Should You Self Publish?

Paul Doiron here—

Earlier this week an author named Jessica Park wrote an essay on IndieReader recounting the trouble she’d experienced finding a publisher for a young adult novel she had written. She had previously published five YA books with traditional print publishers, but her new book, titled Flat-Out Love, made the rounds in New York without success. Park says she received rejection letter after rejection letter (fourteen in all), and she began to grow increasingly resentful:

And then one day I got yet another rejection letter and instead of blaming myself and my clear lack of creativity, I got angry. Really, really furious. It clicked for me that I was not the idiot here. Publishing houses were. The silly reasons that they gave me for why my book was useless made me see very clearly how completely out of touch these houses were with readers. I knew, I just knew, that I’d written a book with humor, heart, and meaning. I’d written something that had potential to connect with an audience. As much as I despise having to run around announcing how brilliant I supposedly am and whatnot, I also deeply believed in Flat-Out Love. I knew that editors were wrong.

And I finally understood that I wanted nothing to do with these people.

In her essay, “How Amazon Saved My Life,” Park unloads on an industry that she feels is misguided, inefficient, and deserving of scorn:

Publishers pay terribly and infrequently. They are shockingly dumb when it comes to pricing, and if I see one more friend’s NY-pubbed ebook priced at $12.99, I’m going to scream. They do minimal marketing and leave the vast majority of work up to the author. Unless, of course, you are already a big name author. Then they fly you around the country for signings and treat you like the precious moneymaking gem that you are. The rest of us get next to nothing in terms of promotion. If your book takes off, they get the credit. If it tanks, you get the blame.

Rather than suffer the indignity of additional rejections, Park decided to self-publish her novel as an eBook with Amazon and promote it through a number of book blogs. The results exceeded her wildest expectations:

Because of Amazon and other sites, I’m making enough money that I can continue writing. I’m averaging sales of 3,500 books a month, not including the month that Amazon featured Flat-Out Love in a list of books for $3.99 and under. That month I sold 45,000 Kindle copies, and sold over 10,000 the next month. Those numbers are insane to me. Absolutely insane.

Furthermore, she claims to know writers who are making even more from their eBook sales, so much that they have no interest in ever being published again by a Knopf or Harpercollins:

I know more than one author who is making $50-150,000 a month (yes, a month) who are getting the most stupidly low offers from big publishers to take over that author’s book. Why would my friends take a $250,000 advance (if even offered that much), take a puny royalty rate, see their sales hurt by higher pricing, and completely give that book up for life? They can and will earn more themselves and continue to reap the benefits of a 70% royalty while maintaining all the rights to their work.

Under those circumstances, Park wonders why any author would choose to publish with a traditional print publisher. It’s a good question—especially when you consider the postscript to this story. Amazon saw Park’s essay as such a great PR opportunity that its CEO Jeff Bezos himself wrote a letter plugging the book and placed it on the Amazon homepage. For the past few days, every single visitor to Amazon has read about Jessica Park’s Cinderella story, making the book a bestseller on the site, leading to additional riches for her and excellent publicity for Amazon’s Kindle Direct self-publishing program.

I haven’t read Flat-Out Love, so I have no insight into either the wisdom of the publishers who originally rejected the book or the taste of the many readers who have enthusiastically recommended it. I have no clue whether Park’s quoted sales numbers are true (although Bezos certainly gave them a boost, whatever they were). Nor do I know how many writers are pulling in tens of thousands of dollars a month hawking their wares via Amazon (such creatures might exist, but they are shy and elusive, like the cougars one occasionally hears about stalking the backwoods of Maine). For all I know, authors like myself who continue to sign contracts with “legacy publishers” (as the self-published community derisively refers to them) are backward-looking dupes whose folly will become increasingly apparent over the coming years.

