Why being in the KDP Select is not a bad business decision — For Me.

My two historical mysteries, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, have come to the end of their first 3 months as part of the KDP Select program, and I have decided to re-enroll them. I know that a good number of authors are facing the question to re-enroll or not, (or to enroll at all) so I thought I would discuss why I have come to that decision, particularly in light of the persistent argument made by a number of self-publishing authors that KDP Select is a bad strategy for authors.

Just this week, as I was making the decision to re-enroll my books in the KDP Select Program, I read a post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, where she made the following argument.

“The key to developing an audience is to stop searching for one audience. The key to developing a lot of readers for your books—audiences plural—is to do what musicians do: play a lot of venues.

“Yet writers make all kinds of bad decisions in search of the biggest audience they can get. And writers think of that audience in singular terms. These writers give their books away for free, hoping to hit some bestseller list and gain readers. They only sell in one marketplace because it’s the biggest one in its genre or its category.”

While I disagree with her conclusions, Rusch does pretty accurately describe two of my reasons for enrolling my books in the KDP Select Program. I entered Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits into the KDP Select program and used the free promotion days in the hope that my books would, at the very least, regain their position at the top of the historical mystery category (which they had lost because of a change in that category that increased the number of books from below 100 books to nearly 2000 books). I was also willing to accept the KDP Select requirement that I sell my ebooks exclusively on Amazon because Amazon had proven to be the biggest market for my books.

What I disagree with is Rusch’s characterization of these actions as “bad decisions,” or that they only represent a short-term versus long-term business strategy. First of all, of course joining KDP Select is a short-term strategy–since the contract only lasts 3 months. In addition, the program is new–none of us knows if it will continue, if the tweaks Amazon is making to the formula will make the free promotions less and less effective, or if the pot of money for borrows will continue to be sufficient. And if Amazon asked for exclusive rights for a longer term than 3 months at a time, given these unknowns, I would probably not sign.

However, almost any action an author takes in the midst of the rapid changes within the publishing industry can be characterized as short-term. Putting your ebooks in the Barnes and Noble Nook store, given the effect of the Department of Justice decision on agency pricing, might turn out to be a short-term strategy if this corporation goes under. Concentrating on building relationships with bookstores to get them to carry your print on demand books (a strategy that Rusch’s husband Smith is currently advocating) may be a very short-term strategy if those bookstores go under in the next 2-3 years. Whether or not you can guarantee the long-term effectiveness of a strategy shouldn’t determine whether or not it is a good decision. What does matter to me is whether or not my decision to enroll my books in KDP Select for a short time will further my long-term goals.

Those goals are, coincidentally, ones that Rusch strongly supports. Over and over Rusch, her husband Dean Wesley Smith, and other successful self-published authors have advised that it is important that authors view themselves as engaged in a business (Rusch calls her Thursday posts “The Business Rusch.”) and that part of a long-term effective business strategy for authors is constantly increase their content. In Rusch’s words, “An audience can’t be goosed. The audience must be built. And then it must be nurtured. Audiences aren’t fickle. They’ll return when they see a notice of something new from one of their favorites. But if their favorites cease to produce, the audience will move onto something else.”

My decision to enroll in KDP Select was very much a business decision. The main reason for that decision was my need to make enough money so I would have the time to write my next book. I didn’t believe I would be able to do that if I continued a strategy of having my books in as many e-retail stores as possible, while forgoing the opportunities of the KDP Select promotions.

I first discovered the effectiveness of using free material for promotional purposes to gain an audience when my short story Dandy Detects was free on Kindle Nation Daily in July 2010. This 3-day promotion of the short story had the side effect of pushing my novel, Maids of Misfortune, to the top of the historical mystery category on Kindle. That, in turn, positioned the novel to sell well, particularly during the winter holidays when a whole slew of new Kindle owners were looking for books to read. This first jump in sales (you might say they were “goosed up” in Rusch’s terminology) permitted me to take the financially risky step to retire completely from teaching so I could write full-time. Consequently, in the next nine months I wrote and published a second novel, Uneasy Spirits, satisfying my audience’s demand for a sequel.

While my sales in 2011 had been just enough to replace my teaching salary, most of that income had come in the first 3 months of that year (the post Christmas boom in ebooks). However, even with a second book out, my sales at the end of 2011 were steadily decreasing. This was in part because of the expansion in the historical mystery category and my books drop down the bestseller list, and, I suspect, in part because of the beginning of the KDP Select Promotions. I was facing the real possibility that in 2012 I wouldn’t be making as much money as I did the year before in sales. So, if I wanted to have the time and income to write a third book, I was going to have to figure out a way to increase my income.

