KDP Select: Promised Land or Indie Armageddon?


An announcement made earlier this week by Amazon sent shock waves throughout the indie author world–and through the publishing world, no doubt. The event was the grand unveiling of KDP Select, a program that was being sold to indie authors as a way of increasing exposure and possibly bumping up royalties as well.

The deep pro’s and con’s have been discussed on the Kindle Boards, David Gaughran’s blog, Passive Voice, and many others, but the general gist is this:

What indie authors agree to
Indie authors that opt-in to the KDP Select program must remove their participating titles from all other electronic distribution channels (Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo, etc.) including their own website for a minimum of 90 days. There is a 3 day grace period to opt out.

What Amazon does
Amazon enrolls the title in the Amazon Prime Lending Program. Amazon Prime customers, in addition to the continuing benefit of free 2-day shipping, get value-added in the form of being allowed to borrow one book per month for free from participating authors. Since Amazon was rebuffed by many Big Six publishers when asked to participate in the Lending program, they turned to indie authors to fill the digital shelves.

What authors get
The sure thing that authors opting-in to the program get is a slice (the size of which is based on the total number of downloads in a month) of a $500,000 pie. It didn’t take long for authors to figure out–when total opt-in titles topped 30k–that those slices would be small indeed. As a result, most indie authors see it as a tool for increased exposure for their titles. Helping with that is the option for authors to make their title free for up to 5 days of the 90 (a common tool for promotion that was unavailable directly through Amazon until now).

What is still unclear
The $500,000 pot is an arbitrary amount chosen by Amazon with no particular reasoning being given for the choice. Numbers such as “$6 million in 2012″ have been hinted at for future pots, but–again–this is an arbitrary number seemingly unattached to other factors: downloads, rankings, retail cost of the book, anything. There’s also a conspicuous lack of guarantee behind this number.

The division it’s caused
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that KDP Select is an attempt by Amazon to drive its competitors out of the ebook business, or relegate them to such a minor role that they might as well be gone. For most authors, whether this move by Amazon is ethical or not takes a backseat to the question of whether it benefits that author. For most indies, they have Amazon to thank for creating the independent book space in the first place and many report that the overwhelming majority of sales (often 95% or more out of hundreds or even thousands of downloads) come from Amazon. Amazon is also credited with having the best reporting, financials, search functionality, distribution model, and chance for exposure. They point to Amazon’s competitors’ lack of sophistication in these areas and shrug.

Looking out for Number One is a natural tendency, and especially so among indie authors who have to make hay when (and where) the sun shines. And it’s not often shining anywhere but on Amazon.

The long view
Those that take the longer view fear that the decisions we make today–and the concessions we agree to–will forge the future of all independent authored content, even if Amazon doesn’t become a near or true monopoly. They encourage restraint and caution; if authors send the signal to corporations that they will run to any deal that improves on the last one, they only have to dangle the carrot just enough to get the majority of authors to bite. And if one company does rise to become the dominant player, you can bet those terms (the carrot) will favor the company and not its content providers.

How I see it
The current situation can be divided into two major areas that are not mutually exclusive.

The first (looking out for #1) is “how, as an indie author, do I respond to Amazon’s overtures to tempt me away from their competitors and is the way they’re doing it fair?” And the overwhelming answer is pretty easy and self-evident: if 99% of your sales come from Amazon, competitors aren’t willing to match A’s distribution and exposure successes, and KDP Select is on a 90 trial, there’s no argument

The second and less easily answered question (the “long view”) is: if no competitor can or will respond to Amazon’s moves and it does corner the Ebook/indie market, where does that leave the future of indie publishing? And the uncomfortable truth seems to be that it doesn’t matter, because the only thing an indie author can do at the moment to push back against this possibility would be to refuse to join KDP Select in (a somewhat symbolic and empty) protest. Doing that, however, might signal to Smash, Apple, B&N, that there’s no need to compete or improve, that there are enough indies out there willing to stick it out against Amazon.

Which leaves me feeling distinctly like the horseshoe on the anvil. I don’t want to be beholden to Amazon, no matter how good they’ve been to me in the past. Call me a cynic, but as much as I owe to Amazon, I can never forget that our goals right now are aligned, not identical. Indies have proven to be a nice revenue stream for the behemoth, but I can’t help but think that we are also the tool that Amazon has tried to use to bring Big Six publishing to heel. We are the wedge that’s begun to dislodge antiquated business practices from the publishing industry. But a wedge is still a tool.

When that process is done, we will only be a line item on the ledger sheet. And if there are no other competitors around when there’s some accounting to be done (say, the need to impress Wall Street or the majority of shareholders), indie authors will see their presumably inviolate rights mutated, transferred, or taken away as the situation demands.

I also don’t want to be stuck with the other distributors who don’t seem to care about making a sound business model. Each main competitor seems to have one component of the puzzle, but no more: Apple has the money and the reach but not the desire; Smashwords has the desire but not the know-how, clout, or reach; Barnes and Noble has the pedigree and the desire, but can’t seem to keep from tripping over itself. If none of these blind giants gets their act together, Amazon is going to nudge them over–because they’re already stumbling towards–the cliff.

The subversive in me thinks the only solution is an author co-op where writers take control of their own future. Call me crazy, but an online store that is owned and funded by authors would be able to generate higher royalties while benefiting from the synergies of aggregated promotion and distribution. No exclusivity contracts, instant opt-in/opt-out. Advertising abilities that would dwarf any single author’s efforts.