But I don’t think so. It’s tempting to view book publishers today as the equivalent of the record companies in the era before Napster: as ineffectual, money-grubbing hucksters. In the eyes of writers like Jessica Park and Barry Eisler and J.A. Konrath, publishers advertise themselves as necessary gatekeepers, when really all they do is prevent thousands of deserving works from ever being discovered by readers (while screwing authors out of considerable sums in the process). Amazon, of course, has a vested interest in convincing a great number of writers to see the publishing world this way, since Jeff Bezos wants to sell Kindles, and he needs an enormous electronic inventory of eBooks to persuade his buyers that they are better off buying his product than that of the late Steve Jobs.

As a writer, it’s reassuring to think that a Brave New World is dawning in which I can make a fortune by cutting out the editorial and marketing middlemen and by connecting (almost) directly with a waiting host of eager readers. But here’s the thing: unlike Jessica Park, I don’t loathe publishers. As an author who also happens to work for a company that publishes books, I have seen the hundreds of manuscripts that come in over the Down East transom, and I will tell you frankly that most of them are half-baked at best. Even the best of them benefit from rigorous editing by a disinterested professional (and this is leaving aside the contributions photographers, illustrators, and designers can bring to turning a manuscript into a fully realized book).

In my own case, I have several regular readers who vet my work before I submit it to my publisher. These are some of the smartest people—and best writers—I know. And yet even with their expert criticism to guide me, I can confidently say that my books have all gotten better because of the work both my agent and my editor have done to help improve them. I might not be making $50,000 a month, but my publisher has negotiated foreign rights so that readers in nine languages around the world are now discovering my books. They have hired talented actors to create audio versions of my stories so my novels can be enjoyed by the visually impaired (or just long-haul truckers and drivers with interminable commutes). My publisher has marketed my Mike Bowditch series to libraries and bookstores with real enthusiasm because they believe in my ability and potential. In short they have given me validation that is meaningful in its own right, apart from the support I’ve received from my wonderful readers.

Do I have frustrations? Of course, I do. Like all authors I wish I were paid more and more often. I chafe against the long delay between the date a book is accepted and the date it lands on bookstore tables. But I am sure my publisher has frustrations with me, too, and I try to remind myself that this  corporation—and not yours truly—is the one investing its significant dollars in editing, designing, printing, binding, marketing, and shipping my books. In short, I try to keep some perspective and humility.

None of us knows what the future holds for publishing. I will confess to being scared of a book world dominated by a single retailer of Amazon’s size. I say that not just as an author and reader but as someone who views the dissemination of ideas as central to our basic freedoms. If conventional publishers were all to vanish tomorrow—and I don’t think they will—editorial power will shift elsewhere, to corporations like Amazon  and Google and Apple for instance. It’s helpful to remember this chilling anecdote as we marvel at all our new publishing possibilities as writers.

I’m glad that Jessica Park has found fulfillment and fortune by self-publishing her work, although I hope success softens her anger. In answer to the question I posed in the title of this post, I think that anyone who shares her frustrations and specific ambitions should create a Kindle Direct account this minute and see what happens. Someday, I might join you myself. But if I ever do add my name to the ranks of the self-published, it will be with the well-founded suspicion that, without a wise and unsentimental editor to push me past my comfort zone, my books won’t be as good as they could be. In my heart I will always know I can do better.

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17 Responses to Should You Self Publish?

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Paul…a great essay today. Thank you. Having spent ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner, and later having been dropped by a publisher who put very little behind my books, I understand her anger and her frustration. I’m also grateful for the times when an editor challenged me to make my books better or sent them back for revision, and for having had an agent who taught me love rewrite.

    I live in fear of a world without a gatekeeper function. I also know that rejection, while it broke my heart and left me seriously considering giving up writing altogether, also made me stronger. I had to decide that only I got to say that I was a writer, and that conviction, and the better writing and even more serious dedication that resulted, has given me stronger writing muscles and some really good books. And it has reminded me that this is an endless process of learning and relearning, in a publishing environment that’s changing radically.

    At bottom, for me, it must always be first about the writing. But the desperate struggle to get published and stay published can seriously sap that energy and be a huge distraction.

