U4.
Amazon does not do Paypal. Until this past year, the major glitch for those living in Japan was Amazon’s payment options—a foreign currency check (after royalties reach 100 dollars, 100 euros or 100 pounds) or monthly electronic fund transfers (EFT) in a foreign currency. In Japan, both those choices incur large bank handling fees for usually small royalty payments, but 2015 brought progress. When setting up your account’s bank info now, it is possible to choose the “EFT transfer in Japanese yen” option for each store. See https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A1YL2U0PQFDKEM Since the money will be deposited in yen, there is no bank charge and you will get regular monthly royalty deposits—even the rare ten-euro or two-pound sale you make in the European stores. Unfortunately, CreateSpace has not yet come this far and the old payment methods for Japan still apply.
CreateSpace is great for those who want to give readers a print-on-demand paperback reading option. You can upload your interior PDF files and cover at no charge and they will do the rest. The quality of the book and binding is good and they pay royalties of about 20 percent. Not bad considering the writer has no worry about production or shipping.
Unfortunately, this system is not quite as convenient for those who hope to sell a lot of paperback books in Japan via the amazon.co.jp store. While your paperback will be available for order from anywhere in the world on amazon.com, it will not be available for ordering from the amazon.co.jp store unless you sign up for CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution option (which takes a huge chunk out of one’s profits). Even if you do that, the small print doesn’t absolutely guarantee availability in Japan. Of course, you as the writer can order large quantities from CreateSpace yourself at a discount if you want to spread the book around the archipelago. While a paperback option is nice, most of your sales will likely come from e-books; and even if you do a paperback, it is a good idea to create the e-book first.
4. E-Book Preparation.
The main goal is to create a polished, professional product that will win over prospective buyers. The key points are: cover, e-book conversion, Look Inside content, and proofreading. Those with html talent can create their own e-book files but finding a pro to do the job for you will save you time and stress. It will also leave you with energy left over for the really hard work of selling your book.
A professional e-book conversion service should provide you with flawless files that upload in a second. They can also give you advice on some items new publishers may overlook such as choice of fonts, clickable table of contents, and other technical details. I’ve had excellent results with BB eBooks run by an American expat in Bangkok. They will do very professional e-book conversions and provide MOBI files (for Amazon) and epub files (for iTunes, etc.) for around 10,000 yen (slightly more or less depending on the length and difficulty of the book). They can also provide interior PDFs for CreateSpace projects.
Your main financial outlay likely will be for acquiring a suitable book cover, although KDP and CreateSpace have templates that allow you to try to create your own. The key is to get a cover that looks good in all the sizes Amazon uses on its site from full-size to thumbnail.
ISBN (International Standard Book Numbers) are not necessary for e-books, but you will need one for a paperback. CreateSpace will provide one for free but if you have Japanese ISBN and want to use them, that is no problem.
Amazon will allow readers to see about 10 to 13 percent of your book for free via Look Inside. Opinion seems to differ on how to best make use of this option. Some advocate starting right in on your story to grab readers’ interest with dramatic opening scenes. Others prefer to fill the beginning with lots of recommendations, reviews and free bonus offers to entice the reader to buy while actually giving away very little of the book’s content. In either case, excellent proofreading is essential. Grammar mistakes and typos will kill sales and Amazon has a very generous book return policy.
5. KDP Select
When you are ready to upload your book to your new Amazon account, the first question you will be asked is: Do you want to be in KDP Select? There is a big difference between regular KDP and KDP Select, and it particularly affects self-publishers in Japan.
KDP Select is Amazon’s exclusivity program whereby you promise to sell your e-books (CreateSpace POD books are not included in this) only on Amazon for three months. You can’t even sell them from your own website during that time. For agreeing to this exclusivity, you are rewarded with a chance to lend your book to readers, buy Amazon’s AMS advertising space, give your books away free for five days a quarter/or do countdown deals (discounting your books for a week each quarter).
Some masters of the art of merchandising argue these are all powerful sales weapons, or at least they once were. Things are continually changing since the arrival of the Amazon $9.99 monthly subscription service Kindle Unlimited that allows subscribers to borrow any book enrolled in KDP Select. What does the writer get for allowing the endless borrowing of their books? Being in KDP Select means that for all these borrows, they will accrue KENP points each month. These are equal to the number of pages read by borrowers. The author will be paid approximately half a cent per borrowed page. (Yes, Kindle can track how many pages a customer has read and credit your account accordingly.) Those who write hefty tomes that are read to the end can sometimes make more from a borrow than from an outright sale. Borrows are dismal for the authors of children’s books and other shorter works.
