Time for a Pivot? Kindle Unlimited and Marketing in 2015

North_Korea_-_Sonbong_school_(6146581889)Everywhere I hang out as an author, I see blog posts discussing the effect of the introduction of Kindle Unlimited (KU) on authors’ sales. For those authors just waking up to this discussion, Kindle Unlimited is the subscription service Amazon introduced in July. Subscribers pay a monthly fee and can borrow all the books they want that are in the KU library. For most books by indie authors to be part of that library, the book must be enrolled in KDP Select.

If you have ever read my blog before, you will know that I found that enrolling the books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series in KDP Select was very rewarding—even though it meant accepting the terms of enrollment that prohibited me from selling my ebooks in other stores. If you are interested, click here for a list of the posts I have written on that subject.

In fact, last winter I announced that my strategy for 2014 was to keep my books in KDP Select and use the new promotional tool called the Kindle Countdown as my major form of marketing.

Which I did, quite successfully.

However, when Amazon announced the introduction of the Kindle Unlimited program, I, like many authors, was very interested in how this new program would affect my income.

Now, after using the KU program for five months, I have come to a conclusion. The overall impact of the introduction of Kindle Unlimited has been negative for my books.

As a result, I decided to remove my series novels, Maids of Misfortune, Uneasy Spirits, Bloody Lessons, and my short story collection, Victorian San Francisco Stories, from KDP Select.

However, my experience may not be representative of what is happening for all authors, so I would like to share how I came to that decision. To that end I will:

1) Briefly evaluate why the strategy of keeping my books in KDP Select and using the Kindle Countdown promotional tool worked for most of 2014 (and might still work for your books.)

2) Describe what happened to my books when Kindle Unlimited was introduced.

3) Describe why I think the program had a mostly negative effect on my income.

4) List what strategies I intend on pursuing for 2015.

1) KDP Select and the Kindle Countdown promotional tool:

Last February, 2014, I wrote a post called Is Kindle Countdown the New Free? Keeping Books Visible in 2014. I analyzed the promotions I had recently done on my books that were in KDP Select. I compared the results of two strategies: using the free promotional option (where you can make a book free for any 5 days during the three month contract period); and using the newly introduced Kindle Countdown option (where you can discount a book below $2.99 for up to 7 days consecutively during the three month contract period—while still getting the full 70% royalty rate). When I used the Kindle Countdown strategy, I usually priced my books at 99 cents for the full seven days.

My conclusions were as follows:

  • KDP Select Free promotions, particularly when advertised with BookBub, were still a very effective way to increase sales after the promotion, get higher visibility in category lists, and increase the number of reviews.
  • But it was more difficult to achieve a successful free promotion because of increased competition with traditionally published books, changes in how free books are listed in the Kindle Store, the limitation of only one BookBub ad per book every six months, and the increased competition and cost of getting a BookBub ad. (I have been extremely fortunate in getting Bookbub ads for my books—but it is important to realize that most books don’t get these ads—and not everyone can afford them.
  • While KDP Select Kindle Countdown promotions were not yet as effective as KDP Select Free promotions, they did offer an alternative for those authors who had their books in KDP Select and didn’t want to use the free promotional option.
  • I also speculated that, as more readers discovered the Kindle Countdown page, a Kindle Countdown strategy would become more effective.

Based on those conclusions, I decided that my strategy for 2014 would be to run a Kindle Countdown promotion every month for a different book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series.

As stated earlier—this strategy proved successful. Between October 2013 and August 2014, I ran nine Kindle Countdown promotions––cycling through my three novels, Maids of Misfortune, Uneasy Spirits, and Bloody Lessons. For those Kindle Countdown promotions with a BookBub ad, I averaged $1.359 in profits (counting sales of the promoted book minus marketing costs.) For the Kindle Countdown promotions without BookBub advertising, I averaged $888 in profits. And, perhaps more significantly, the improved visibility in the Kindle store resulted in a consistently high number of regular sales and borrows for all my books and short stories. So, between October and August 2014 I averaged $4700 a month in sales. (I have 3 novels, 3 short stories, a short story collection, and a boxed set of my novels—not a lot of product compared to many successful indie authors.)

In short, my strategy worked. Doing Kindle Countdowns for a different book every month (and getting the higher royalties on the discounted prices) resulted not just in profit, but, even more importantly, it resulted in continued visibility for my books, which translated into decent sales.

2) Then in July 18, 2014 Amazon introduced the Kindle Unlimited (KU) subscription service.

For most indie authors this meant that if our books were in KDP Select––they were automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. As with every change in KDP Select policies in the past four years, this caused a lot of controversy among authors. Some authors took their books out of KDP Select (you could un-enroll before the usual 3 month contract was up). Others put their books in KDP Select to see if having their books available in KU would increase a book’s sales and visibility (because, for ranking purposes, Amazon apparently counts a borrow the same as a sale).

Initially, I wondered if people would stop buying my books if they could get them for free as part of their KU subscription. I was also curious to see how much Amazon would pay for each borrow of a book. If the amount was significantly less than what I was making on each sale of a book at full price ($4.99), would an increase in sales and visibility compensate for the lower rate of return on borrows?

I hoped that these concerns would be unwarranted because similar concerns about the effect of the Kindle Owners Lending Library (where members of Amazon Prime can borrow one book a month) had proven unfounded for my books.

So I decided to keep my books in KDP Select and see what happened.

Initially, I saw a sharp increase in borrows. In July (when KU started) and August, my borrows more than doubled from their normal level. Sales also remained high. This was primarily because I did Kindle Countdown promotions that were supported by BookBub ads in both months—making my books highly visible within the regular Kindle Store and the Kindle Unlimited browsing categories.