    Kate

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  2. Vicki says:

    I have worked for a publisher, written 23 books published by traditional publishers and now own a bookstore. I do take self pubbed books in the store on consignment and sell very few. I have then on a prominent shelf in the main part of the store marked local authors. Reason, in my opinion starts with the covers. They look “homemade.” Pricing is usually off kilter with the rest of market. And, as I read through, there are all kinds of errors. I think there are situations that call for self publishing, such as a niche book or someone who has a platform. In most cases there is a reason the book wasn’t picked up. Like you, even though I think every time I submit a manuscript it is ready, the editor has never failed to make it better.

    Thanks for the great post.

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  3. Barb Ross says:

    Ah, the curse of interesting times. As a new, very small, author and publisher, I love the opportunities I’m getting to learn about the business and watch it evolve in a sort of an insider/(mostly) outsider way.

    I do know people who make a nice living from self-published fiction, particularly their e-book versions. I haven’t demanded their 1099s or anything, but I can tell by their general approach and Amazon rankings that what they’re telling me must be more or less true. These are people who take themselves seriously, who have frequently been published traditionally as well as self-published, who pay at a minimum for copy-editing and cover design, and in some cases developmental editing, and who view their self-publishing as a business in which investments must be made.

    I also think the rapid (I certainly won’t say instant) gratification of self-publishing is a trap, particularly for many new writers. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked to critique a manuscript that I though was months (or years) away from publication, only to have the author say, “I don’t need your input. I’ve self-published it.” Oy. As I said in my blog post here on rejection, at Level Best, about 50% of what we get is unpublishable in the state in which it comes to us, though about 80% of that 50% could be something good (and sometimes very, very good) if the author worked on it longer. I suspect the numbers may be even higher among those who don’t look right left or center, and just self-publish.

    As to the part of the self-publishing band wagon that involves bashing traditional publishers, well, I’ve chosen to be traditionally published twice, so I guess that says most of what I need to say. Which doesn’t mean I couldn’t get on my hobby horse and say a lot about how I think big publishers are not maximizing the opportunity created by the technology transition we’re going through, and therefore are giving the field to Amazon, but my opinions on this would clearly be an outsider’s view, nothing more than speculation. As somebody said (and for some reason I think I heard this quote from you, Paul), “The only thing everyone in publishing today knows for sure is that nobody knows anything.”

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    • Hi! The ‘nobody knows anything’ is William Goldman of Hollywood fame’s quote. He was talking about what makes a hit.

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    • Paul Doiron says:

      Interesting times indeed, Barb! I keep waiting for that tipping point when a horde of “name” authors decide that going the self-published route is a no-brainer. Louise Penny is immensely smart and talented, but there’s no way she’s pulling down $150,000 a month. So if signing up with Amazon is so potentially lucrative to someone with her fan base why doesn’t she just make the move? Or Laurie King or Steve Hamilton or Linda Castillo, for that matter? On the mystery/thriller side of things, it’s still pretty much the Eisler and Konrath show; and their shtick is to present themselves as keepers of some secret knowledge, like a couple of basement Knights Templar, while the rest of us are all clueless dodos headed for extinction. The common response you hear from self-publishing boosters is that successful authors like Penny are already benefiting so much from the current system — and many of them have ethical objections to Amazon’s business practices and what those practices might mean for bookstores, which some of us still enjoy patronizing, as well as concerns about the rush to the bottom in terms of book pricing — that they will be the last people to see the light. I’m just having a hard time understanding how a few cult authors could be routinely out-earning New York Times bestsellers and yet none of these same bestselling authors — most of whom are not remotely sentimental when money is involved — have decided to leverage their existing success to rake in millions online.

      As an author who’d like to earn my entire income from my writing, I’d love to imagine that I could just hang out a shingle and make more money than I’ve ever earned in my life. But I am always wary when my dearest wishes seem to line up, from a hazy distance, with what looks like inarguable reality or my prejudices are confirmed by some unconfirmed anecdote. We human beings are masters at deluding ourselves — which is a frequent theme of my novels, in fact.