Hence the decision to give KDP Select a try. This was a business decision: not a short-term emotional desire to see my book on a best-seller list, but a calculated move to ensure the long-term goal of making enough money so I could produce more work, thereby continuing to build my audience and its loyalty. And it worked. In January, February, and March of 2012, I sold over 20,000 books and made over $40,000 — more than enough to replace my lost part-time teaching salary and ensure another two years of full-time writing during which time I hope to write two more books and additional short stories.

But didn’t my decision to go with KDP Select – which required that I sell my ebooks exclusively on Amazon – mean I had to sacrifice those multiple audiences that Rusch and Smith say are so important? Well, I would beg to differ with the opinion that selling exclusively in the Kindle store only develops one audience. My first free promotions through KDP Select (at the end of December and again in mid-February) were successful, not just in pushing my books back up to the top of the historical mystery category but also in putting them at the top of numerous other categories. In fact, Maids of Misfortune ended up in the top ranks of eleven different categories. As a result, not just the historical mystery audience, but the often very diverse audiences who like mysteries with female sleuths, traditional mysteries, romance, and historical fiction all got a chance to see and buy my books. I didn’t sell over 20,000 books in 3 months to a single historical mystery audience. I tapped into multiple audiences — which is exactly what Rusch is advising.

But I am sure she would argue that it is equally important to cultivate audiences who do not have Kindles or use Kindle apps. Yet I had already tried the strategy that Rusch and Smith are advocating — making my ebooks available in multiple markets. For two years I sold my ebooks in six e-stores in addition to Amazon: Apple, Barnes&Noble, Diesel, Kobo, Sony, and Smashwords. (And I still make my print book available to any bookstore who wants to order it through Amazon.)

Nevertheless, in the those two years, over 90% of my income had come from Kindle sales. Since the most recent data suggests that Amazon holds about 67% (down from 80%) of the ebook market, it is pretty clear that the other booksellers haven’t been doing a very good job of selling my books. The books are the same, the covers are the same, the descriptions are the same, and my social media presence is the same. Yet that potential 30% of the market (or audience) that these non-Amazon bookstores represent are not finding my books. In other words, my books are languishing in some back room, on some back shelf, of these virtual bookstores. In the Amazon store, however, my books are front and center within categories, promoted by email blasts, recommended through “Customers who Bought” lists, and listed on my Author page (along with links to my twitter and blog posts).

This is not to say that there isn’t a way to tap into those other bookstore markets, or that in time those bookstores won’t do a better job of selling my books, if they want to stay competitive. But I needed the income now, to go on writing, not in some future when the other e-retailers learn how to market my books as effectively as Amazon does.

My decision might not be right for every author. If I were Rusch or Smith and had a large number of books, in multiple genres, a smaller return in sales from these multiple markets wouldn’t be a problem, and these other markets would be worth cultivating now. And I applaud the success of an author like Sarah Woodbury, who has effectively followed the strategy of using one book as a loss leader to bump up sales for her other books in multiple ebook stores. But she has nine books, and a smaller return over nine books is still substantial.

My conclusion: the decision to forgo the possibility of increasing your income and reaching new audiences within Amazon with the KDP Select, in order to keep books in multiple ebook stores, might be a good decision for some authors, but not necessarily for all. For authors like myself, who have tried the multiple store strategy and found it wanting, who only have a few books out, and who need the income to keep writing and expanding our content in order to keep building our audience, then KDP Select can be a very good short-term strategy for long-term success.

This brings me to the question of why I decided to re-enroll in the KDP Select program. This wasn’t an easy decision since there is now a lot of evidence that it is becoming more difficult to translate free promotions into higher sales. For example, my last promotion at the end of my first enrollment period was not particularly successful. I put Maids of Misfortune up for free March 30, 2012 and Uneasy Spirits up for free March 30-31. Compared to the previous promotions, the results were not impressive. I had 3900 downloads on the one day Maids was free — compared to 14,400 over two days for the first promotion and 13,000 free downloads in one day for the second promotion. And Uneasy Spirits had fewer downloads than Maids — around 1320, even though it was available for free for two days. Unlike the first two promotions, neither book broke into the top 100 bestseller free ranks, which generally translates into the largest number of downloads—and subsequent sales. During the first week after the promotions Maids did better than it had been doing, but now, in the second week after the promotion, it is actually selling less than it was before. Sales of Uneasy have stayed steady before and after this latest promotion, but not increased.

I suspect that I have saturated the markets for Maids of Misfortune, at least temporarily. If it follows the pattern of last year after the post Christmas bump, it will slowly lose sales every month. Uneasy Spirits, on the other hand, may continue to sell steadily as people who have read and liked the first book in the series buy the second. Even though I have re-enrolled my books, I don’t plan on doing another free promotion until the beginning of summer when my books, which make good summer time reading, might pick up some more sales.

