Selling Out: Going Wide or Going Exclusive to Amazon

by | May 24, 2018

By David Kudler

When most new publishers think of selling ebooks, the first place they think of is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program.

This makes sense — after all, Amazon represents somewhere between sixty and eighty percent of the world English market for ebooks. Who wouldn’t want to have their book sold in the biggest storefront of all?

Amazon has created a program — KDP Select — that rewards publishers for offering their titles exclusively through the Kindle Store. A lot of publishers — and not just new ones — decide to put all of their eggs in the Amazon basket. They make some compelling arguments for why they do so.

I don’t — do so, that is. With almost all of the books that I publish, I sell wide — that is, at as many retail and distribution outlets as possible, in addition to the ‘Zon.

I’d like to explain why.

What is KDP Select?

Before we discuss the relative merits of selling wide or sticking exclusively to Amazon, we need to look at what the KDP Select exclusive program actually entails.

First of all, it’s a fully voluntary, opt-in program — just because you’re selling on Amazon doesn’t mean that they get exclusive rights to sell your ebook. You have to enroll each title — just because you’ve got one ebook exclusively at the Kindle Store doesn’t mean you can’t sell another on the iBooks Store, the Nook Store, Kobo, Google Play, and hundreds of other retail sites.

To enroll a title (and we’ll discuss why and whether you should or shouldn’t do that in a moment), you can opt in either while creating the book after.

To enroll while first setting up the book on KDP, check the box on the Kindle eBook Pricing pane:

To enroll afterward, just click on the Enroll in KDP Select button in the KDP dashboard:

Once you’ve signed up, whether at publication time or after, the title is locked in for a term of 90 days. In order to have the title remain enrolled, you have to keep that box checked — which it will until you go in there and change something.

In order to remove your title, on the other hand, you have to uncheck the box, and then wait until the term expires.[i] Selling on another retailer before the term is up will almost certainly earn you a nasty email from the folks at KDP, and will get the title bounced from the program, and, if you’ve made the mistake before, may get it banned or your account closed.

By the way, just in case I haven’t made it clear, unless you sign up your book for KDP Select, you get no benefit at all out of selling exclusively on Amazon aside from saving yourself the time of setting up another account or accounts elsewhere, and having to account for income from more than one source, lucky you. So if you decide to go steady with Amazon, you absolutely must sign each book up in the KDP Select program in order for it to profit from it.

The Benefits of Going Exclusive

So what do you get during those ninety days — or more?

Back when I first started selling ebooks, eight years ago, there were some nice benefits to enrolling in KDP Select. Although Amazon has added and subtracted over the years, there still are.

The current list of benefits includes:

  • Making your title available through the KindleUnlimited (KU) subscription service
  • Offering promotions:
    • Free
    • Countdown
  • Increased royalties in some non-US markets

That’s about it. Over the years, there have been some other goodies that Amazon offered its loyal exclusive publishers — for example, for a while having your ebook in KDP Select was the only way that you could advertise it on Amazon using Amazon Marketing Services.[ii]

For now, however these are the perks of going steady with Amazon.

KindleUnlimited

This is Amazon’s ebook subscription service — a “Netflix for ebooks” setup.[iii]

The reader can “borrow” up to ten KindleUnlimited titles at a time, all for the low, low price of $9.99/month. For folks who read in bulk — the folks who are our bread and butter — this is a very nifty deal.

From the publisher point of view, here’s how it works:

  1. Amazon estimates the number of “pages” based on the wordcount of your book. (They call this count the title’s Kindle Estimated Normal Pages or KENP.)[iv]
     
  2. When a reader checks out the book, Amazon keeps track of the highest-numbered page that the reader has reached.[v] — You can keep track of “page reads” on your KDP sales reports.
     
  3. Each month, Amazon announces how much money all of the KU-enrolled books will share. (It’s usually a bit over $20 million.)
     
  4. That war chest gets divided by the total number of KENP “read” during the month — that’s the share each KENP earns that month.
     
  5. Amazon multiplies your total number of KENP for all titles that month by the share, and adds that to your royalties.

This is the most prominent benefit for most publishers — so much so that they’ll tell that they’re enrolled not in KDP Select (the back-end program) but in KindleUnlimited (the one that customers see that’s just one of the KDP Select benefits).

