Why I’m Selling My Books Everywhere Now, Instead of Just on Amazon
Between January 2012 and this month (over 3 years), I sold my novels on Amazon exclusively. I did this under their KDP “Select” (Kindle Direct Publishing Select) program because I was convinced of the rumors: that if your books were in Select (making them ineligible to be sold on any other platforms), they would get higher placement and better visibility in the Amazon search algorithm, and therefore would sell more copies.
While this might be true in the sense that an author in Select gets a marginally better ranking on Amazon, I found the ignominy of where my books were not to be worth the opportunity costs of not selling on other platforms.
I don’t want to waste a lot of time rehashing my decision to put my books on all of the major digital platforms (including B&N Nook, Google Play, Kobo, iTunes/iBooks, and Kindle), but in order to dispense with this topic, I would like to detail, for once and for all, how Amazon did right by me, and where it needs to improve—in the hopes that maybe their crawlers will pick up on this piece and take it as a piece of constructive criticism, instead of potentially blacklisting me for it.
How Amazon Did Right by Me
In February 2012, back when the ability to give your books away for free under Amazon’s KDP Select program was still relatively new, I put A Real Piece of Work up for free for a few days, in the hopes that, once the free period was over, the increased exposure would lead to outright book sales. And it did. It worked beyond my wildest dreams. In this weblog entry from 2012, I detailed some of the results. In the end, I ended up selling enough copies of the first Dakota Stevens mystery that I was able to finance two luxurious 2-week trips to Europe for myself and my wife in 2012 and 2013.
But, as grateful as I am for that one-time sales bonanza, I’m sad to say that’s it—that’s the best of what came from my 3-year “Select” relationship with Amazon. (During which time all of my books were only available on Kindle.)
After that, I used some of the Amazon “free days” and “countdown sales” to attempt to generate interest in my work, but none of the “promotional tools” worked nearly as effectively as that first giveaway period back in February 2012.
Why I Dumped Amazon KDP Select
Elements of Select had bothered me for a long time, but it wasn’t until January of this year when I learned about a new program that Amazon had surreptitiously instituted: Kindle Unlimited. For only $9.99/month, any Amazon customers in this program can read as many books as they want, and if you’re an author whose books are in KDP Select, your books become available to Kindle Unlimited members.
This, to me, was the equivalent of the cheap all-you-can-eat salad and dessert bars you see in mediocre restaurants. The restaurant lures in customers with the promise of being able to get as much salad and as many desserts as they want, and then charging a premium for the entrees themselves.
An even better analogy, I think, is that of the free food sample displays you find in Wal-Mart and some grocery stores. The vendors—like independent authors—provide their foodstuffs for free (or at a significant discount). The vendors are in effect used to attract customers. Their content (the foodstuffs) are only important to Wal-Mart inasmuch as the content brings people to the store and keeps them spending money.
With KDP Select, Amazon has created a storehouse of 800,000 titles (a lot of foodstuffs) with which to bait in customers and get them to spend money.
Here’s the thing, though: I and other very good writers don’t write the quality of work that we do only for it to be put at the free sample booths, or in the all-you-can-eat trough. I’m not free salad bar material; I’m La Closerie Des Lilas, and you’re going to have to pay for it. Sorry.
And that’s a further point: Any authors part of KDP Select, when any of their books are read from Kindle Unlimited, are paid a fraction for the read compared to what they’d be paid if the customer—oh, I don’t know…actually BOUGHT the book. For a title that I give a list price of $4.99, I’m paid about $3.50 when the book is purchased; but if the same title is “borrowed” via Kindle Unlimited, I only get a percentage of a pool of money (it fluctuates between 2 and 5 million dollars a month)—and only that amount which my borrow represents. For example, if the fund is a million dollars one month and one of my books is borrowed one time out of a million borrows, that means I’m entitled to 1 one-millionth of the fund, or, as dramatized in one of my favorite movies, Trading Places, ONE DOLLAR.
Where Amazon KDP Needs to Improve
Again, I don’t want to invest more time (my money) in this piece than I need to to make my point, but here are some suggestions on things Amazon KDP could do differently to benefit ALL of their authors, as well as their bottom line:
1. Stop making big sales the sole criterion for highlighting authors. In other words, how about fleshing out your search algorithm, Amazon, to find works that are highly rated by Amazon customers but which aren’t necessarily selling at bestselling levels yet (like my books)? The problem with using sales and publisher advertising as the sole criteria for whether you’re going to promote a book is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: In order to have big sales on Amazon, you need to sell big on Amazon.
2. Enough of these “free days” and “countdown sales”; if you want to give your independent authors true, valuable promotional tools, why not give them the ability to have their works highlighted on the front page of various genre sections? For example, instead of having a 7-day period (within 90 days) during which I can give my book away for free or offer it on a countdown sale, maybe you give me the ability to have premier placement on the Mysteries & Thrillers front page for my Dakota Stevens series. The placement would only need to be for a day or two, but it would certainly lead to large sales, benefiting me and Amazon.
3. Stop giving premier placement to books published by the Big Five. Frankly, fuck the Big Five. They’re slowly dying (or, as my best friend Jason Scott has pointed out, “they’re square-dancing on a sinking ship”), and they’ve shown absolutely no willingness to adapt to the demands of the new market. Let them and the quality of their books compete with the rest of us. I frequently get emails from readers saying that they find my books to be as good as, if not better than, ones by Lee Childs, James Patterson (no shit my stuff is better than his), John Lescroart, and other “bestselling” authors. If their work is any good, it is capable of competing with mine and that of other good independent authors for promotional space.
4. Make your “editors'” job to find quality work, written by whomever, not to highlight the authors and publishers that are subsidizing Amazon’s profit margins. Readers will appreciate this. Make it part of your mission to curate books for readers, who increasingly don’t have the time to find great works for themselves. What if you did this for readers, exposing readers to authors they’ve never heard of, authors whose works they fall in love with? I daresay that those readers will keep coming back and buying from you because they will grow to trust your judgment.
For a long time I thought that guys like the creator of Smashwords were just barking at the moon when they talked about the necessity of making your work widely available, but I now understand this principle. As long as I and other good authors continue to engage in sharecropping for Amazon, Amazon will get richer while we authors—the ones who actually cultivate the fields and produce the crops—slowly starve.