Ruminations on Exclusivity
Ready for some cardio? Let’s talk exclusivity.
Amazon has long made exclusivity a major part of their publishing campaign. With the introduction of KDP Select in late 2011, Amazon began offering merchandising opportunities to authors who published on Amazon and no where else. This has always been a controversial and unpopular move. The #1 decision many authors face today is not whether to go traditional or self, but whether to go KDP Select or not.
The first advantage KDP Select offered was the 5 “free days” per 90 day Select period. These free days were golden tickets for a while, and many authors’ careers took off by taking advantage of the program. KDP Select also meant inclusion in the Kindle Lending Library, where Amazon Prime members get to select one free ebook per month. Self-published authors have been paid out of a pool of funds, with a historical average of around $2.16 per borrow, while traditionally published ebooks have received the full sales commission for every download. So began the divisions that would cause rancor among self-published authors.
The controversy really lit up with the introduction of Kindle Unlimited. Those in KDP Select (exclusive to Amazon) were automatically included. Reports have been very mixed, but many who aren’t in Select say their sales have gone down as readers enjoy the buffet-style unlimited reading. Those in KDP Select (and by extension in Kindle Unlimited) largely report this as a boom time, with sales and borrows combined more than making up for the earnings lost by pulling out of other outlets.
The greatest controversy, perhaps, has been the limited-time trial of Kindle Unlimited by top-selling authors, who have been allowed into KU without going exclusive. I’m one of those authors. This is not a lifetime exclusion; it is very much limited, just to entice those who make a lot of income elsewhere to see the potential benefits of exclusivity. I think Amazon knew that none of us would dare try this program without seeing for ourselves, in our own dashboards, just how it would play out.
Now that a couple of months have gone by, and I’ve been able to watch my dashboard closely, I can say for certain that KU has more than covered the readership I gain from the iBookstore, Nook, and Kobo combined. That is: I would have more readers by being exclusive to Amazon than I would by having my ebooks everywhere else. I might be earning slightly less money, but with considerably more fanbase. This is the conundrum we face as we weigh whether or not to go exclusive, a decision I’m faced with right now as my limited time trial expires.
Another author posed the question of exclusivity like this: Would you rather sell 2,000,000 books to readers in Indiana, or 200,000 books around the globe? If the goal is to have your stories read, and exclusivity furthers that goal, then it isn’t a narrowing of readership.
This is further complicated by the fact that every retailer is in every home and practically on every device. You can read ebooks on most anything that has a screen. There are apps for reading ebooks on rival devices, which means publishing with Barnes & Noble places you on every Apple device and every Android device. For the exceptions to this rule, all my works are DRM-free and can be converted to be read anywhere. Is exclusivity really about limiting reader access when access is practically unfettered?
Another way to ask the question is this: What do we make of an author who only publishes with Simon & Schuster? Are they exclusive? Absolutely. But their books are available in many places. (Except when S&S is in a dispute with B&N, in which case you’ll have to shop elsewhere.) Who you publish with is limiting, though you don’t see authors urging each other to publish a book with every major publisher, “just in case.”
In 2012, I blogged about my results after pulling out of KDP Select. I was getting a handful of emails a month from readers who wanted to know why they couldn’t find my ebooks on the Nook store or the iBookstore. Feeling bad for these readers, and anxious about whether or not I was limiting my readership, I backed out of Select, even though it had helped launch my career. In May of 2012, I saw early signs that the readers I would gain elsewhere would not make up for the readers I would lose by the loss of KDP Select visibility. I’ve seen nothing to counter that observation since. I lose readers by spreading my ebooks far and wide. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true.
It might also be true that spreading our ebooks everywhere hinders retailer competition rather than increasing it. After all, the indiscrimination of signing up for all services means they don’t have to compete for our business. They are guaranteed to have it by those who urge us to “publish everywhere, no matter what.” I’ve blogged about this before, and also how it takes getting used to the idea that we can move our eggs from basket to basket at will. None of these decisions are final. The KDP Select period is a mere 90 days. How do you think publishers would treat their authors if they could move to another publishing house every 90 days? How would digital retailers treat us if we exercised this right more often? It seems clear to me that the lack of discrimination harms us more than it helps us.