Back when KU first started up, the system was simpler: each “borrow” earned a share — it worked out to somewhere between $1.40 and $1.60 a shot. This meant that it made much more sense to offer short titles on KU.[vi] Those of us netting $1.50 for a $0.99 short story were very happy, but a lot of novelists got very grumpy about earning the same amount on their 800-page $7.99 epic. Eventually, readers complained about the preponderance of short fiction in the KU library. So Amazon switched over to the new version in 2014.

Now it makes sense to offer the longest possible title. Since the typical per-KENP share is about 46/100 of a penny,[xii] you’re only going to make any money at all if people are reading your stuff in bulk. For example, if someone reads all of the way to the final page of a fairly typical 300 KENP book, it stands to earn at most $1.38. If the reader puts the book down after only 50 “pages”? You’ll make $0.23.

Because the total amount of money that Amazon splits for a particular month is fixed, this has made it particularly vulnerable to scamming, and particularly maddening for the honest publisher — your only recourse in order to earn more is to raise the total number of pages read, which means either marketing the heck out of every title you’ve got enrolled in the program (which you were hopefully doing already), offering more titles (possibly pulling them off of other retailers to qualify them for KU), or offering longer books. But as more and more and longer and longer titles go up on KU, the value of each KENP share goes down. In business terms, the value of the stock is diluted. Supply and demand.

That’s why, even though Amazon increases the size of the total pot by a bit nearly every month, the value of each KENP share has steadily been declining, and why I found my KDP Select earnings evaporating.

Promotions

There are two types of promotions — Free and Countdown. In either case, you can offer the title for up to five days in a 90-day enrollment period, though during that period you can only offer one or the other of these promotions — not both.

Also, you can only offer them (at the moment) on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk (the US and British sites). These won’t help you on Amazon’s sites in Canada, Australia, or India, for example (the other large English-language ebook markets), or on any of the major (non-British) European storefronts like Amazon.de or Amazon.fr. [viii]

I recently discussed the benefits (or lack thereof) of offering an ebook title for free. Suffice to say, at this point there’s not an enormous benefit to going temporarily free this way — the only real benefit might be getting some “verified purchaser” reviews or pulling a few new readers into a series. If you’re a relative unknown or early in the release of a book, that might make such a promo worthwhile.

The countdown promo is fun; it offers you one or more promotional price over the period of the promo — and keeps a countdown timer going that announces just how much time readers have before the price goes up. This is a classic marketing ploy to take advantage of customers’ fear of missing out (the famous FOMO effect).

One other nice thing about the countdown promo: it’s the only way you can get a full 70% royalty[ix] for a title priced (temporarily) under $2.99.

I have to say, I loved these when Amazon first introduced them. Unlike freebie promos, you got to keep the momentum you earned by selling more books at the lower price — that is, you keep the improved book rank. This means that your book will show up in more bestseller lists, will appear earlier on more “also bought” lists, and so will be more discoverable.

However, I have found that they seem to be less effective than they used to. The last few times I ran a countdown promotion, the sales barely increased over their usual level. In a couple of cases, they actually went down. So I actually ended up losing money. Now, I didn’t spend a lot of energy or money promoting those sales, but perhaps, given the lukewarm response, you’ll see why I might have been loath to pour my limited marketing resources into them.

70% Royalty in More Markets

The preferred royalty for most publishers selling their books is the 70%[x] that Amazon offers for ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99 — or other markets’ equivalents thereof.

However, even if your ebook is priced in Amazon’s “Goldilocks Zone,”[xi] there are certain Amazon country sites where you only get the 70% royalty if your book is offered through KDP Select. Those country sites are:

  • Amazon.com.br
  • Amazon.in[xii]
  • Amazon.jp
  • Amazon.com.mx

I do want to point out one thing: in none of these nations is English the primary language. I know that’s fairly self-evident — and the non-UK European countries aren’t anglophone either — but if you are writing and publishing in English (which, if you are reading this, seems likely), then you are unlikely to sell a huge volume of your books in those markets.

And, to be honest, you’ll probably sell more copies in those countries through retailers other than Amazon.

Which leads us to…

The Benefits of Going Wide

Back in 2014, when Amazon instituted the new KENP system for calculating KU earnings, I had about 50% of my titles enrolled in KDP Select — most of them short stories that earned incredibly well per borrow, and that served as “loss leaders” that lost me, in fact, nothing. Folks would read a short story by one of my authors (earning us both a royalty), then read one of the longer works, netting us more. Nice.[xiii]

This lovely symbiosis disappeared with the KENP setup and its emphasis on longer KU titles.