In September, however, when I didn’t do a promotion of any of my three novels, my sales dropped to the lowest level in a year. And, while the number of borrows were still higher than normal, they also started to drop. So, without a promotion to keep my books visible, sales and rankings of my books were falling. This meant that, when readers browsed the Kindle Unlimited list of books, the books weren’t showing up high enough in the ranked categories for readers to find them there.

An additional problem was that the amount Amazon paid for each borrowed book began to drop. For most of 2014, the average amount for borrows was around $2 per book. In September the amount dropped to $1.52 and in October and November $1.33 and $1.39 (which is less than half what I normally got for my $4.99 books.) That was another blow to my total income.

October introduced a new wrinkle. Author after author reported that their most recent Kindle Countdown promotions that didn’t have BookBub ads behind them had failed miserably. They sold so few discounted books that — even with the higher royalty rate — they barely broke even after deducting marketing costs, and they saw little discernible bump in sales or borrows after the promotion.

This is exactly what happened to me. In October, 2014 I had a Kindle Countdown promotion for Maids of Misfortune, the first book in my series (which has always performed the best in promotions). After subtracting marketing costs I only made a profit of $82. Even worse, there was no discernible increase in sales or borrows of this book or my other books after the promotion ended, so my overall income dropped drastically.

In October, I made only a third of my average income from the eleven months before, and it appears that, in November and December, I will make only a fifth or less of what I was averaging for the earlier, pre-KU, months of 2014.

3) What do I think happened?

What I think happened was that the voracious reader — the person reading multiple books a week who is also the smart bargain hunter — has at least temporarily deserted the Kindle Countdown lists for Kindle Unlimited. Why would someone look for my book at 99 cents in a Kindle Countdown list on Amazon when they can get the book for free as part of KU? In fact, if they were subscribed to KU and they happened to click on my book as part of a Countdown promotion and saw the book was in KU, why wouldn’t they then decide to download it that way rather than buy it at 99 cents?

I don’t blame Amazon for this; I suspect it wasn’t what they hoped would happen because they want high quality, successful self-published books to remain in KU. That is probably why Amazon has started offering bonuses to the authors (All stars) of the highest selling books in KU.

I have always accepted that Amazon’s support for indie authors was, in part, a response to the unwillingness of traditional publishers to embrace ebooks and experiment in the new online/ebook environment. Just as I have always accepted that they are going to put the needs of their consumers (the reader) over the producers (authors or publishers.) And it is therefore my responsibility, as an author, to figure out how best to respond to that fact.

At the start, Amazon needed enough Kindle ebooks to attract readers. They needed authors who were willing to price those books within the range that Amazon has determined will get readers to buy these ebooks. And they needed authors who were willing to experiment with things like free promotions, bundling print and ebooks, and offering their books as part of subscription services. All of that means that, for much of the past five or six years, Amazon needed self-published authors.

Amazon also wanted indie authors to sell exclusively through Amazon in order to remove the competition for those books with other bookstores. So, in exchange for exclusive contracts, Amazon offered self-published authors tools like free promotions and the Kindle Countdown, which they believed (correctly) would help us sell our books.

For those of us who had books that large numbers of readers wanted to read and who were willing to experiment, the rewards of working with KDP and putting our books in KDP Select and using its promotional tools have been substantial.

I also suspect that Amazon hoped that the success of self-published books would nudge traditional publishers to use similar tactics. And I believe that has worked to a degree. The main category my books are in––historical mysteries––is much more competitive in pricing than it was in former years because many traditionally published books are now offered at various discounts.

However, I think that when Amazon decided to offer its Kindle Unlimited subscription service (a service similar to Oyster and Scribd), they knew that it might be a hard sell to indie authors—just as KDP Select has been a hard sell to many indies. The evidence for this supposition is that they offered a special deal to selected indie authors in order to keep their books in KDP Select; Amazon paid them the same amount for each borrow as for each sale.

But I don’t think that they anticipated that KU would have such a drastic negative effect on many authors’ incomes or on the effectiveness of Kindle Countdown promotions. If they did foresee this happening, maybe they hoped that the benefits of increased borrows would make up for the losses in sales. Personally, I haven’t seen evidence of increased borrows making up for lost sales—at least not for those authors who had previously been successful. There is, however, some evidence that putting a book in KDP Select may give some needed visibility and more sales to those authors those whose books have not yet sold well.

But who knows what will happen in the next year?

It could be that enough indie authors will see their incomes increase when they enroll a book in KDP Select to keep a decent number of self-published books enrolled. Or, perhaps Amazon will increase the amount paid for each borrow. Or, perhaps some of the people who subscribed to KU will leave and go back to browsing the Kindle Countdown lists, making it an effective tool for authors again. Or, maybe authors will discover tactics that will make KDP Select and KU work better for them.

Or, maybe Amazon will make it possible to have a book in Kindle Unlimited without having to enroll it in KDP Select (with its exclusivity clause.) Something that authors like Hugh Howey have recommended.

But my immediate concern is not what Amazon will or will not do in the future or what the benefits of KDP Select and KU are for other authors. My immediate concern is how to continue to get my books discovered by readers so that those who like the cover, the blurb, the genre, and the sample chapter, will continue to buy them.

In short, once again it is time for me to makes some changes.

Which brings me to the title of this piece. Recently, a number of authors started to use the word “pivot.” Hugh Howey, in a piece called the Tankers are Turning, compared indie authors to traditional publishers saying self-published authors “are nimble. We can pivot on a dime and publish at the drop of one. If we have an idea, we can implement it the same day, see how it works, share our result’s and at the same time learn from others.”

A few weeks later, in a piece entitled Don’t Wait for Permission: Why Authors Should be Entrepreneurs (on David Gaughran’s blog), Joanna Penn said, entrepreneurial authors “act, they experiment, they see what happens and then they pivot if necessary, adapting to the new situation.”

