Thursday, December 13, 2012

Kindle Select: Experiences, Conclusions

It has been almost one year since I first signed up with Kindle Select. For those readers who are unfamiliar with Select, let me summarize it briefly: 

With Kindle Select, Amazon.com offers various perks to authors in exchange for exclusivity. Those perks include the ability to give books away for free on certain days (for the purpose of increased exposure) and inclusion of titles into Amazon's Kindle lending library (borrows for which we get paid). That's the short version. 

Like most authors who signed up for Select, I did it with a great deal of apprehension. After all, it's bad to put your eggs all in one basket, or so I've always been told. Granting Amazon exclusivity was a painful choice to make, but frankly it was the competition that forced me into the decision. 

In the past, my titles have been available everywhere. Smashwords, Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc. But like most authors, it didn't take me long to realize that Amazon was the only retailer who was actually selling my titles. Smashwords required me to use their "meatgrinder" software that devastates e-book formatting in order to make it compatible with all of the various e-reader platforms. I fought with that program from day one, and I don't care to think about how many months of my life I wasted trying to reformat those books over and over so that they would come out looking halfway professional on a dozen different platforms.

Other retailers have offered simpler, kinder interfaces, but they refuse to sell my books. In fact, they mostly seem to do the exact opposite. They put Indie authors on the equivalent of a back shelf in a basement of used, returned titles. In other words, people who want to find my books can't even find them, much less the casual reader who otherwise may have found them by accident. 

It was a combination of these issues and the resulting lack of sales that convinced me to give Select a try. Amazon at least, could sell my books. Over the last year they have done just that. I get borrows in Select every month, for which I am paid, and which consistently outnumber the sales I receive from those other outlets. But times have changed, and I recently decided it was time to test the market, especially since I've had a few people asking why they can only get my books at Amazon. Six weeks ago, I pulled two of my titles -one novel and a complimenting short story- from Select and re-posted them to Barnes & Noble. Six weeks later I can conclusively say that nothing has changed at B&N. I sold 3 copies. At the same time, my books at Amazon have sold several hundred.Today, my six-week experiment ended and I'm all-in with Select once again, albeit halfheartedly. I truly believe exclusivity is bad, but what else can I do? I need to sell these books. Which brings me around to the other dark side of Select, the freebies. 

Anyone who shops e-books on Amazon knows that the place is flooded with free books. There are hundreds of new titles every single day. You could literally fill your Kindle and never buy another book. The result? Well, sales have been hurt for many of us, especially those of us who weren't in a highly visible position before the change. For a short time, there was a payoff to free and that was in higher sales following the giveaways. Amazon fixed that a while back, making it so that in order to increase your visibility you have to give away about 20,000 copies in a day. Yeah it's do-able, but it's also kind of silly. Giving books away to tens of thousands of people who are only downloading them for free doesn't seem to result in a sales blowout anymore, and now that the advantage of increased post-sale visibility is pretty much gone, there's really no reason to do it. Cannibalizing future sales with giveaways? That seems the most likely result of a Select giveaway now.

In late winter/ early spring of 2012 after I joined Select, I did a few giveaways and the results were impressive. My titles left the "Free" column and entered the "Paid" column in such a way that people browsing the best seller lists could see them. They went on to sell quite well, and led to sales of my other titles, presumably by happy customers who went on to collect the rest of my library. So for a while, I was doing pretty good. I was selling well over 1,000 books a month, and peaked somewhere around 1,500.

Well, all of that's gone now. My books went up the lists and then came back down. Follow-up giveaways during the summer resulted in a few thousand downloads or less, maybe even just five or six hundred, and ZERO post-giveaway sales. In fact, sales nearly disappeared on the titles I gave away. I was tempted to pull my titles out of Select then and there, but I continued watching the borrows, and in doing so I became convinced that the Select lending library is not only throwing some sales my way, it's also propagating more sales down the line. It seems that some of the people who buy my books like them enough to seek out and buy more. What a novel idea. And strangely enough, I've been able to triple or quadruple my prices (and profits) and still maintain solid sales and measurable growth, month after month. 

My conclusion is obvious, and it probably sounds like something you've heard before: The best way to sell a book is to write a great book. And then the next one, and the next... I don't have tens of thousands of fans just yet, so I have to run my publishing platform like a business. I have to go where the sales are. For now, that means I'm in Select. But I'm NOT giving anything away, I'm selling books, and that is how it should be. Perhaps in the future I'll have enough of a fan base to take my business where I want, and still know I'll have sales. I'm not quite there yet, so I'm playing the cards I've been dealt. If things take off in a big way, I'll still be free to revisit this decision. My exclusivity with Select only lasts three months at a time, but my books are on sale forever.

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