      Like everyone else connected to the publishing business, I’m watching and waiting and trying to understand just what the hell it is I’m seeing out there.

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  4. Pat Browning says:

    This question is like religion and politics — you will never bring one side around to the other side’s view. I think traditional publishing is a dead duck. As old as I am (and I am really, really old) I love e-books. I don’t have an e-reader but I use Amazon’s Kindle for PC software and it works fine.

    I download everything that looks interesting — self-published or not — as long as it doesn’t cost more than $2.99. I will never in a million years pay the high e-book prices some traditional publishers put on their e-books. When an e-book costs as much as a paperback copy, if it’s something I really, really want to read, I will buy the paperback and donate it to my library book sale when I finish reading it.

    Technology has turned publishing on its head. My small micro-publisher keeps up with the times. Not only is my book on Kindle, as well as in paperback, but there’s also a generous excerpt on Google Books. The latest wrinkle is that my books and all my publisher’s titles are now available in bookstores that own an Espresso machine — which means a reader can just go in and print out a copy of my book, cover and all, in about 5 minutes, at a paperback price.

    The machines are not cheap and so far the stores with them are scattered here and there across the country, but being able to order up a book the way we use to punch a button to play a juke box is surely the wave of the future. The Espresso machine is not a flash in the pan. The company — ondemandbooks.com — has been working on it for a good 10 years or longer.

    Pat Browning

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    • Paul Doiron says:

      I don’t know, Pat. I bet most traditionally published authors could be persuaded to change their attitudes for $50,000 to $150,000 a month in income. In my own case I am young enough in this business to imagine my career changing a number of times in the future. But as I listen to writers celebrating Amazon’s great emancipation of authors from the bondage of the Big Six, I can’t help but hear that famous line from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss./Same as the old boss.”

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  5. Pat Browning says:

    Paul, without even trying I can name three authors who simply went into business for themselves by starting their own publishing company. It’s not easy, it’s not cheap and it’s a heck of a gamble, but so far they are doing okay. Not getting rich, probably just paying their bills, but putting their books out there and picking up readers.

    Amazon is not run by fools. They keep an eye out for which way the wind blows. Yeah … they’re so big it’s scary — selling everything from groceries to underwear, along with books, but so far at least they are dependable. I have never had one complaint with their products or their service. With books, small press and self-pubs get an equal chance at the brass ring.

    Compare that with a local Hastings bookstore near me where they have shelves lined with books by Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich and other huge sellers, and not a small press book in sight, and certainly — heaven forbid — no self-published disasters. And the clerks know zip about the books. At least on Amazon you some reviews, separate the real readers from the trolls, and know pretty much what a book is about and whether or not it’s something you want to read.

    And the world just keeps turning …. (-:

    Pat Browning

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  6. Thank you for this essay, which speaks with a voice that has been much quieter in this debate. Authors who are doing well indie publishing sometimes have a bit of the convert’s zeal, and with good reason. For a long time traditional publishing was the sole option, save for a bottom-of-the-barrel, only-the-wealthy-and-the-foolish-would-try-it vanity path. Some good books were overlooked, and only 200 authors (is the figure I’ve heard) could earn a living off their writing. Amazon came along and changed that–to both good and bad effect.

    But it’s important to keep in mind that the people decrying traditional publishing have a bias. Either they a) couldn’t get a contract or b) didn’t do well with their publisher. That may not be the fault of their work. But it influences their take on traditional publishing. In many cases people waxing un-rhapsodic about traditional have no experience with it.

    Indie publishing was not an option when I began trying to break in 12 years ago. I am now 7 months from my debut novel being out. The past year since that book sold has been one of the most thrilling of my life. The amount of talent and passion I’ve encountered at my publisher is–just as you say–dazzling. They made my book into the one I always wanted to write.

    I am glad and grateful it went this way. But I openly recognize the drawbacks (reading between the lines you can calculate that in addition to the 11 years it took me to get published, it will have been another almost two before my book hits shelves) and also that this path won’t suit all books or authors.