And, a few days later, Kevin O. McLaughlin applied this idea specifically to the strategy he was using in response to KU. He has started writing short serials for KU because works priced at low rates like 99 cents can generate more income from borrows than sales. Yet he has built-in his ability to pivot quickly: planning on bundling these short pieces into a longer piece that he will take out of Select if the short pieces aren’t being picked up by readers.

4) So, I’m pivoting; and here is my strategy for 2015:

  1. I have taken my longer books out of KDP Select and made them available in a wide range of ebookstores. If you have followed my blog posts for the past few years you know I have done this before but found that the sales I picked up in other bookstores didn’t compensate for the sales (and borrows) I lost on Amazon. Right now, my sales on Amazon are so low that I am assuming this will no longer be true.
  1. Since the fourth book in the series, Deadly Proof, will be out in a few months, I am also trying the strategy of making the first book in the series a semi-permanent loss leader. To that end I have made Maids of Misfortune free. And in January I will do a BookBub promotion of Maids with the goal of achieving better visibility in all bookstores.
  1. I am continuing to offer audiobook versions of my books. This is the fastest growing sector of the publishing industry. The audiobook version of my second book, Uneasy Spirits, should be out within the week. I am delighted with my current narrator and we will be working together to produce Bloody Lessons by the end of March and Deadly Proof by June.
  1. I will continue to write my historical fiction short stories since these are easy to write and they funnel readers into the longer books in the series. However, I will keep my short stories in KDP Select because they make four times as much for each borrow in KU as they do for each sale.
  1. I am starting to work on a new collaborative science fiction project (about which I will post more shortly) and my strategy will be to publish the first part of the work in short story or novella-length chunks. Each story will be a stand-alone that I will put in KDP Select and in KU. Once the series of shorter-form works are complete, I will put them together as a full-length book. I will make a decision at that point whether or not to enroll that full-length book in KDP Select—depending how my sales have been going and whether or not the negative effect of KU on sales and income is still occurring for other authors.

In summary: While KDP Select has worked very well for me in the past (and may still be working well for others), once again it is time to take advantage of being an indie author with the ability to pivot quickly in response to external changes. While the current drop in my income is distressing—particularly at holiday time—I can’t help but look forward to the next year with a fair degree of hope and excitement—hence the rather joyful photo at the top of the post!

Some Questions:

For those of you who are primarily readers—have you subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, or Scribd, or Oyster? If so, do you feel you are buying fewer ebooks?

For those of you who are authors––do you have books in KDP Select and if so, do you feel the effect of KU has been positive or negative on your income?

What are your plans for the coming year?

I do appreciate feedback on these subjects—shared data is the possibility of shared success!

M. Louisa Locke
December 18, 2014

P.S. For those of you who might have been waiting for my books to go off KDP Select: You can now find the following books in the following venues!

Maids of Misfortune (Book 1) is now Free in  Kindle Nook Apple Kobo GooglePlay Scribd Smashwords 

Uneasy Spirits (Book 2)  Kindle Nook Apple Kobo GooglePlay Scribd Smashwords 

Bloody Lessons (Book 3)  Kindle Nook Apple Kobo GooglePlay Scribd Smashwords

61 Replies to “Time for a Pivot? Kindle Unlimited and Marketing in 2015”

  1. As always, another great piece. As an author, my income has gone down — and Bookbub ads are getting harder to obtain. I’m still on the fence about KU. I have a $.99 book and the rest are at $2.99, so I don’t take as much of a hit than if they were $4.99. I’m still hoping to gain new readers through the borrows. But, yes, the decreased income hurts.

    1. Dear Mo,

      I do think that shorter, lower priced books do have a better chance at getting a good return for being in KU. And if you have good links to all your books, they are a good way of getting people to try your work and hopefully go on to buy.

  2. As one of your faithful readers, I paid the regular Kindle charge before you started your promotion.

    I really like your books and will continue buying them as long as you keep writing!

    Sue Moody

  3. Excellent breakdown of what you’ve tried, where you’re going, and who’s talking about what. Howey, Penn, and Gaughran are definitely authors to watch.

    So far, I’m in favor of Kindle Unlimited. I’m still gathering steam with my books and don’t have the option to even try for BookBub advertising because all my work is (currently) exclusive to Amazon. So I don’t get that many buys each month. I’ve seen borrows trickle in, though, for the first time in over a year and a half. I know what you mean about the earnings for borrows, though. They’re certainly lower than they were before KU. I’m interested to see how the KU program affects borrows and earnings in the long run.

    1. Dear Cassandra,

      Thanks for responding. I suspect that for someone trying to get visibility early on for their books, KU and the borrows, particularly if you do promotions that put you up higher in categories, might really help. And if I had continued to do free promotions in KDP Select I might have not seen such a drop in income.
      It really has a lot to do with expectations. 4 years ago I would have been delighted with my sales these past 2 months. But I know the books can sell better now. Also, don’t assume you can’t get a Bookbub when your books are in KDP Select. All my Bookbubs until the one coming up have just been for books in KDP Select. I know now that I have a track record with them that this helps…but it doesn’t hurt to try (I would go for the free promotion in one of the smaller niches if they fit.) Good luck to you!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience here. I am amazed at how detailed your advice is about what works and what doesn’t and am grateful that you are willing to let the rest of us know. When you put your books up on Nook, apple, etc. did you use a single distributor, or did you submit them to each one yourself?

    1. Dear Dianne,

      Because I wanted to get the books up quickly, and I had been frustrated by the lack of technical support when I had worked with Nook Press and Kobo’s Writing Life, I decided to upload for the bulk of the stores with Draft2digital (Nook, Kobo, Apple, Page Foundry, Scribd), which I find really really easy to work with and very quick turn around. I then used the epub they generate and let you use to upload to GooglePlay. I didn’t find the process with GooglePlay as easy–not always clear what you were supposed to do next, but they had a very nice chat person on line that helped–so I appreciated that. I had also been told about their tendency to immediately discount (which can get you in trouble with Amazon) so I knew to put my prices higher with them so as not to have that problem. Finally, I uploaded with Smashwords so I could get in library distribution systems and Oyster. Really all of it went pretty smoothly. But then my books are very simply formatted–I don’t go in for dropped caps or anything special and I have the Table of Contents process down-which was always what used to trip me up.