So why re-enroll? Why not step out of the program for a few months, see what the changes in the formula of downloads to sales does to the continuing effectiveness of the free promotions, see whether or not the newest strategy of group promotions of free books work, or just wait until next Christmas when a new round of new Kindles hit the market and re-enroll?

And, why not make my books available again on those other e-bookstore sites in the hope that sales there will compensate for slipping sales on Amazon? The answer is simple. Borrows. I never expected to benefit from the borrowing aspect of the KDP Select Program; few of the indie authors, with our lower price points, did. We expected that the customers who enrolled in the Amazon Prime program would spend their once-a-month free borrows on more highly priced books. But I have found that people have borrowed my inexpensively priced novels and even my very inexpensive short stories. In January through March, I made $4,558 from Amazon Prime customers who borrowed my works. So, even if I don’t do another free promotion, I will come out ahead with my books in KDP Select, as long as I make more than $200 a month from borrows. That is as much as I was averaging in sales from non-Amazon bookstores.

In the next months, because of the sales I have made already as a result of being in KDP Select, and because of my borrows, I won’t have to spend time doing free promotions and I won’t be trying to figure out why people with Nooks don’t buy my books. Instead, I will have more time to write. Because, as Rusch pointed out, if I don’t produce more books, “the audience will move onto something else.” Sounds like a good short-term strategy to reach my long-term goals and not such a bad decision at all.

21 thoughts on “Why being in the KDP Select is not a bad business decision — For Me.

  1. I am also re-enrolling as part of my strategy in building a larger content base (one novel out now and a short story to follow in May, three more in various stages of development) but the big change that Amazon made on March 18th (the day the buy now buttons vanished for all eBooks, Pottermore store opened, and they changed the popularity lists, no longer one monolithic list but different based on device, browser, and previous purchase history) has blunted the avalanche of sales that had been typical previous to March 18th. The change has been about a third less in sales overall based on the lists people are exposed to when they sign on to Amazon.

    • Dear Phil,

      I have heard this information, but no one has ever cited a source for it, I would love to know whether this is an official statement of change or conclusions drawn from data, or what. If you know the source, could you send it to me?

      Thanks,

      Mary Louisa

    • Phil,
      I’m always dubious about claims of Amazon “algorithm changes”, for one main reason: everybody is guessing based on Amazon’s user interface, not on actual data. I think someone could carefully collect sales data over time (and thousands of authors), but until then, it’s wild guesswork–especially claims like “50-70% drops” in sales. Anecdotes on discussion boards do not data make, and it’s a dangerous way to make decisions as a professional writer.

  2. Good post. I’ll be making the decision to enroll in KDP Select in another month or two, so this is helpful.

    As far as free book promotions being less effective, there are just too many now. I used to go to eReaderIQ faithfully every day and check for any new free books I might be interested in, but since KDP Select took off, there are just too many to look through. Even filtering for just my preferred genres there are still usually 300 or more new titles to look through every single day. It takes too much time, and honestly I’ve accumulated so many “oh that might be interesting” freebies that even their virtual collective presence has become to large for me to want to add more to the pile. When I look through them at all these days I sort by number of reviews and just glance through the ones with the most ratings for covers that catch my eye or that I recognize from recommendations.

    • Dear DDW,

      Thanks for your insight. I haven’t used the freebies much, just a few, when I was ready to read a new book, so I haven’t felt overwhelmed. But I can imagine that people are beginning to cut back on downloads, just because they are getting a bit jaded.

      Mary Louisa

  3. a lot of good reasons louise, i’m glad too you pointed out your own particular current situation of only a couple of books, and about the borrows

    all in all, as you say, it’s still an experiment, and still being tweaked

    definitely worth at least following how you guys do😉

    thanks much!

  4. Thank you for posting such a well-reasoned response Rusch’s call to avoid exclusivity to one publishing platform. There are so many ways to slice this publishing pie, and I think you are wise to see the spread of your readership within various genres to be as good or better than spreading across different platforms. Traditional publishers do the same thing. When I was published by Ballantine, I couldn’t find my books in Borders or Books-a-Million, but they paid some coop money to put my books face out on the New Fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble. However, when I went on book tour, and I left my home state, I discovered they had only done so here in Florida. They made decisions as to how to use their limited promotional resources. As independents, we have to do the same thing.

    I was also reluctant to join the move to KDP Select, but after putting up my new release title CIRCLE OF BONES March 10-12, seeing 37,400 downloads and going on to sell 7900 copies in the remaining weeks of March, I became a convert (and I, too, realized I wouldn’t have to pick up any classes this summer as an adjunct). We have limited resources available to promote our books, but Amazon offers us these great tools for the price of exclusivity. For me, it is certainly worth the price.

    While I know that Amazon is constantly tweaking the system, I’m not aware of the specific changes the previous commenter mentioned, but due to the fact that you had significantly fewer downloads for your March 30-31 efforts, I wonder if his suggestions were the cause. I am re-releasing the first of four backlist titles this week and plan to put them all into KDP Select. I’ll find out how well they do next weekend when the first promotion goes live.

