7.22.2014

Temporarily Embarrassed Bestselling Authors and the KDP Select Honey Trap

About two years ago, after becoming fed up with inconsistent distribution, unresponsive customer service, and a huge lag in sales reporting, I left Smashwords in a huff and took all my toys with me. Then, because at that time there didn't seem to be much by way of alternatives (other than dealing directly with individual retailers, which is a bigger headache in its own way), I pushed all my chips into the Amazon pot and decided to just hang back for a bit and see what happened. For a while, it was nice only having to deal with one retailer and one set of payment reports, and I was making roughly the same amount of money, but with a lot less of the headache. But I didn't realize then that I was on a downward trend, and now I'm more or less seeing the bottom, so it's time to talk about it.

On KDP Select Losing Its Luster
Amazon Makes an Offer You Can't Refuse
Smelling potential disaster earlier this year, I ventured back over to Smashwords in March with one of my free and clear short story titles ("Vermin") in an attempt to see if things had changed much. I also uploaded my latest Colt Coltrane short story. Aside from a marginally improved user interface, it was same old same old. On any given day, my books would be listed as available in all distribution channels, only to not appear in search results in the actual stores. There was no rhyme or reason for this. No explanation. And of course, sales reporting data appeared to be as laggy as always. I took down the Colt story, but left Vermin up there as a test case. I'll get back to that in a second.

Disenchanted as ever, I dug in my heels with Amazon's KDP Select program for another 90 day cycle as I tried to figure out what to do next. Might as well, right? I mean, with KDP Select, at least I get to do some free promotional days and maybe a Countdown Deal or two. I feel a bit like an addict trying to justify why drugs are so damn awesome, but Amazon had always been decent to me. I mean, I get good sales reporting data that's as close to real time as one can get in this business. They pay every month instead of quarterly, and they even removed that pesky $10 minimum threshold so even the pennies I make from the overseas stores come to me every month. Also, if I've ever had a problem, their customer service has always been timely and helpful.

But the truth is Amazon likes to position itself as the kindly and benevolent godfather that's doing right by you and looking out for you, even as he's whacking your family members in dark alleyways and building an empire with your own blood and sweat. It's hard to hate Amazon, even when you should at least be cautious, or when things start to smell a little off, like maybe they've put a decapitated horse head in your bed.

It used to be if you did really well on a freebie day, there would be a nice little sales bounce afterward. Those days have since passed. I can't remember the last time I had a sizable post-freebie bounce. Hell, I can't remember the last time I had any bounce at all, even after a day where I had nearly a thousand downloads and topped the free charts. It's difficult to put my finger on what has happened over the last six months or so, but making money via Amazon has been like squeezing blood out of bone. Sometimes it feels like the ranking gods are flogging me, or like they've decreased the visibility of my books on the site, but it's not like I can verify that. I also realize I've played a part in this. I shouldn't have stayed exclusive for so long, for one thing. For another, I'm questioning whether it was wise to put all my work into collections while removing the availability of more individual downloads. But I'm also a firm believer that for the most part, you get out of self-publishing exactly what you put into it, and in my drive to finish a new novel and acquire an agent, I have let my indie work slide a bit. I haven't had many releases at all this year, and I haven't promoted much either.

But the slide was happening even before the turn of the new year, and around January, I was pretty sure the luster was wearing off. I intended to start distributing wide again in April, but then due to a snafu on my part, I wasn't able to do so. While all my PUBLISHED work was free and clear, I had forgotten to uncheck the "renew" boxes on the individual short stories in my collections that I had since unpublished. Even in that case, Amazon still holds you to the terms of exclusivity (again, publisher beware, read the fine print). I could have risked violating that, but I didn't want to enter a potential kerfuffle with Amazon. So I unchecked those boxes and then reupped with my other titles for another three month term so that everything would be coming free around the same time in August. With KDP Select, it feels like you're living your life in three month blocks of time. Mini prison sentences. Hopefully my parole will not be delayed by another technicality next month.

But What About Kindle Unlimited?