  5. Great article. 🙂

    I’m an author. My Kindle sales had steadily declined all year, until the debut of KU. Since, my sales have steadily climbed, and the borrows have improved tremendously. For whatever reason, overall, it’s helping my (nonfiction) books.

    I also have KU. I normally read multiple books per month, but have actually started reading more since I subscribed to KU.

    1. Thanks Chris

      Glad to hear it is working for you. Interesting that it is non-fiction. I wonder if the pool of books you are competing with is smaller than for genre fiction?

      Mary Louisa

  6. Louisa, I have only two books out and my third has languished for a couple of years due to various life crises, but should finally be ready for release this summer. I have never made much off of sales through other outlets, so a month or two ago, I decided to “simplify” my life prior to releasing a new book by going back to Kindle Select. And yes, I very much regret that now.

    My Kindle sales for both books are now almost non-existent. Probably when the obligatory 90 days is up, I’ll drop out of Kindle Select again and republish the books at B&N and the iBookstore.

    Definitely seems like an ill-conceived plan as far as authors go. But if Amazon believes the subscription trend is the future, I suppose they figure they’ll find a way to strong-arm everyone into it eventually 🙁

    1. Lynn,

      I don’t really see this as an Amazon initiative–subscription services really took off with Oyster and Scribd, and the traditional publishers have been slowly getting on board with those 2 services–and shunning Amazon’s KU. And with the contracts that are coming out that leave discounting in ebooks in the hands publishers–I think Amazon 1) needed to have a competing subscription service so as not to lose out in this new model and 2) needed content–which is why they turned to indies as they always have to get content when traditional publishers won’t play ball. What I don’t know is how this will all shake out. One of the reasons I have put my books up in Scribd (through Draft2Digital) and Oyster (through Smashwords) is that I want hopefully capture some of those people who are moving to the subscriber model to get their books — but on a venue (unlike KU) where those borrows are directly in competition with my sales. Who knows if I will make any sales on those venues–but if my books are not on KDP select with the ability to promote that way–I want the books to be available in as many other venues as possible–with the assumption that if I was selling 8 copies of a books on Amazon a day–and I now sell one copy on 8 different bookstores (or subscriptions sites) that the income will make up for at least some of the loss in income on Amazon. That’s the plan at least! 🙂

      1. I agree that Amazon isn’t the one that started the subscription thing and probably feels the need to “get in on the act,” but it definitely seems like they need to work some kinks out of their plan. I’ll be watching what you’re doing, though, because you seem to have very good business sense when it comes to self-publishing!

  7. I have not subscribed to Kindle Unlimited. My time to read has been limited so I am selective about my choices. However, my husband likes travel-type audiobooks and has not found enough to make the Unlimited worthwhile. I will have to hunt for your newest book when it is available.

    1. Dear Frances,

      Hmm. I had’t thought about the audio book angle. My short stories do have audio books as well–I wonder if they are showing up in the audio book KU list?

      And don’t for get if you subscribe to my newsletter you will be the first to hear when the next book is out! 🙂

      Mary Louisa

  8. I won’t be signing up for KU, because I spent most of my time—as an author and Blogger—writing than I do reading. And most of the books I read these days I read with my ears in my car when I’m on the road and about 15 to 30 minutes a day with a book I hold in my hands right before sleep.

    I think KU is for super avid readers who read several books a month, and I think that means most regular avid readers, who read about 10 books a year, will discover that they spend less annually if they stay out of KU. Only a small ratio of readers reads 50+ books annually.

    1. I think that you are right about the avid versus the regular readers. But what I assume the subscription services are counting on is people being too lazy to un-subscribe once they have tried KU or Scribd etc out.

      Mary Louisa

  9. I began pulling out of Select late in November; my remaining novels will be off Select soon and they’ll go to the multiple publishers you use. My experience follows yours, although I’m feeding from much lower down the trough! Still, this is my first year, I hope to see my sales grow.
    I planned to do a ‘rolling countdown deal’; I had enough books published on Amazon to schedule a countdown about every two weeks, then repeat that three months later. But the countdowns stopped working.
    What HAS worked is promoting via the commercial emailers, not BookBub yet (I’m thinking about it; $350 is a hefty bite!), but I saw good results from ENT. I’m now trying three other companies, one that charges $10/promotion, one $25, one $40. I’ve also seen ads for a company that will list the book for $5.
    I’m taking notes, cost vs results, direct and indirect. I’ve posted the first set of results on Goodreads and will update it in about three months.
    Like you, I’m considering whether to keep my short story and novella in Select or post them free as loss-leaders elsewhere. And my first novel, Combat Wizard, may well be dropped to $0.99 as a loss-leader too, hoping that ancillary sales will make up for what I lose on that book.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I assume that after the Bookbub I will continue to use other sites like ENT in the six months between BookBub ads, so would love to hear which ones you found most helpful.

      Mary Louisa

  10. Thanks for the insightful blog post. You’ve always been so great about sharing your indie publishing experiences with the rest of the world. My Amazon sales have definitely declined since KU was unveiled although I was fortunate to get a BookBub ad for the third book in my humorous mystery series in mid July. It hit # 9 on Barnes and Noble Nook Book list and my Nook Book sales increased from 6 the previous month to 1800 in July. That momentum has continued and some days my Nook Book sales are almost as high as my Kindle sales. While I understand Amazon’s concerns with other ebook lending programs, I think KU must be having as drastic of an impact on their sales revenues as it is on many authors. But as you stated so well, we need to be nimble and that’s the benefit of being an indie author. Good luck and please continue to keep us posted.

