Q: Should I put my books in KDP Select?

This is a question traditionally published authors never have to think about–because they don’t usually get the option. But it’s one that keeps Indie authors up at night. For a lot of them, it translates to, “Should I go all in?” Because that is what it means. For those who aren’t familiar, Amazon’s KDP platform has an option for KDP Select. It’s a voluntary commitment to enter your book into an exclusive distribution though Amazon for a minimum of 3 months, during which time you have certain advantages over non-Select books:

  • You can run limited time promotions
  • Amazon’s algorithms give your book preferential treatment
  • You get to earn money on pages read, which can add up to a significant chunk of change

The drawback, of course, being that every book entered into KDP Select must be pulled from every other retailer world wide. Even with Amazon having the largest reach and largest market share for eBooks, that still cuts you off from a large potential readership. And there are other issues, as well:

  • Royalties paid out of a shared pool, which cuts your earnings per book read (relative to standard per-unit pricing)
  • Technical issues
  • Fraudulent activity from unscrupulous authors

Still, the earning potential is large enough to keep enticing authors. As an Indie author myself, KDP Select has never held any appeal, precisely because of the exclusivity catch. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that in the last two years, as sales across the industry as a whole have taken a huge dip, and as I have watched my own sales take a suicidal nose dive, I have considered whether it might not be worth a try. This year, especially, has been hard for me for many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with my books. Usually, at my low times, I escape into my books: reading, writing, taking pride in what I’ve accomplished and how I’m still hanging in there, despite everything.

That’s a little difficult to do when you can’t see the returns on all the effort you have put into a project. And that’s why KDP Select sounded like a promising solution–for about a minute. I thought, “I could make it work. I could sell my soul. Or maybe just loan it out for 3 months to make some extra cash, just to get my confidence back.” But my own immediate reaction to that was such a powerful rejection of the idea that I ended up discarding it again. For one very important reason: Nothing I have read and heard about the program so far has inspired any confidence in me that it wouldn’t irreparably hurt me in the end.

For me, the question of, “Should I go Amazon exclusive?” isn’t about How much can I make? but How much am I willing to give up to make that much? Am I willing to alienate the eBook world outside of Amazon? Am I willing to give up a much larger chunk of my profits to Amazon and thieves? Am I willing to go on faith that Amazon will report my page reads accurately and pay my royalties honestly? Am I willing to set aside all of my principles to make a buck, and feed the monster I personally believe is destroying the democracy of eBook publishing? Okay, that last one is a bit dramatic, but it’s how I feel. And when I put it that way, my answer is no.

It’s a very personal choice, and I’m well aware that not everyone shares it. There are plenty of writers who are quite happy in KDP Select, making enough money to be comfortable, and not at all concerned about any drawbacks. That’s great for them, and I’m happy for them. It’s just not the right path for me.

This morning, a friend of mine shared an article in a Facebook group (I’m fairly active on Facebook, in case you haven’t noticed 😉 ): Business Musings: Your Basket Is Leaking. The writer, an Indie author herself, makes a comparison between Sears and Amazon, in terms of their business life cycle. She also points out some uncomfortable truths about the way Amazon does business (which didn’t surprise me, to be honest) and paints a bleak picture for Amazon, predicting its downfall, and pointing out how staunch KDP Select supporters are now waking up to its issues and quietly pulling back to publish wide. It’s well worth reading. It’s well worth reading anything on any company you’re in business with.

So back to the original question: Should an author put his/her books in KDP Select?

My answer would be: Depends on your business model.

Do you have a massive backlist of titles to experiment with? If so, go for it! See what works and what doesn’t. Maybe putting one or two books into exclusivity will open doors for new readers to find you. Be aware, however, that it opens you up to a lot of resentment from readers who will want to read the rest of your books but only if they’re in KDP Select. And that resentment can be quite vicious, just so you know.

Is it a good idea to put all of your books into the KDP Select basket?  I still say no. Only because it’s never a good business decision to rely on one single point of sale. For one thing, you’re cutting yourself off from a wide world of readers who, for whatever reason, don’t shop for eBooks on Amazon. For another, you will be making yourself 100% dependent on Amazon’s integrity and longevity. Whatever issues Amazon might have, you will be locked in to endure them for at least 3 months. And if Amazon does suddenly shut down KDP Select, you’ll lose the bulk of your income. Not all, unless Amazon itself folds, but just make sure you have put enough money away to survive until you rebuild your readership across other platforms and get your sales back up. Which will take time.

As for me, I can say with 100% certainty that any titles I have published will never go exclusive anywhere. Beyond that, the project I had briefly considered trying for KDP Select is now on hold. I might revive it at some point in the future, but as long as I keep coming back to my original arguments against Amazon’s exclusive program, I don’t think it’ll ever happen. And the fact that I keep randomly coming across these types of articles and opinion pieces reinforces my belief that I am doing the right thing for me.