So I give you everything, and I get pretty much nothing? Where do I sign?!
It looks okay in some ways. For traditionally published authors that are part of the program, they're making similar royalties per download based on the average value of their book for that given month, and they're not locked into exclusivity requirements. However, I'm not entirely thrilled with the way Amazon has set it up for KDP members, as yet another supposed fringe benefit to letting Amazon (and only Amazon) be your kindly godfather. It will likely serve as only a pipe dream for most self-published and small press authors. I can almost hear the siren call now . . . "Stay with us exclusively, and we'll make your book available FREE for thousands and thousands of subscribers, and you'll still make money. Ain't it great?"

No, actually, it really ain't. While Amazon is branding it as another revenue stream, you'll probably be lucky to get five subscription downloads a month, same as the Amazon Prime Lending Library. Is that worth giving Amazon full exclusivity? No, sorry. Most of the readers signing onto this KU program will be doing it for free access to the big names Amazon is using to rope them in. They won't automatically be sniffing out self-published or small press indie authors that had to hand over their only set of keys for the opportunity. But there you will be, another temporarily embarrassed bestselling author, acting against your own best interests, letting Amazon hold the ropes to your work in the off-chance it'll really pay off this time.

Chances are overwhelming that it won't. And like other authors have pointed out (check out this blog post over at Terrible Minds), you're not getting paid based on the value of your book like the traditionally published authors. You're making a percentage of a pot of money that Amazon is setting aside, just like with the Lending Library. Most times, you're topping out at about $2 per download. That's great if you're selling books below $2.99. But anything above that, and you're losing money on the sale. That's not a great deal. And if people start using Kindle Unlimited as their standard for acquiring new books, they will likely be buying fewer of them outright, which means you can say goodbye to your actual paid royalties. You'll be making less money on each sale indefinitely. You know how a lot of musicians hate streaming services like Spotify? It's for similar reasons as this, except unlike musicians, you'll be locked into an exclusivity deal with one retailer for the dubious privilege of making less money on a sale. It's a little frightening to think about what this might do to the future of indie publishing if everyone starts going this way. Hopefully terms will improve, but I doubt it. Not with the Self-Publishing 1-Percenters distributing petitions of undying love and devotion for Amazon. Gee, it must be nice having such shiny gents speaking for us unwashed masses plugging away to make enough money to buy a cheap dinner every month. I'm pretty sure Amazon would prefer to use those guys as their spokesmen rather people like me, who outnumber them 100 to 1.

I've long considered my indie publishing life an experiment. I mainly use my short stories to test the waters of the author-publisher market, and I'm not afraid to move my goalposts and change my strategies when need be. If you become too ardent, too set in your ways, you run the risk of losing your ass. This is why if you find yourself falling under the spell of certain self-publishing demagogues, back the hell away. They may have found success at this great gamble, but they're no different than the skeevy politicians who will tell you that one day, you can be rich and sell millions of books just like them, if you don't give up and if you keep writing awesome books and believing in the big American dream and the Great White Hope that is Amazon. Don't look for that man behind the curtain. Don't question the questionable business practices of Jeff Bezos the Great and Powerful.

It's nothing more than lyrical bullshit designed to divide writers into distinct camps, when really you should be steering a much more dynamic ship that can weather all markets and all conditions. Take it from me what can happen when you fail to diversify even for a little while.

So What's Next?

There is life yet
Well, THE LAST SUPPER is up next, and with that I hope to offer wide distribution of all my other work for new readers to enjoy, provided they don't hate the new book. Oh I hope they don't. So back to that copy of "Vermin" I left up on Smashwords. It's hasn't exactly been doing gangbusters, but I've sold a few copies on Barnes & Noble. I consider it a sign of life and look forward to getting the rest of my work out there again. I have plans to use Draft2Digital and Payhip to make it happen, so stay tuned for more details there in the coming months.

If you're testing the KDP Select waters for a little bit, fine. More power to ya. Maybe it'll pay off and get you some additional readers. Just don't overstay your welcome. Being in the program is like standing in the sun too long without sunblock. You'll walk away bitter and blistered.