  11. How timely your post – on my birthday, and the very best sort of present to get. Thank you so much for your candor. I have, at times, wondered if you were on contract with Amazon to report KDP Select successes that seem downright otherworldly (I would certainly have offered you a contract – your experiences have been inspiring to so many of us). This post certainly disabuses me of that notion. My [modest] sales pretty much tanked in the wake of KU’s launch, and while I’ve considered stepping out of KDP Select, I’ve had nothing to gauge against – was it just me having this problem? Thanks for the gift of your very thorough insights.

    1. Dear Kathleen,

      How nice of you. I really do believe that the tools for promotion that KDP Select gave us–and that I used enthusiastically–had a lot to do with my past success–particularly as an author who writes slowly (books come out about every 2 years) and didn’t have enough books in my series to go the perma free route). But I also know that the books themselves–because they cross genres (mystery, historical fiction, romance) and are “flinch free”– means they appealed to the very kind of voracious reader that looked for those free and discount sales. Hence my past success. But also I think they are the very type of reader who is now trying out KU. What I don’t know (and frankly hope will happen) is if they will tire of KU, and go back to browsing the general catalog and find my books (and hopefully yours!) again. I will certainly blog about how perma free is working for me (as well as how keeping my short work in KU is working) in a few months. Thanks again for commenting. And Happy Birthday!

  12. I’m a reader, and I read about 2 ebooks a week. I tried KU as soon as it came out, but I cancelled in November. I spent less on books while I had KU, but the quality of the books I was reading declined. I came across a few gems that I might not have discovered without KU, and I’ll continue to buy from those authors. But many of the self-published books on my To Read list weren’t included in KU or only the first was included (and often that first was free or $.99 without KU). In the first few months I read the books I’d already been interested in that I could suddenly access for free within KU. After that, most of the books I borrowed through KU were books I probably wouldn’t have chosen if they weren’t part of KU. I could access more books a month through KU, but I could read better books if I put my entire book budget toward purchases rather than spending half on KU.

    1. Dear Rachel,

      Thanks for commenting–and my experience as a reader is much like yours. I do think that Amazon does have a problem–if they can’t get large number of traditionally published books–even back lists–in KU, and they continue to lose those of us who do have books that readers like–they are going to have trouble competing with the other subscription services.

  13. I agree with everything you said, Lou. I just ran two free books, and have times changed. Not only did I get a fraction of the downloads I used to get, but the follow-up sales are scant. I didn’t use Book Bub. Their costs have escalated and their acceptance has diminished. They’re concentrating on .99 and 1.99 books because they get more money for them. ENT is a great substitute, along with other advertisers. But nothing will turn the clock back to 2012.

    I saw the potential debacle of KU for writers a while back but hoped as more publishers got involved, the kitty would produce a better piece of the pie. It especially hurts those writers with a higher price. I’ve kept my books priced at $3.99, but one third of that hurts the overall bottom line. I did put all my books with a distributor for almost a year and didn’t see an uptick in sales, so I removed them. But I’m willing to try again, only this time I’ll control the platforms myself. I’m committed to Select until February. At that time, I’ll see what I want to do. Frankly, I’m not even sure KU is a good deal for Amazon, so it will be interesting to see what they do now. Thanks for your openness.

    1. Thanks Polly for commenting. I must say it does help me feel better about taking the risk of going out of KDP Select when I hear stories such as yours (although I would also love to hear that for some authors KU was really helping out their sales because it would be nice to know someone was benefitting from this all.)

  14. I find your blog fascinating, but way over my head marketing-wise. How did you start out with your marketing? Where did you begin? Are there posts on your blog (and are they easily findable) that explain what you did when you were first starting out, and how you kept yourself from being overwhelmed with the business end of being an independent author, or did you come to this with prior knowledge? How did you develop your strategy (as opposed to just coming up with random lists of tactics to try) when you were just starting out?

    I feel like I *ought* to understand marketing if I read enough about it, but it might as well be Swahili for all that I do understand.

    It also broke my heart to discover that marketing is like housework in that it never ends . I function so much better when I work on things that have a definite beginning, middle, and end, where I can set it down and say, *there*, that’s finished. But that’s another problem for another day.

    1. Dear M.

      I had no marketing experience at all when I started–in fact I would have said prior to my experiences as an indie author that I was the last person you would find enjoying this aspect of the business of being an author.

      But my career as a professional historian and college professor meant that I like to look at cause and effect out and I have spent a life time trying to figure out how to communicate effectively with others. So I applied my skills to this new subject. I read blogs by other authors, I tried things that others suggested worked for them, I paid attention to what worked for me and what didn’t and then I tried to share the information with others. And I didn’t expect things to happen over night. I can only suggest you read some of my blogs from 2010 (my first year as an indie author) to get a feel for my journey if you want to see how I approached things. You also might try getting and reading through one of the how to books–there is a great bundle that has some of the best information in the business. http://www.amazon.com/Indie-Author-Power-Pack-Publish-ebook/dp/B00OS96EYU/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1419346840&sr=1-3&keywords=David+Gaughran

      I just keep reminding myself that if want my work to be read–I need to work to make it visible. I sort of feel I owe it to my characters! Hope this helps.

      1. Thank you very much for the detailed reply, Louisa. I have a copy of Write, Publish, Repeat, and, again, found it so overwhelming that I never even made it all the way through the book. When I realized that they’d gone about it by publishing how? many books in a single year, all I could do was toss up my hands in despair. If the other two books are like that, there’s not much point, I’m afraid. The authors of all three books write blogs I’ve read for years without getting much understanding out of them, because I feel like I *ought* to be getting understanding out of them. Still, $6.99 isn’t that much for two books…

        I will take a look at your 2010 posts. I’ve never expected things to happen overnight, but with seven books out now (my first book was published just about three years ago), I’m beginning to wonder if they’ll happen at all. Given that when they do get read I get positive feedback, I don’t think it’s the books (or all the passive marketing things like covers — passive marketing I do think I’ve got down), I think it’s my dire anti-talent at active marketing.