Again, since May of 2012, my other outlets combined have failed to make up the difference in readers lost from borrows on Amazon. Part of this is certainly my focus on Amazon as my go-to store for customers. Their affiliate program, the ease and familiarity of their site, and the huge penetration of their devices and apps, made it my go-to outlet when someone needs a link to one of my books. Success feeds into more success. Just as major publishers focus on their largest sales accounts, I did the same with Amazon. Do I owe them my career? Or do they owe their lead among ebook retailers to those of us who concentrated our efforts on their sales platform? Or did their early advantages lead to that concentration, which led to our success, so on and so on?
I have a lot of friends who have done well with publishing, and we debate these chicken-and-egg questions. I personally see the joint success as a symbiotic and friendly amplification of good will and hard work. Amazon gave us opportunities; we seized them; we both benefited. Amazon is not my friend, but they’ve been an honest and fair business partner. And the best part is that they don’t own my self-published works. I do. As I stated above, no decision like this is permanent—it’s only for 90 days at a time. Compare that to publishing with a major house like Hachette, where you will be subject to the whims of its management for the rest of your life (and your children’s lives!)
Just this week, another salvo was fired in the fight to gain exclusivity. It is the recently announced KDP All-Stars, open to authors enrolled in KDP Select. This is a bounty program for the most-read authors and titles by measure of total sales, plus the borrows from the Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited. The bonuses are significant. And they are monthly. In the self-publishing community (and in the first sentence of this paragraph) you will hear authors interpreting this from our perspective, as a lure to draw us in. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a way of harnessing authors as a sales and marketing force.
The result of this bounty program will be more authors urging their readers to check out their books on the Lending Library and in Kindle Unlimited, to give the program a month trial, to read for free. For 100 or so authors a month, the bonuses will help even the playing field between the roughly $1.70 / month paid per borrow (post-KU) and the full commission given to traditionally published ebooks. The program works similar to ACX’s bounty program which rewards getting users to sign up for Audible. Again, it turns us into an eager and enthusiastic sales force, something I’ve suggested publishing houses should do more often.
Of course, some already see this bounty program as an unfair system by which the successful get even more rewards while the struggling author gets nothing. But following the bestseller lists, I know that those 100 authors per month will change, and more and more authors like Wayne Stinnett will find themselves with a nice bonus and a reason to write more, publish more, and promote their works on Amazon.
As the time ticks down on my trial run in KU, which way am I leaning? Toward exclusivity. A larger readership is only one advantage. It’ll also be easier to keep my works up to date by only having to upload to a single site. Another bonus will be to concentrate my sales into a single set of bestseller lists. One of the drawbacks of being published everywhere is the reduction of visibility, ironically. The more sales are concentrated in a single outlet, the higher your ebooks will be on bestseller lists, and the more prominent to casual browsers. Reviews will also be more concentrated. Like with the publishing house analogy earlier, all efforts are channeled into the biggest sales outlet.
What are the drawbacks? You can’t make the NYT or USA Today lists if you are exclusive. But that just highlights how un-linked those lists are to actual sales—and I haven’t seen that making those lists increases sales so much as gives a rough indication of past sales. Another drawback is that I will lose some readers who only shop elsewhere, but that leads back to the question of whether it’s better to have fewer readers across more outlets or more readers in a single outlet. If you were offered an end-cap in every airport bookstore for a year, where they would display all of your works, would you pull your titles from all other outlets? I would. That visibility would be incredible.
That leaves the biggest complaint I’ve seen about exclusivity, which is that retailers will go out of business, and then whoever is left will destroy us and take all our shiny things away. I don’t understand this argument. Digital baskets are too easy to weave, and retailers like Apple and Google are not in danger of disappearing, ever. As I write about here, again, the lack of exclusivity is what hampers competition. When an author only publishes with Harper Collins, she doesn’t worry that Penguin Random House will go out of business. She assumes they’ll remain competitive to draw in other authors. Perhaps her next work as well. It’s really useful to imagine a world where traditionally published ebooks could be moved to another house every 90 days. Does anyone really think publishers would offer worse treatment in such a world?
The reason I’m blogging about this is because it isn’t easy. The results of my years of experimentation and rumination are counterintuitive. I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with where the data has led me, but it’s impossible to dispute my results. I have another month to watch my dashboard, see how Amazon is going to fund the KOLL/KU account, and then it’s all or nothing. I don’t know if my thinking out loud helps anyone else, but that’s my hope. It certainly helps me to write it all out, the pros as well as the cons. A lot of authors are facing the same conundrums. These decisions only get easier by sharing.