10 December 2011

A question of exclusivity

Like many other self-publishers, I've had to make a decision over the past day whether to take up Amazon's KDP Select offer.  Amazon's offer is basically this:
  • If you opt in, your ebook(s) will be included in the Kindle Lending Library (where Amazon Prime members can borrow an ebook a month for free).
  • During the opt-in time (a minimum of three months) those ebooks must be exclusive to Amazon.
In return Amazon is offering:
  • Money for each time one of your books is borrowed from the library (the amount depends on how many KDP books are borrowed overall, so potentially you could receive $1 a borrow, or 1c a borrow).
  • The ability to set your ebook as a free ebook for 5 days during those three months.
  • The possibility of having your book announced as one of the most-borrowed.
For self-publishers who already only publish through Amazon, this is a no-brainer of a decision.  For self-publishers who earn a sizeable percentage of their royalties outside of Amazon, this is also a no-brainer.  For self-publishers like me, who earn 90% of their royalties through Amazon, but also have their books available elsewhere, it's a decision which requires some thought.

The Gain

I doubt that anyone except the most popular self-publishers will earn any significant money through the Lending Library.  It is, however, like all libraries, a valuable promotional opportunity.  I discovered the vast majority of my favourite authors through libraries (which is why libraries are wonderful and good).  Additionally, many publishing houses have chosen not to opt in to the Lending Library (those publishing houses are not required to be exclusive - they just don't want their books there at the moment).  This means self-published books have a greater chance of standing out in the Lending Library than they do through the standard Kindle store.

The bigger advantage is probably the ability to briefly set your books to free.  As I've discussed previously, riding the free train is without doubt the most powerful promotional tool available to a self-publisher.  I gained the vast majority of my readers because I set Stray to free during October: I received a great deal of feedback which made clear that many of my new readers would likely not have checked out the book otherwise - readers who don't usually try fantasy or science fiction, but found that this particular series worked for them.  Since setting a book for free on Amazon currently involves jumping through a number of hoops, control of this function is a very nice carrot.

The Loss

During the past year I've sold maybe 150 ebooks through Smashwords, and 150 through the various other channels Smashwords distributes to.  I've sold over 3000 via Amazon.  That's not only because Amazon got into the ebook market early and drove it hard - it's because Amazon simply treats self-publishers better.

Amazon's algorithms will suggest a book to a potential reader because it matches buyer's trends (people who liked this, liked that) irregardless of whether the book is self-published.  Amazon has multiple methods for readers to discover books they'll probably like, from bestseller lists to those also-boughts.  And, unlike certain other ebook distributers, they don't separate self-publishers out of the best-seller lists, or artificially lower their rankings.  While Amazon doesn't give self-publishers all the advantages of publishing houses, they've apparently recognised that self-published authors can provide their customers with something they want.

Which is great!  But Amazon offering incentives to self-publishers to ONLY publish through them is a far from simple step.

In the discussions which have been raging about this issue, it was quickly pointed out that an ebook could be bought from Amazon and then converted to other formats, or even emailed directly from author to reader following a purchase.  And that you didn't need to put ALL your books in.  And that three months isn't forever.

After you opt into the Lending Library, you have a couple of days to change your mind and then you can't opt out for three months.  Once the three months is over, you'll either be renewed, or can opt out.  So exclusivity is not necessarily permanent.  And so many self-publishers have been taking up the exclusivity option - whether for one book or all their books.

The Rub

Most of my book reading comes either from carefully-considered SFF purchases, or 'popcorn reading' cozy mysteries.  I buy almost all my books as ebooks these days - particularly those popcorn reads.  If the book isn't available to me as an ebook (whether through issues of regionality, or because there are only physical books), I do one of three things:
  • Buy the physical book.
  • Mark it on Goodreads to check later for an ebook.
  • Forget about it.
"Forget about it" is by far my most common response.  Added to this is this new extra complexity of the book only being available if I purchase it through a particular vendor.  While I happen to own a Kindle and buy most of my ebooks through Amazon, I took the time when making this decision to put myself in the shoes of someone who didn't, to decide what my response might be.  This covered the range of:
  • Never knowing the book exists because it's not listed at a store I use.
  • Knowing the book exists, but missing the "purchase window" because it's currently being a three-month exclusive somewhere else when I go to buy it.  Forget about the book.
  • Wanting the book, but being unable/not wanting to buy it from Amazon (for whatever reason, but most likely because there are still large parts of the world where Amazon charges an extra $2 for its Whispernet delivery).
  • Resenting the hell out of any author trying to force me to buy through Amazon (which some readers dislike for various reasons) and refusing to buy ANY more books by that author.
I don't particularly think Amazon is evil for doing this - Amazon is simply being smart.  It sells a lot of self-published books and some of those self-published authors have big followings - and this massively bolsters the number of books in their Lending Library.

There are some who warn that this move by Amazon is dangerous for self-publishers, putting all their eggs into one basket and stifling the competition.  There are others who think this will be good for self-publishers because the various other vendors will have to step up and improve their approach to self-publishers if they want to retain their books.

Me, I just don't want to make it harder for that ten percent of my readers who don't buy my books through Amazon.  If a particular vendor offered me ridiculous amounts of money to be exclusive, I'd probably agonise over the decision more, but on the whole I just don't like exclusivity.


  1. ..and I just bought a sony ereader. Which I expect will have issues when it comes to getting hold of books without playing with file conversion, but I've currently only bought on smashwords anyway, so I'm one of your 10%

  2. heh - the real person filter word was readly

  3. Ah ! You're balancing quite nicely Debora Geary's going with Amazon's trick ! :) Now, I only hope that Nathan Lowell keeps on the same side as you do, and I'll be allright :)

    Thanks for making that choice !
    Amazon needs some people (authors and readers alike) to anchor them the good side of monopoly !

    Thanks Andrea !

  4. That is a tough one Andrea. I actually purchase all my ebooks through Amazon, so as long as your books are offered through Amazon in some format I will be a happy camper. Sometimes there isn't a "right" decision, just the best one you could make at that point in time.

  5. I purchase the vast majority of my e-book titles through Smashwords or Amazon, but only non-traditionally published books. If the book is published by one of the Big Houses, I buy it in print because I still crave the feeling of the book in my hands. If, as with your books, I can also get them in print, I tend to buy them electronically first and if I enjoy it alot, in print.

    about 5% of my purchases are through the e-pubs themselves (like Samhain or Liquid Silver), even though I could buy the books through Amazon, I prefer to deal with the pub personally. I also like the fact that Smashwords gives you the options of what format you want--I tend to save my purchases as PDF's and then DL the Kindle version.

    I can understand why Amazon is pushing that condition on self-pubs, but like you said it would make it harder for non-domestic users to get the book. -.-;; I pay through the nose whenever a book comes out in the UK/Australia/New Zealand that isn't avail domestically for me (this is print books) I can't imagine how frustrated I'd get if I couldn't get e-books either.

  6. There's been so much angst and complaint lately about regionality (which prevents people in Australia from buying a lot of books). I don't think store-specific exclusives really help matters at all.


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