        I feel like I owe it to my characters (and myself), too, to keep at this till I learn, but I don’t know how to get a *handle* on it. If I could do that, then I think things would be different. But it feels like that old saying, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

        So it’s not so much *what* to do, as how to develop the strategy. How to get a handle on it. And the how-tos never really go into that part, no matter how good they are.

  15. I have been selling books on Kindle since its inception and before that I was using Lulu.

    In the business world there is an axiom: Excess profits breed ruinous competition.

    IMHO that is what has taken place with KDP; early adopters made a lot of money but when they let the cat out of the bag, here came the crowds. The competition for eyeballs is now fierce on Amazon for KDP titles and it is getting more-so everyday as the site is literally flooded with new titles daily.

    Even someone like yourself, an established writer with an established audience, will be affected by the reality of the flood of titles. An author who takes the time to craft a book is at a distinct disadvantage to those who simply play the numbers game of producing small books with little editing and of questionable quality or merit.

    Of course, matters of literary-worth are ultimately decided by the market and KU makes it almost painless to peruse books that fall into that category. And buyers will seldom be fooled twice into wasting their time with an author who fooled them once; I find it hard to believe that such writers are making any money at it.

    But, regardless of the actual literary value of a book, these writers do muddy the water, so to speak. And, again, I only see this issue making it harder and harder to make KDP worth the effort.

  16. HI Mary Lou! Thanks so much for the info. I’ve shared today on FB. To note: I’ve also been a pivotal author, changing when and where I feel is needed. However, as the NEW year is tomorrow, I’m going to stay with Amazon a bit longer. Happy New Year my friend!

  17. I feel like I’m still in the early stages of finding readership and that kind of thing, so for now I have stayed put with KDP. I finally got more tightened up with marketing just over the last few months. I write Horror, YA, and some Urban Fantasy, but also have plenty of short stories, collections, a trilogy, and even a two part series. I decided to publish everything at once after twenty-plus years of writing because I took JA Konrath’s advice, and he told me that’s what I should do. I can’t really afford a whole lot of marketing with my income and rent, so I am very selective with what I can do. I have decided to go print with createspace, and recently did a book singing here in Boulder, which was a very rewarding experience, especially just before the holidays. But honestly, I really don’t feel savvy enough to know what I should or should not be doing as far as marketing. I just don’t know the details of the business side of it. I do my own covers, edit my own work, with the help of very few readers, and just do everything I can to write the best stories I can write. I do lots of free giveaways which generates a lot, and I did see plenty of spikes in sales and borrows, but I am still not making nearly the money back that I am putting into it. I always feel like something like this is a long term investment anyway, and I’m willing to make those sacrifices just to get my stories into people’s hands. And I have heard some damn nice things, so I know it’s not a total loss or waste of time. I guess I’m living on a wing and prayer, hoping that with enough work, and enough advertising, one of my hybrid stories will take off and grant me a little more security to invest even more. I have thought about branching off, but it seems people are doing that who have solid readership. I feel like I’m still looking for fans who want to read the kind of work I write, and I’m not sure if staying in KDP allows me the best chances for that like it might have years ago, but I am still there, because I feel like I haven’t had the chance to market all my work through them yet like I have wanted. So, I thought I’d go full circle and see what happens. Sorry, I didn’t mean for this post to be so long.

  18. I never placed my books in Select, so I can’t comment on that, although I did experience a sales crash in the last half of the year. I wanted to blame KU (and did for a while), but I think the cause must have been something else because I experienced the same crash in the UK and Germany, before KU was available in those countries.

    Anyway, as a reader, I have been subscribed to Scribd for more than a year, and I checked my purchases a couple of times last year. I still buy basically the same number of books as I did pre-Scribd. What Scribd has done is shifted my “budget” reading from free fanfiction to Scribd books. Interestingly, I’m more publisher conscious than ever because I know which publishers are featured in Scribd. I do not subscribe to KU because I prefer the selection in Scribd. If an unknown (to me) author is Select-only, I add their book to eReader IQ and wait for a sale. If an author is in Scribd, they move way up in my awareness.

    I know not everyone is like me, but long term, I continue to believe that the Select exclusivity is harmful. I think you made a good call to take some of your works out of Select and go wide with them. It will be interesting to hear about your results.

  19. Great post, thanks. I was interested to read that someone who had been very successful prior to the changes, had effectively been wiped out by the changes Amazon made.

    I don’t blame KU or KOLL for this, entirely. Clearly, Amazon has made a fundamental change in its algorithm that results in less visibility in general for indie authors.

    I had the same experience as one of the commenters here that there came a point when my sales (such as they were) came to a halt.

    While at one time you could sell books merely by virtue of being on Amazon, that is no longer true. Amazon is nothing more than another place an author needs to be in the unlikely event someone finds his books.

    I’m considering using BookBub, but probably not in conjunction with KDP Select, because I’m not renewing the one book I have there. The main reason is the exclusivity requirement.

    I’m also considering publishing my books one chapter at a time. I don’t see how each one can be a stand-alone short story, because the structure is different, but just part of a serial. That’s how things used to be published in magazines.

    But clearly Amazon built the platform on the backs of indie authors, and now has pushed us aside in favor of traditionally published books.