    Christine

  5. I completely agree, Mary Louisa. My business plan is similar to yours: write a series of books and get readers eager for the next “installment.” I’ve been pleased with KDP promotions, and I’ll stick with them until it stops working. I think everything that’s being done with e-books right now is pretty much “short term”, so I don’t sweat what may happen in the long-term. If I could effectively predict the long-term, I’d be a stockbroker, not a writer.

  6. I love your novels and I will continue purchasing them regardless of Amazon’s monopoly on book sales. But Amazon is only offering the KDP Select program to authors and readers so that it will continue to have a monopoly and squeeze out the competition which I think is morally wrong. Once Amazon has a stronghold against services such as Barnes and Noble’s Nook and other E-book services, they will rest assured do away with the program. I understand this is business but it’s just wrong for Amazon to push out all the competition by utilizing temporary incentive programs like this.

    • “…continue to have a monopoly and squeeze out the competition…” – I get so tired of reading this misinformation over and over again! Did you not read in this very blog post that Amazon’s share of the ebook business is DOWN, from 80% to 67%? A majority and a monopoly are not the same thing, and with B&N, Kobo and Apple still expanding, especially internationally, the paranoia that Amazon has control over ebooks is, frankly, ridiculous.

  7. I saw this reprinted on teleread. Congrats on that.

    I was sort of nodding along with your logic, until I hit this line and it gave me goosebumps:

    “This first jump in sales (you might say they were “goosed up” in Rusch’s terminology) permitted me to take the financially risky step to retire completely from teaching so I could write full-time.”

    Mary,

    The reason KDP select is considered a short-term siren call is because the income you are currently earning from a single, experimental sales channel really shouldn’t be considered dependable or even predictable.

    Abandoning other e-bookstores is one thing, as you can always go back if (when) something falls through at Amazon.

    But quitting your day job? That’s another story.

    Please forgive me if this comes across as preachy or critical on a personal level. I do not know your personal situation and that is not my intention.

    Just some food for thought in the context of the KDP discussion🙂

    Best of luck.

    Peter

    • Dear Peter,

      I quite agree that if teaching was my full-time day job, and that I was a young person with growing financial concerns, that quitting a day-job would be indeed risky, in fact it wouldn’t be smart. But, as I have detailed elsewhere, I was already “semi-retired,” when I first decided to “quit that day job,” which meant my teaching was a part time job designed to supplement my retirement income, and I made the decision before KDP Select even existed. As I wrote in this post, I had already established in 2011,that I could replace that part-time income with full-time writing, if I could keep my books visible.

      What KDP Select did was help me in this task, and if all it had done was bump my books back up the category listing, I would have been satisfied, and my decision to retire completely would have been justified for one more year. What I hadn’t expected was to get the luxury of not having to worry about sales for the rest of this year (and probably next), because the sales were so great. Any person who decides to free-lance (which is what self-publishing resembles) faces risk, and it is generally more sensible to take that risk when you know the mortgage, etc. is going to be paid. For many self-pubished authors, that basic financial security comes from a spouse’s income, or retirement income, and that fits in with my title. KDP Select was a good decision “for me.”

      I would never advocate leaving a full-time job based on the income from a free promotion. But, if your sales have already reached the point where you are getting enough income to live on (or you have other financial resources), KDP Select can provide a lovely cushion to help buffer the inevitable ups and downs of the market, and for some like me it might give you the freedom to shift from other income producing activities to gain the time to write the additional books that are a more secure way of increasing your income over the long term.

      But thanks for your concern (smile), and you are right to point out to anyone who gets all excited about a month’s worth of sales that this money should not be counted on to pay the mortgage. In my case it is helping pay off the mortgage more quickly, which is an entirely different matter!

      Mary Louisa

  8. I view my KDP Select enrollment as an effective marketing strategy. Very effective in my case. I will re-enroll. After experimenting with all platforms before enrolling, and despite my initial hesitation, I realized that my sales via Amazon dwarfed my sales via all other outlets put together. There simply was no comparison. Now that I’m in KDP Select, new readers find my books on Amazon. It’s all about discoverability and it feels good. And yes, now I have time to write more without killing myself with the constant promotion. I think the use of freebies must be strategic and I do not believe in 1-2 day freebies, I go for the whole enchilada, 5 free days. I want to be read. I write to be read. So I guess I’ll see how the next enrollment period plays out.

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  12. Thank you for posting this article. I recently released my 3rd novel (my first as an independent author) and chose to enroll it in Select. My first free promotion is coming up and I’m anxious to see the results. I also wrote a short story to run alongside it, and your article has increased my confidence in my business decision to do Select.

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