If you are still following all this, you are probably figuring it doesn’t sound too smart to put all your eggs in one Kindle basket, especially since Draft2Digital exists. This is a U.S.-based distribution service that, for a small charge, will handle all the hassle of putting your books on Kobo, Nook, iTunes, Torino and other sites and even pay you via Paypal. However, if you are expecting to get a lot of sales from the amazon.co.jp store, there is another factor to be considered. If you are not in KDP Select, you will only get 35 percent royalties from the Amazon stores in Japan, India, Mexico, and Brazil. This could be a big game changer when you realize that without Select you will have to sell two books in Japan just to get the royalty you used to get for selling one via Select.
If you think you might do better playing the field, the answer for most self-publishers is to try three months in and three months out. It is easy to opt out of Select by just unclicking the auto-renew button at any time during the three months. If the other sites don’t work out, it is also an easy process to take the books off Draft2Digital and opt back into KDP Select.
6. Your Storefront
Consider your Amazon product page as your storefront or display window. Making it attractive will help sales along. Analyze your own buying habits. What makes you click that Buy button? Besides a quality product, it is likely the answer is an enticing cover, a catchy blurb, good star ratings and reviews. But how do you get all those? And how do you get the visibility that will bring prospective buyers to your page in the first place? With millions of books vying for attention, visibility is crucial.
The answer is your choice of categories and key words. When you upload your book file, cover JPEG and a fine-tuned blurb, you also will be asked to choose two categories and seven key search words/phrases. These are decisions that could greatly impact your book’s success.
Categories: It’s important to spend a lot of time analyzing what the best categories or sub-categories for your book are. They need to be wide enough to lead readers to books like yours but specific and narrow enough to give your book visibility. (You can see the categories and number of books in each category by looking at the lefthand column on the Kindle Store’s site.) If your book is about Japan, you have the advantage of using the Travel>Asia>Japan category which is wide enough (about 1,500 books) to include everything from guidebooks and memoirs to language instruction and yakuza tales. It is also small enough that a few sales a day will quickly take you to the very top of the rankings and give you great visibility among readers of this category.
Key Search Words: The goal here is to choose words and phrases that readers are likely to search for when they want a book like yours and try to get your book on the first page of each such key word search. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. Amazon allows you to change the categories and key words whenever you want, and it is advisable to do so occasionally. For more on this, see https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A2EZES9JAJ6H02
7. The Ultimate Challenge: Marketing
Once you’ve made your storefront as pleasing as possible and increased your search visibility, the final goal is to create some marketing buzz to get even those who were not searching for a book like yours looking your way. The general consensus seems to be that this is best achieved by a website, blog, social media presence and a mailing list. All of that is also a lot of work that will keep you from writing your next book. No matter what you choose, you will soon discover that there is always a counter proposal out there that has worked better for someone else in the Zon Community. There are plenty of roads to choose from but you have to look at the routes and factor in your needs, desires, the condition of your car, and your travel budget.
If you are willing to spend money to promote your book, look into the relatively reasonable AMS ads available to KDP Select members. Numerous book promotion businesses also can be found on the KDP Community site, but most of the best, such as Bookbub, will not consider a book unless it has ten reviews. Getting ten reviews on Amazon is not a simple feat. Some people attempt to get around this by buying reviews. That’s a definite no-no and Amazon is said to be cracking down on it. The only bought review that is acceptable is a Kirkus review, but those cost big bucks. They are considered acceptable because they promise only a fair review. Those who want to gamble this way can use the Kirkus review if it is stellar or just toss it out if it is not.
The golden rule for living on Zon is: Forge your own marketing and publishing path and make it one that you can live with comfortably now and in the future as you play the long game and run the never-ending book marketing marathon. There is no one straight line to success. Beware of anyone who says there is and applaud those frank enough to admit there is more than a little luck involved in the process too. I wish you all the luck you need to propel your writing talent onto the planet Zon where I hope you will live happily ever after, or as close to the fairy tale as you can get.
Kathleen Morikawa, aka Wm. (Wilhelmina) Penn, is the author of seven e-books including The Casebook of Irving and Innocence: The Complete Trilogy, Who Changed the Channel? Sixty Years of Japanese TV (an updated version of The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan), and the children’s book Hana the Bilingual Beagle. She can be contacted via her website: http://www.forestriverpress.com.