    1. Dear Michael,

      I don’t feel it behooves us as authors to see any of the distributors and booksellers as for or against us.They are in it as businesses just as we are. The innovations, including tools like the 5 free days and Kindle Countdown, are tools that helped me sell literally 100,000s of books. I made income, Amazon got exclusive access to books that helped them compete. They also learned with free days that they couldn’t count every free download as a sale–or they wiped out the traditional books on their category best seller lists. So they changed the algorithm — not because they were choosing traditional over indie–but because if they didn’t, the customer who was going to look at the historical mystery category couldn’t find their favorite authors like Anne Perry and would stop shopping at Amazon.

      But at the same time they were working on the Kindle Countdown as an alternative tool. Which again worked wonders for me. But they also had to compete with Scribd etc, so they came up with KU. Not to wipe out indies, but to keep customers. I believe they honestly hope that it will not wipe out indies, but as with the first shift to Free days, I also believe they will tweak things if they need to–to keep their customers happy. Which means keeping enough of a variety of books (including traditional published books) to keep people subscribing.

      At the same time, my decision to take my books off of KDP Select is a business decision, not a slam against Amazon. So, for example, if they tweaked the payment schedule for KU, I would then decide whether to go back to Select based on my own analysis of what works for my books, not some abstract principal about being for or against exclusivity.

      I have read reports from 2 authors this week who were able to use a BookBub ad in conjunction with having their books in KDP Select (one using free days, another 99 cents) and both of them had very good results and the borrows that increased for them did help them also sell books because of longer term visibility. If I didn’t have the option of having a series and perma free, I would probably still be in Select. Which is where i will most likely put the first work I do in another new series I am writing.

      So I guess I am cautioning you not to see this as personal–indies versus traditional books, pro or anti Amazon, but look at what works with your books, be willing to experiment. And not assume that just putting books up on any venue is going to get them enough visibility to result in sales. There are all sorts of ways to get visibility. Some find active tweeting (which I just can’t do well enough) others do more hand-selling, some do blog tours, others discounts. I have tried them all and found what works best for me and my books) and then have shifted when the tactics don’t work as well.

      If publishing chapters works–fine. I would try it first on something like Wattpad where readers are used to this. I have heard that readers can get very angry with buying a short that isn’t a standalone just to find it is a serial–so I wouldn’t go this route with KU or one of the other subscribers unless you had all the chapters available for them to get for free. What readers nowadays don’t want to do is wait. But I hope whatever you try, you find success. 🙂

      1. I first noticed a drastic drop in the monthly sales of my books in 2013. For more than three years, my first two titles were selling several hundred a month. Now average monthly sales are closer to 50 and I’ve added a third title.

        But I don’t think Amazon or anyone else has anything to do with this drop, because I have also noticed that traditional publishers and authors have learned from independent authors who blazed the trail of social network marketing and have generously shared what they were learning while they were learning it for the whole world to see—-something that I have been doing too.

        In fact, traditional published authors who follow that route to publication also find it almost impossible to find an agent or publisher if they aren’t doing the same thing that successful indie authors have been doing for years—-building a social networking author’s platform.

        A few years ago most book Blogs were only being approached by indie authors. Now traditional authors are asking for reviews. I’ve also noticed that BookBub is running far more ads for traditional publishers than they were two years ago.

      2. Dear Lloyd,

        I think you are exactly right. A lot of the changes are because traditional houses and their authors have learned from us, so the competition is growing. The first few years I was surprised at how few reviews trad published authors had on Amazon, and how many of them weren’t in the appropriate categories, making their books invisible. That has changed now and of course it is going to be harder to compete. It is what it is. 🙂

        Mary Louisa

  20. Thank you so much for a very educational blog post. I am a new published Indie author. I have just published my first book Emergence on January 15th on Amazon and decided to go the KDP Select route. You have given me a lot to ponder as I finish my second book about whether or not to stay in Select. It’s too early to tell but I will be watching closely…Although I don’t have a large following yet, I do have a few of my favorite authors on my Facebook page and will re-post this blog there to see if it can be helpful for them and I can possibly get their feedback as well. I know Kallypso Masters (and a few others I read) decided not to go the Select route, and although I do borrow a lot, I would never stop purchasing her books just because there is not a deal.

    The fact is I’m an avid reader of almost every fiction genre and I buy what I buy even if they aren’t on sale or free. But when I look for new authors I prefer to try them for free at least for the first book, if I like their style of writing, nothing would stop me from purchasing the next in series.
    Thank you for an educating experience! I look forward to browsing the rest of your posts! Have a great day.

    1. Dear Callie,

      Thanks for writing. I hope that the one message I get through in my posts is that authors should be aware of the different options available to finding markets, and experiment, and be willing to try new approaches. I do think that KDP Select–if you use the promotional tools–can be great, particularly for genre books, specially when an author is starting out. The market that Amazon represents is huge, and I firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with working on tapping into that market first–getting those reviews–establishing the word of mouth that is so crucial. But if that isn’t working for a particular book, or stops working (as in my case,) then I also think that it is worth trying to cast the net more widely. Good luck to you!

  21. Thanks for the interesting blog post. Though I am not a published author, merely an avid reader, I found the discussion fascinating. However, because I feel that Amazon is getting too large, I prefer to buy from B&N. Generally, their prices are the same, and I think that competition is a critical part of marketing. I am glad that Kindle has been good for indie writers, but am concerned about their exclusivity policies limiting exposing new talent to readers like me.

    I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

  22. We have held off on putting our novels into KU because the payout is less than we make on a sale. We are co-authors and split our royalties. Splitting $130 or so doesn’t sound too appealing. Right now, KU would not benefit us financially, unless we decide to start writing shorter works. Then it might be worthwhile. We are still deciding on that one.
    Thank you for this very detailed article. It explains so much!