Since then, I’ve stopped enrolling titles in the program, and over the past year I’ve slowly been letting the enrolled titles lapse. At this point I have just one KDP Select title.

The rest of my titles — about eighty by twenty authors — are offered wide.[xiv] That is, they’re available on Amazon, but also on Apple, Kobo, B&N, Google, Overdrive, ScribD and many, many more.

Why?

Well, unlike the KDP Select program, the three benefits here are really simple:

  1. I can earn more money.
  2. I can please more of my readers.
  3. I’m not encouraging monopolistic behavior.

Earn more money

This is what it’s all about, right?

Back when I was making a lot of money from KU, I earned as much money or more from “borrows” as from sales. Given that Amazon represents over 60% of my revenue in any given year, it made sense to have titles exclusive to the KDP Select program.

That’s no longer true, at least for me.

Most “wide” indie and self-publishers report that sales on Amazon represent 60%–85% of their ebook revenue. Myself, last year, I earned 62% of my ebook royalties through Kindle sales. In my most Amazon-slanted years I’ve earned about 80% of my ebook income from Jeff Bezos’s company.

That’s a lot.

However, I do wish to point out that that leaves 20%–38% of my income that wasn’t earned through Kindle sales.

I’d also like to point out that, while Amazon holds all but a monopoly on US ebook sales, outside the country it is a far, far less dominant market. The more my sales have gone international, the more I rely on channels like Kobo and Apple, and on distributors like Smashwords, PublishDrive, and Draft2Digital.

Still: 62% of my ebook revenue for 2017 was earned from Amazon.

Now, over the past year, for those titles that were enrolled in KDP Select, KU “borrows” represented 16% of the total revenue.

I haven’t found KDP Select promos or sales in non-English-speaking markets to make me any money at all.

So, at the very least, I was giving up 38% of the potential revenue for a book to make 16%.[xv]

I can’t see how that possibly makes business sense.

I know that some publishers feel that KU “borrows” lead to sales of other titles. I haven’t found that to be the case; I think that KU readers have gotten to the point where they read KU books, but are less likely to pay for books outside the program. It’s like the folks who only read free ebooks — spending a lot of energy marketing to them probably isn’t worth the effort since they’re not likely ever to spend enough money to justify the expense.

I feel the same way about KU subscribers.

I’d rather earn the extra 38% by distributing wide, thanks.

Pleasing the readers

Back in the early days of ebooks, folks followed the authors. They didn’t care (quite as much) what store they had to buy from — they’d buy your book wherever.

This is still somewhat true.

However, we have developed habits of ebook reading and buying, and most of our readers want to able to buy and read the book where they want to buy and read it, not to have to chase it down and convert it.

Me, I’m weird. I own four Kindles, two iPads, two iPhones, and an old Nook.[xvi] I buy ebooks from a wide variety of ebook stores. Most folks don’t: they have one they like to stick to.

I want to meet my readers where they are, and not force them to come to me — especially when the format is a non-standard, proprietary form like the Amazon mobi monster.

If my books are available everywhere — including libraries (distributed by Overdrive and others) — then not only can my readers find the book where they live, but a wider variety of readers can stumble onto my work. I’m more discoverable.

I use universal book links on my site to make it as easy as possible for readers to take advantage of this.

It keeps them happy.

Fighting the Man

Amazon is not an evil company. Not particularly, at least. It’s been very good to me — to most of us. Amazon has made the independent publishing revolution of the past decade+ possible.

And yet it sits atop the publishing world like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. It already engages in occasional forays into monopolistic behavior — a few years back, Amazon’s Audible Creative Exchange (ACX) for independently produced audiobooks lowered the royalty rate for new titles from 50% to 40% overnight. Publishers and producers had absolutely no recourse, since Audible (and through it iTunes, which uses Audible as its exclusive source for audiobooks) account for something over 90% of the rapidly expanding English-language audiobook market. [xvii] Where else were we going to go?

Likewise, Amazon’s tendency to offer goods (including print books) at very low (and sometimes even negative) margins with free delivery has been driving competitors out of the marketplace. Don’t even get big publishers started about the kinds of pressures that Amazon exerts on them.

The ebook market is not yet as monolithic — and that is the only thing that stops Amazon from dropping our royalty rates just as they did on ACX or requiring exclusivity (rather than offering it as an option).