    I think it’s great that there’s an alternative. I just hope emerging writers are presented with a balanced view of the pros and cons, as your blog posts offers, so they can decide if it’s worth years of honing [probably over multiple mss] and knocking [on doors and windows and things that don’t even open] and not a little head-banging, or if taking the indie route will give them a better chance of the kind of success they want.

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    • Actually, I have to edit my own comment. There are indie authors who do well with their traditional house AND choose to self-publish. Perhaps some of their work doesn’t fit a standard niche, or perhaps they write more books than a trad publisher would release in a year. But these authors tend to celebrate the pros and cons of both paths with nuance. What I meant to say was that the people I hear saying, Traditional publishers? Who needs ’em? typically haven’t been with one or done well with one.

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      • Paul Doiron says:

        Thanks, Jenny, for both the unedited and edited comments. 🙂

        I don’t see how anyone can deny that having so many options is a good thing for writers. I guess my cautionary note is meant to emphasize that almost every piece of great writing I’ve ever read has benefited from the work of an editor who didn’t flatter the author but pushed him or her to make difficult and sometimes unwelcome changes. (See T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, Raymond Carver and Gordon Liss). I suppose that in the twenty-first century smart self-published writers will be seeking out and hiring their own freelance editors—and the very smart writers will even listen to their critics’ advice.

        In my own life, dealing with rejection and processing criticism has been an important part of my writerly education. More than being published by a legacy publisher like Macmillan, I think my mindset is what makes me a professional. There’s certainly no reason a self-published author working with Kindle Direct can’t cultivate that same humility (and many do, no doubt), but I worry about the beginning writers especially whose egos are so delicate that they can’t handle anything but gushing praise. I’m an editor by trade, and so when I hear writers calling us all hidebound idiots (or whatever) I feel sadness because I know what an author and editor, working together without ego, can accomplish.

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    • Pat Browning says:

      Jenny writes: “But it’s important to keep in mind that the people decrying traditional publishing have a bias. Either they (a) couldn’t get a contract or (b didn’t do well with their publisher. That may not be the fault of their work. But it influences their take on traditional publishing. In many cases people waxing un-rhapsodic about traditional have no experience with it.”

      Jenny, you can add a (c) to your bias list — the older writer (and there are lots of us) who doesn’t want to wait around forever and pile up rejections from agents, never mind editors and publishers. In my case, my husband’s health was deteriorating and I wanted him to be able to hold my book in his ever-lovin’ hands.

      iUniverse was just starting up and the price was $99 so I jumped at it. They put out a beautiful book in a month flat. It is still hanging around the Internet. My library still has a copy. It was only later that Krill, a start-up press, offered me an advance, a new title, a new cover and a chance to make a few revisions. Why would I want to spin my wheels with a traditional publisher who would take two years to run my book by their in-house committees?

      I have never regretted my original decision to self-publish with iUniverse, and my royalties with Krill Press are respectable. They are mostly from e-books. I will be curious to see how the Espresso on-demand publishing measures up.

      Bias? Nah, just my experience, all positive. (-:

      Pat Browning
      Author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE

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  7. Paul, if only your thoughts would go viral as Jessica’s have… you’d be all set….

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  8. Kristen Lindquist says:

    Paul’s wife here. I wanted to throw in my two cents worth, because I self-published a book of poetry last year. Poetry is one of those things that I think benefits from the ease of self-publishing, because no big house publishes poetry unless you’re Billy Collins or Maya Angelou. Poet friends who have had books published by indie presses submitted their manuscripts literally hundreds of times before getting accepted and published. And these small presses can’t afford to do publicity–they’re selling poetry, after all, not making any money!
    My collection comprises poems that have been workshopped and edited for years, so I felt confident in my product. I worked with a good designer, and I secured a kick-ass cover image by Maine artist Eric Hopkins. For me, it was a great process, and I’m now selling my book! But if I were a fiction writer, I would not have gone this route. I’ve worked in a bookstore, and I have a tremendous affection for the independent bookstore, where the employees still hand-sell books they love and you are confronted with wonderful books you’d never have discovered browsing Amazon online. I’m married to a novelist and am very thankful that people will pay $9.99 for a digital version of his next book. Even better, they’ll buy the hardcover or the paperback. Some even still pay full price! That’s not only supporting his work, but helping to keep a bookstore in business. To lose the indie bookstores, the eager bookstore clerks, physical books themselves, would create a tremendous void in our culture. I hope I never see the day.