If this should be my last blog post for 2018, I wish you all a beautiful Holiday Season and nothing but the best for 2019. May you find everything you’re looking for, may you always have everything you need, and may good luck stick to your heels like melted chewing gum. 🙂

Until next time!

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The REAL Picture Ain’t Always Rosy

This article came out in 2012, with statistics from a self-published book world survey saying that about half of all self-published authors make less than $500 per year from book royalties. Now, keep in mind that this was five years ago, right about the time when the self-publishing boom peaked. Things have changed quite a bit since then and, while inspiring stories of success still abound, the hard, ugly truth is that there are now more independent authors, and more books getting published on a daily basis than ever before, which further reduces the odds of any one book making it big. The landscape of stores and distributors has changed as well. As always, Amazon still dominates both the market place and the discussion, with its ever-expanding reach into different aspects of the publishing world, but keep in mind the eBook industry is international, and current events in foreign countries will also play a role in the success of a book or author.

In many ways, the bleak statistics from the article make sense, given that a vast number of self-published authors don’t follow the “standard” format of publishing. Since distributors and stores only impose the most basic quality controls, a lot of self-published books suffer from lack of sales because the author simply didn’t deliver at a level readers expect for the price. Maybe the cover is awful. Maybe the book isn’t formatted properly and is difficult to read. Maybe it hasn’t been edited, and the reader gets tired of seeing fifteen typographical errors on every page, and having to guess at the meaning the author may have intended. Maybe the author doesn’t really care. Maybe their only intention was to make their stories available to a small circle of their friends and loved ones, and they have no interest whatsoever in making a career out of their writing.

The great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do that. The bad thing about it is that the circle of distribution is never that small.

This has always been and always will be a sore point between authors and readers, and the sales slump we are seeing now could very well be a sign that the market is self-correcting: weeding out the “bad apples” so the good ones can thrive.

However, another reason for low royalties is the continuing downward pricing pressure in the industry. With subscription services gaining popularity, voracious readers can now consume dozens of eBooks for a low monthly fee. When comparing that “basically free” phenomenon with a regularly priced eBook, and given the high volume of books they read on a regular basis, those regularly priced eBooks can seem overpriced. Any savvy consumer will want more for less–that’s perfectly understandable. But it puts the pressure on authors to price their eBooks lower, to offer some or all of them for free, and to do it with a smile on their face, even as they are (metaphorically) cutting off pieces of themselves to gain a foothold in the fickle book market.

Publishing has now become a matter of quantity, rather than quality. The more books you publish, the more sources of revenue you have. You make more selling 100 copies of a $0.99 book than you would selling 10 at $3.99. Faster releases piggyback off their own buzz waves, and keep the word of mouth flowing easier than if an author publishes one book every two years. Even if those slower releases are longer, better, and better presented, many times they will fail simply because readers lose interest and forget by the release date. With so many other options to choose from, instant gratification tends to win out.

From where I’m sitting, those 2012 stats don’t look like they apply any longer. I would estimate that the average annual income for self-published authors is slightly lower now and, having seen a number of authors quit over the last couple of years in order to get full time jobs because of financial problems, it hasn’t gotten any easier to make ends meet on just book royalties.

For this, and many other reasons, the best advice any author or industry professional will ever give you is this:

Write what you love, because you love it.

That love will sustain you through good times and bad. If you don’t have it, if writing doesn’t spark a fire in your soul and consume your every waking moment, all the hardships, setbacks, obstacles, and detours will eventually wear you down and kill any enjoyment you may have started out with. You can’t write to popular trends, because those change in a heartbeat. You can’t write to your audience, because their tastes will change and evolve overtime. You can never please everyone, and readers will feel your lack of passion through your written word.

Every author secretly holds out hope for the “bestselling author” title and J.K. Rowling-class fame, but if you write for the fame and fortune alone…well, as you can see, there is precious little of that to go around.

So here’s another piece of advice I feel I should impart:

Go into this with your eyes open, and a backup plan at the ready.

Knowing what you’re getting involved in, what you can expect, and how to compensate will not only save your sanity, but also keep you afloat when others around you might be sinking. Set the groundwork before you publish your first book: have an online platform and a strong social media presence to build a powerful wave of initial interest. It could mean the difference between creating a readership and fading into obscurity before you have a chance to shine. If you have a day job, hold onto it to pay the bills. Save up for the initial expenses (because they do exist and are necessary) and budget yourself to only what you can afford. Keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry and make a plan for every contingency. And above all, don’t put all of your eggs into one basket. Hedge your bets, publish everywhere possible to reach as many readers as possible.

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