I want to keep it that way — I think it’s in all of our best interests — and so I make sure to support Amazon’s competitors by offering nearly all of my titles to them as well. I may be small potatoes, but there are lots of us indie publishers, and if we make sure not to put too many of our free-range artisanal eggs in Amazon’s Whole Foods basket, we can ensure that Bezos & Co. will continue to treat us with respect.

I know that selling wide isn’t for everyone, but it’s the path that I chose.

What do you think?


[i] Don’t forget to set a reminder to start selling the no-longer-exclusive title elsewhere after it isn’t part of KDP Select anymore!
[ii] This is now available to anyone with a KDP account.
[iii] There are a few other companies that offer similar schemes for reading as many ebooks as you want for a single monthly (or annual) subscription — most notably ScribD. Amazon’s has a huge marketing advantage though… because it’s connected to Amazon.
[iv] These “pages” have nothing to do with the actual page count, for example, of your paperback edition. Likewise, they have nothing to do with the line-spacing or font-size you employ, though some folks seem to be convince this is the case.
[v] This is via the same WhisperSync™ technology that allows for you to sync up the page on two different Kindles, or between the ebook and audiobook editions. By the way, because it’s the LAST page read, not the actual number of pages TURNED, black-hat types have engaged in a fair amount of skullduggery to massively inflate their numbers. Google “KindleUnlimited page scams” if you want to see what I mean. But imagine if you will an ebook made up of 2998 pages culled from public-domain government reports. On the first page there’s a link that reads CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP FOR A NEW TESLA! The link transports the reader to page 3000 — since that’s the maximum page count Amazon will allow — where you find another link, this one to a raffle for a toy car on a somewhat scammy website. Voilà! That book has now earned 3000 KENP! (It’s supposed to be against KDP Select terms of service, but it’s a scam that keeps managing to be run. You’ll see why that’s particularly awful for you, the honest publisher, in a minute.)
[vi] I benefitted gloriously from this setup.
[vii] And dropping steadily.
[viii] This means that if you get a BookBub promotion, for example, you’ll only be able to use the KDP Select promotions in those two countries — the US and UK.
[ix] Minus $0.15/MB “transport fee” — grr.
[x] Minus $0.15/MB “transport fee” — grr2.
[xi] You know — not too low, not too high, but just right.
[xii] I’ve never made much selling ebooks in India, though obviously that’s a rapidly expanding market. The thing is, not only is English not the sole or even primary language — though it’s still very widely spoken and read — but the cost of living there is still lower than in most other Amazon markets, so higher-priced ebooks tend not to sell very well. You have to price competitively — under 100 rupees, which is worth a bit over a dollar. And if you price under 99 rupees, you’re only going to get the 35% royalty rate even if the book is enrolled in KDP Select.
[xiii] BTW, just in case you’re unclear on what Amazon means by “exclusive” — no, you can’t bundle KDP Select-enrolled titles and sell the collection elsewhere, nor can you sell individual titles wide, but offer the bundle on KU. Nope. No can do. Exclusive means exclusive, in parts and as a whole.
[xiv] There is a series of titles that I’m helping the Joseph Campbell Foundation offer through KDP Select — but that’s because they’ve got an agreement with Amazon to market their new combined ebook/audiobook releases this year that keeps the titles exclusive to Amazon for the first year. Sales from those releases figures into my data, since I think they’re illustrative.
[xv] I recognize this isn’t a very sophisticated analysis. Dammit, Jim, I’m an editor, not an accountant! But the point remains.
[xvi]A side-effect of designing ebooks for a living. My family is considering holding an intervention.
[xvii]There are now a couple of alternative ways to release ebooks to a wider variety of stores, including Author Republic.
 
Photo: BigStockPhoto

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16 Comments

  1. John Ingle

    Excellent article. Thanks for the time you invested in producing it. You may want to repair the link to Author’s Republic. I did find it, anyway.

    Reply
  2. Mike

    David have you tried using Amazon PPC to sell more books? We have free tools that can help you improve campaigns and increase ROI. I personally work with lots of amazon sellers just like you!

    Reply
  3. Nancy

    I’m with you, David.

    I published an ebook on Amazon a few months ago and went exclusive with it. Now I’m thinking that was a mistake. I haven’t seen great benefit from those “benefits” of exclusivity, and (worse) I’m delaying being discoverable on all the other platforms.

    Once the three months are up, I’ll be taking it wide.