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  9. Paul, of course you are right about the usefulness of gatekeepers. Publishing open to all means an awful lot of “published” books with potential but that are not yet ready for prime time, and an even larger amount of books by totally untalented writers that will always and forever be complete crap. And we also know that editors have to pass on a fair number of otherwise very good books that they’d like to publish but can’t because the book “doesn’t fit into our line” or because the marketing people, stuck in their little bestseller grooves, don’t know how to market it.

    The trouble with the gatekeeper model is that, these days and for the past 30 years or so, the gatekeeper hasn’t just been the editor. We all know that the editor is just the first step toward a publisher offering a contract. The ones we have to ultimately get past are the bean counters–the marketing and budget people, who might as well be marketing auto parts or roach killer as novels for all the difference it makes to them. And no matter how hard an editor fights for what may be a brilliant book by a brilliant new author, if the marketing people shoot it down because they can’t figure it out, it’s dead. Or no matter how fantastically well-received by the major reviewers an author’s previous books (with the same publisher) may have been, if they didn’t earn enough, the new book is dead and the author is dropped.

    You can scarcely blame any professional author, with several good, well-reviewed books behind her, for feeling bitter and ready to try any other promising venue when her giant publisher drops her because–for reasons out of her control like the worst economic crisis in 80 years–her $26 hardcover/$12.99 eBook novels didn’t sell enough. Invariably the publisher blames the author when the economy tanks and no one can afford to buy books. What’s more, they blame the author when their own “promotional” department does the worst, most half-assed, outright indifferent and stupid, job of promoting–even DESCRIBING!–her new book that it was possible to do.

    Am I speaking from personal experience? Oh yeah. And I am quite ready to self-publish my new book before being crapped on like that again.

    I think you do have to separate the basic types–the talentless wannabes, for whom self-publishing will not do anything except allow their mothers to buy a copy of their ghastly book; the promising-but-not-ready newcomers, who should be advised to hire an editor before plunging into any kind of publishing; the crapped-on, fed-up, experienced midlist professionals, for whom self-pubbing may be the best chance to keep on earning a living by writing in decades; and the handful of bestselling legacy authors, who are doing just fine with their traditional contracts and don’t want to be bothered with the extra gruntwork that self-pubbing would entail, thank you very much–into their separate categories before discussing anything at all about the benefits and downsides of self-publishing for each of these very different groups.

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    • Paul Doiron says:

      Those are all great points, Susanne, and I think your last paragraph really nails the difficulty of discussing this topic in a forum that emphasizes brevity. My wife left a comment yesterday about the great experience she has as a poet self-publishing a printed book. She is a professional in terms of her background, having previously published many of these poems in journals where they were polished with the help of an editor, and she approached the task of publishing her book with professionalism, as well. The technology (both small run printing and ePubs) has opened the doors for everyone to walk through—some of these people will be worth reading but many other won’t. I still think we’re in a transitional era where it’s unclear who the next gatekeepers will be, both in practical terms (e.g. will Amazon continue to be able to price books at a loss in order to boost its Kindle sales?) and in less tangible terms (who will be the new tastemakers in a world where literally hundreds of thousands of eBooks are appearing each month; how will casual readers—as opposed to the Goodreads junkies and obsessive blog readers, learn about the new titles that might change their lives?). As Barbara Ross said: interesting times.

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  10. This is a great story. I’m just about to release 2 books as iPad apps. They are both very image heavy and I am not sure about what to do with Kindle. I know it’s beneficial to be on there, but the idea of converting the books seems a bit overwhelming.

    Any feedback would be appreciated!

    Thank you.

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