  23. I’m commenting a second time, and I know this is an old post, but I’m hoping you see this, anyway, and help me. How do you figure out whether your marketing tactics are working? I know the received wisdom is to try one tactic at a time, then measure your sales to see if they’re increasing, but a) not all tactics lend themselves to this approach (KDP select being one of those), and b) I don’t know how to keep the records in a useful way. I really could use a sample of how these records are kept (a spreadsheet example, even, or however else it’s done) so that I know what matters and how to make them correlate. Also, I would love to see examples of marketing plans that aren’t all jargon, or based on concrete numbers that seem to be pulled out of thin air, or featuring tactics that look like they’re more for selling non-fiction than fiction. I’ve looked and haven’t been able to find any. Any suggestions?

    1. I am afraid I am pretty basic, I create my own tables (because over the years I have decided to look at different factors–so I don’t just go with the excel spread sheets that most of the dashboards use.) These tables have gotten more elaborate over the years with more books, more stores the books are selling in.

      Every night I go in and fill out these tables for my sales that are recorded that day. It takes about 10 mins. Right now I have one table for all my Amazon book sales (kindle, print audiobook), a second table that is just my short stories (sales and KU–since they are the only ones in KDP select) and then a third table for my Free books on Kindle and my sales and free books through D2D, SW, and Google Play.

      This is what gives me a good sense of what short term trends are happening–how a promotion is working, how long the effect of the promotion works, and gives me a feel for whether it is time to bump up my promotion (for example, do a FB promotion, spend a little money to get a book featured on one of the inexpensive sites. I can also see how sales of an ebook transfer into sales of the audio or print versions.)

      Then once a month, I go through and do a summary table–using the sales or royalty statements from the various bookstores. Remember this information often comes out later (15th of month for KDP), so sometimes I don’t get an accurate count until near the end of the following month. So I won’t probably do this table for March until the end of April.

      These month tables are useful for seeing longer term trends–seasonal ups and downs, effect of publishing a new book, the effect of the big changes in KDP algorithms etc. I often use both the table that records daily totals and the monthly totals when I am writing a blog piece.

      finally, after I have done the monthly table,I then add the totals (total books sold, total royalty made, total free books downloaded) to a running total table that has my totals for each year, and then for the current year totals for each month. This lets me know how I am doing year to year (and also whether or not I need to pay attention to tax issues–making more or less than the previous year. I don’t tend to sweat whether or not my daily totals are absolutely accurate since I am not doing the record keeping at midnight! And for D2D, the sales get reported at different times from different vendor.

      The goal is to just get a feel for what is happening. For example, it has been interesting to see the effect of my free first book on subsequent sales–sort of like a snake digesting, first I saw a big bump of books 2, now I am seeing a corresponding bump in book 3.

      On the other hand I can see my daily totals for free downloads are finally starting to drop, as are the sales of my newly published book, so it is probably time to do a some sort of promotion of both of the books.

      As for marketing plan–i just make lists.. what I hope to accomplish this year (books, short stories written, possible promotional strategies–increase newsletter subscriptions, make book perma free, etc), then a monthly list that is related to the yearly goals, then a daily list. Again, not very sophisticated, but it works for me. 🙂

      Hope this helps a bit.

      Mary Louisa

      1. Thank you for taking the time to answer me in such detail. It’s really helpful.

        So when you say tables vs. dashboards, what you mean by dashboards is what you get directly from distributors like Amazon, etc., and what you mean by tables is what you create using the numbers from those dashboards, am I correct? Do you use spreadsheets for those tables? How did you decide what to put in those spreadsheets? Do you just put in the sales every night and call it a day, or what other things besides collating them monthly and yearly do you do with those numbers to make them give you useful information? How specifically do you correlate the numbers with the promotions you’re doing? How do you choose which promotions to do using those numbers? Oh, and what *is* a Facebook promotion? Buying an ad there, or posting about your book in various groups, or hosting an event? Or something else entirely?

        What I’ve just written sounds really pesty to me, but I don’t know where to find specific answers to questions like this (and you made the mistake of answering me in a very useful manner [g]). If you can send me somewhere that discusses this sort of thing in depth, I’d be grateful. I’ve read dozens of marketing articles and a number of books (including the ones you recommended back in your answer to my first comment), but none of them get into this sort of nitty gritty detail, and the details like this are what I need and can’t find.

        Thank you *so* much, again. Sincerely.

      2. Dear MM,

        Yes, you are correct that tables are just what I produce in word, nothing fancy, but I get the numbers looking at the daily reports on the various dashboards. I don’t use excel, just a calculator (which I know is foolish but I just do…not having learned how to do anything but add a row of number in excel), and I choose what categories are important to me. For example, right now I just list Non Amazon for all the sales off of Amazon (add together the revenue I am getting on D2D, SW, GooglePlay. This is because the numbers for each are small and I am really mostly interested in comparing how a book is selling on KDP versus non KDP. But that could change over time. There was a time when I broke out the numbers of borrows and sales for each short story, but now I lump the numbers for all the short stories together and just compare sales versus borrows for this group.

        For promotions, I usually write down the ranking of the book (including in main categories if the book shows up there) before the sale, then at the end of every day during the sale I write what the ranking was. Since I am keeping daily records later on I might do something like look at the average daily sales the week before the promotion, the average sales during the promotion, and the average sales for the week afterwards.

        As for promotions–I start with trying to get a BookBub, since that is the promotion that is most likely to result in a very good sales afterwards. Or I will try Ereader News Today, or several of the smaller cheaper promotions. I try not to hit the same promotion site over and over because the smaller ones I think you can saturate the market. Mostly I experiment–are recognize that the effectiveness of them all keep changing. I listen to other others and what they have success with, I keep a list of links to promotional sites, etc. The Facebook promotion I have been doing is simply “boosting” a post on my Facebook author page. I have found that if I boost a post at about $10, then all my 1200 get the post. But I am experimenting this week with using a Facebook Ad. Will probably post something about this after trying it for awhile if it actually seems to do anything.

        So hope this helps. 🙂

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