    Reply
  4. Bryan Fagan

    Good to know. Lots of excellent info. Thanks!

    Reply
  5. Michael N. Marcus

    I love Amazon as an author, publisher, reader and purchaser of everything including handkerchiefs, clothing, computers, tools, music, movies, memory, medication and snacks.

    However, I recognize that my affection is not universal.

    Many people dislike the company because of its size, possible mistreatment of employees, driving out competitors, and connection to the Washington Post (which I also love).

    I have no idea what percentage of readers shuns Amazon, but it makes sense to make books available through s many channels as possible.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Thanks, Michael.

      I don’t know that those readers who purchase elsewhere think of it as shunning Amazon. For some of them (folks who own Apple, Android, Nook, or Kobo gear, for example) they’re simply buying where it’s most convenient.

      For others — particularly those outside the US — Amazon is actually not the dominant retailer in their local market and so they don’t necessarily even think of it.

      I just looked at my receipts for last year by country. Non-US sales represented just less than 10% of my total Kindle store sales last year. For the other retailers (aside from from B&N, which is US-only), non-US sales represented over 60% of total sales — mostly from the UK, Canada, and Australia, but also from other English-speaking (and non-English-speaking countries), to many of which Amazon doesn’t sell directly.

      So doing the math very sloppily, that tells me that I’m making more selling wide JUST OUTSIDE THE US than I did through KDP Select. And I’m reaching customers outside of the US where they expect me to be.

      As I said, Amazon has been very good to me, as an author, as a publisher, and as a consumer. I lay no particular charge at the company’s feet. But I recognize that they don’t have my best interests at heart — that like all corporations, they’re committed to maximizing profit for their shareholders. Amazon has been guilty of practices in the past which, while not legally anti-competitive, have certainly been that in spirit. The only thing that keeps them treating the indie author/publisher community as respectfully as they do is the fact that they while they are the dominant English-language ebook seller, they are nowhere near cornering the global ebook market. I like that set of circumstances, and want them to continue.

      However, that’s not the main reason that I sell wide; as I wrote above, I do that because I can’t see a way that sticking to Amazon exclusively doesn’t lose me money.

      Reply
  6. W. M. Raebeck

    Thank you, David. Well laid out information.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      You’re very welcome!

      Again, this is my reason for selling wide. The numbers and the rationale will be different for others. But it’s a question I get asked a lot, so I thought I’d share my response.

      Reply
  7. Louisa

    Can you go wide while on Kindle Countdown? My book has been on Kindle Select over 90 days but I have it on Kindle Countdown now

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Louisa, thanks for the question.

      No: in order to participated in any of the KDP Select programs (including Countdown promotions) that title must be exclusive to the Kindle Store.

      (You can have a book that’s “wide” in print — distributed by Ingram, for example — but keep the ebook exclusive to Amazon, if you wish.)

      Reply
  8. Bruce Fottler

    It’s rare that I come across an article on this issue (Amazon vs. wide) that’s so well presented.

    Although I have one minor nit-pick: I think you understated Amazon’s size. I consider them more a 800-ton King Kong – primarily because their overall size likely influences their attitude towards the book-selling segment of their company. They might have 60-80% of the English market for eBooks, but it’s just pocket change in the grand scheme of their empire,..er, company. ;)

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Well, yes. Of course.

      But this is an independent publishing site, and I’m a blogger who focusses mostly on ebook publishing, so that was my scope for this post. ;-)

      Reply
  9. Tosa Author

    The link to Author Republic goes to Pheenix::Sell, which says that the AuthorRepublic.com domain is for sale.

    Reply
  10. Sharon E. Cathcart

    I have resisted the KDP-S pig in a poke from day one. 80 percent of my sales were in ePub format for years; it is only in the past year or so that it’s 50/50 with .mobi. I believe that discoverability is key, and that if you are only discoverable in one place you’re missing out.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Thanks, Sharon.

      As I said above, I think that there are reasons for folks to go exclusive with Amazon — new authors just learning the ropes, for example. And I know that not everyone’s numbers mirror mine.

      I do know that where the publisher puts their focus marketing-wise determines where their sales are most likely to come from — at first, at least. I know some folks who started with KDP Select, tried going wide for a couple of months, then scurried back to an exclusive arrangement because their revenue didn’t yet match what they’d had from KU. But I’m confident that for most, if they’d stuck to it and actively marketed to non-Amazon readers, they’d eventually have at least broken even.

      Reply

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