Jane Friedman

Q&A with Pronoun: An Increasingly Competitive Ebook Distributor

Update: Pronoun is shutting down in January 2018. They are not accepting new authors, and existing authors will need to find another solution for ebook distribution. Consider any of the following: Draft2Digital, Smashwords, StreetLib, PublishDrive.


Do you remember the digital publishing startups Vook? Booklr? Byliner?

All of these services/companies have been folded into an ebook distribution service known as Pronoun, which was launched in fall 2015 and later acquired by Big Five publisher Macmillan.

Pronoun works with independent authors to distribute and sell ebooks to the five major online retailers: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play. Pronoun charges authors nothing upfront, and doesn’t take a cut of ebook sales either.

Let’s restate that, since it’s so remarkable: Authors are paid 100 percent net on ebook sales (after the retailer takes their cut), and authors pay no fees to Pronoun.

Today, Pronoun is announcing some significant changes to their terms, including:

Recently, I asked Justin Renard, Pronoun’s head of marketing, a few questions about Pronoun’s services for authors.

As far as I know, Pronoun is the only distributor open to indie authors that can promise a 70% cut on Amazon sales on prices below $2.99 or 65% at price points beyond $9.99. Do you welcome authors who are already selling their ebooks through Amazon KDP to move their books over to Pronoun to take advantage? How long does it take you to get a book available for sale on Amazon once someone sets up their account and uploads their files?

Justin Renard: Our door is open to all authors who are excited by what Pronoun has to offer, and with our new terms, we offer the flexibility for authors to decide what publishing strategy makes the most sense for their books. 70% sales on books priced below $2.99 will be very appealing to authors who rely on ebook price promotion tools to market their books.

We’ve tried to create a frustration-free publishing experience—from uploading and producing a cover, to preparing a book for success on retail sites. Once you press publish it usually takes between 2 hours and 48 hours for your book to appear on all the retailers we serve.

Right now, Amazon KDP offers authors immediate sales data about their ebooks, as well as total control over all the book information and metadata. Does Pronoun match all that functionality in its dashboard for authors?

We do offer total control over all the book information and metadata pushed out to retailers, the difference being is that on Pronoun, you can push the updates out to all retailers at once. Our sales reporting updates daily from all retailers.

Copies sold, total sales, and estimated earnings are some of the sales information we report from all retailers. We also automatically record major events like go-live dates and metadata changes so authors can see the impact of their work on their sales. Authors can also add their own milestones for promotional activities or any offline marketing.

I know many authors have trouble figuring out the right keywords and categories for their books at Amazon. Could you explain the tools Pronoun offers to help authors get this right?

Pronoun has been tracking data of over six million books for over five years, recording important information like sales ranks, ratings, prices, keywords and categories, so we’re able to provide authors with enough information to help make decisions.

Amazon, for example, has over 4,000 distinct ebook categories, and any book might be relevant to several or even dozens. When publishing on Pronoun, we’ve made it easy to find relevant categories by searching for a topic or genre, even if it’s a niche topic or doesn’t perfectly match an Amazon category name. And we rank these options based on the size and competitiveness of the category, so you can choose the ones that have the most opportunity.

Another great example is our keyword recommendations. Keywords are most valuable when they actually help surface an author’s books in more reader search results. If an author chooses broad and popular keywords—like “romance” or “science fiction”—it won’t help unless the book is already selling extremely well. So when authors choose keywords, Pronoun suggests real search phrases that are still popular but have less competitively ranked books in the results.

Pronoun includes support for free ebooks and pre-orders at Amazon. Just to confirm: Does that mean authors can make their books free at any time on Amazon if they distribute through Pronoun (since that’s currently not allowed if you use KDP)? How far out can a pre-order be scheduled, and what materials are required to make a pre-order available?

That is exactly right. Authors are now able to make their books free at any time and across all of our retailers, including Amazon. This is a feature that authors have been asking for a long time now, especially those with a series.

Pre-orders can be scheduled as far as one year in advance. Authors will need to upload a book file, cover image and include all the book information, but this can be temporary placeholder files and information that can be updated before the release date.

Pronoun used to require that authors be “all in” with Pronoun, meaning they couldn’t cherry pick which retailers they wanted to use Pronoun for. That’s now changed. I imagine—since Pronoun can reach Google Play—many authors may sign up with you for that alone. I assume you welcome that? I’m also curious, if you’re able to share, what percentage of overall sales you see happen through Google Play?

We welcome authors who want to publish to only one or a few retailers, though we think over time more and more authors will want to use Pronoun as a one-stop solution. And while I can’t share the exact Google Play market share, I can tell you that for some of our best-performing authors, sales on Google Play are at par or greater than their sales on Kobo.

I know Pronoun is making a significant effort to be clear, transparent, and honest with authors about how your company works. To that end, there’s a question as to how Pronoun survives if it doesn’t take a cut of book sales, and it doesn’t charge fees. Can you offer insight into your current or future business model?

Pronoun works not only with individually self-published authors, but we also work with a number of paid enterprise publishers and count our own digital nonfiction imprint Byliner in our business mix. Through these income-driving activities and the strategic backing of our parent company, Macmillan, we are in a unique position to continue building a truly author-centric and free publishing experience. Our core pursuit as a business is to help authors succeed at publishing. As we grow along with our authors, new business opportunities will emerge that add value to what authors need.

Pronoun had a former life that some authors may remember—Vook—and there were at least a couple pivots for Vook as a business before it became Pronoun. Right now, many authors in the indie community are worried about ebook retailer and distributor longevity, since All Romance Ebooks recently went out of business. I know you can’t make promises about what your corporate parent Macmillan will or won’t do in the future, but what would you like to say to authors who may be understandably wary?

This is such an important question and valid concern for authors. At Pronoun, we want to ensure a publishing experience that empowers authors with not only intelligent insights but also the flexibility to make choices for their books and careers. Plus being a part of Macmillan, which as you know has a 174-year history, means we are a part of a special community of award-winning publishers and a company with a commitment to self-publishing as a critical part of the overall publishing mix.

Thank you, Justin.