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.