Unfortunately, the idea is so far from reality that it’s hard to even talk about it with a straight face. But the landscape is changing and things we thought impossible yesterday (like independent electronic publishing, for instance) will become commonplace tomorrow.

Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Deep Thoughts, Epublishing News
16 comments on “KDP Select: Promised Land or Indie Armageddon?
  1. Diane Farr says:

    This is the best analysis I’ve seen and I totally agree. These 800-pound gorilla tactics are scary even to those of us who adore Amazon.

    http://www.amazon.com/author/dianefarr

  2. Matthew Iden says:

    Hi Diane – Thanks for the kind words. I couldn’t have formulated my ideas without the other bloggers and the frenetic discussions on Kindle Boards. I’m new to the game and wanted to wrap my head around this critical moment before it got buried under whatever the next salvo might be.

    All indie authors should concern themselves with the direction things are going, IMHO, and not just allow themselves to go with the prevailing current. Our educated decisions today will have a profound effect on the future of this business.

  3. Dana King says:

    I self-publish through Amazon, and have been uncomfortable with their practices for a while now. I agree, this seems to be another way for Amazon to through its weight around and try to corner the market. For that reason alone, I’ll have nothing to do with it.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hey Dana – Good to see you here.

      I’m not a fan of Amazon’s approach either, as I hope you can tell from the post.

      I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this opening swing becomes a shock to the system of the competitors, causing them to wake up and provide better service. Through that will come better competition, a situation that can only benefit indies, readers, and the publishing industry as a whole. Monopolies only have one winner.

  4. Mark Coker says:

    Here’s what I think: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-coker/amazon-ebooks-kdp-select_b_1139260.html

    Many folks tend to forget that Amazon is much larger than all of its competitors combined, so it’s dangerous to view the smaller sales of others as somehow indicative of a lack of commitment from those retailers to indies. Although much smaller, all the non-Amazons have pursued policies much friendlier to indies that Amazon. None of the others pursue draconian price matching, or go so far with exclusivity. Most support free ebooks without strings attached, and 60%+ royalties for 99 cents and up.

    I think the new library lending feature at Amazon is cool, and if it weren’t for the exclusively I’d encourage everyone to try it.

  5. Matthew Iden says:

    Hi Mark – Thanks for dropping by. I think most indies that don’t have just dollar signs in their eyes see KDP Select for what it is: an opening bid by Amazon to corner the market. The smart ones understand that monopolies aren’t good for anyone (even, eventually, the monopoly’s dominant player) and especially not so for the content providers. This is why I won’t be going Select.

    I think Smashwords provides an invaluable service and will be a key player in pushing back against anyone, Amazon or otherwise, that seeks to snuff out competition. But my real hope is that Select is the catalyst that’s needed to raise the game for all of Amazon’s rivals. If Smashwords, iBooks, and B&N all offered anything near Amazon’s distribution, transparency, and exposure, KDP Select will fade away. That’s the win-win-win I’m pulling for.

  6. mystichawker says:

    Right now when I put a story out there I want it available on as many devices as possible. Amazon might have the lion’s share right now, but there are people out there using other devices than Kindle. As an indie author, if I limit myself to one device I limit sales and as I see it I just can’t afford to do that. I do free books through smashwords, putting up short stories for a week or so for free to generate interest. I do tweet for pay on some short stories. There are ways to get the word out there. This ploy by Amazon will hopefully not kill the competition because competition makes things better.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Mystic – Thanks for your comment. I agree with everything you’re saying. I understand those authors that are making 99% of their sales (and, to be clear, some of those 99%’ers are selling hundreds or thousands of books) on Amazon have jumped with both feet into Select, but I think it behooves all of us to look a little further down the road.

      As you say, when the competition is killed, everyone loses. And, as I mentioned to Mark Coker, my fervent hope is that this will wake the competition up and get them to compete at all levels…then we’ll see epublishing REALLY take off.

      On a side note, one thing that’s been a little lost in this conversation of Amazon vs. everyone else is that it’s actually a three-way war: Amazon vs. everyone else vs. traditional publishing. I have to admit that it tickles me that, no matter who comes out on top of this eWar, I believe traditional publishing will get the shaft. I’m not (too) vindictive, but trad pub has had their way with us authors for quite some time and another shock to the system like Select might help bring the industry out of the 19th century and into the 21st.

  7. yoga-adan says:

    i agree with diane above, great review

    saw the pingback to this via “how much do you want to get paid tomorrow?” by david guaghran

    also, mark, the sooner smashwords accepts epubs for uploading (i’d read this will happen in 2012?) the sooner i can start uploading 1/2 doz or more titles

    i just don’t have time to do conversions into word with more content still needing digitizing, and i don’t have the monies to pay for converting; my epubs are ready ;-)

    re select, i was in, but had to use the three day window to back out –

    almost all my ebooks have some to “a lot” of content in some form or reference on my site, and i would’ve had to remove that content from my web-blog

    as one of my main reasons for having a site has been to integrate a lot of life long interests (arts, fitness, yoga) i love being able to link and cross-link all over the place, discovering and showing relationships

    removing one, two, or over a dozen posts, some foundational for my site, would have ruptured my whole purpose

    so for me, exclusivity, as per mark above, is what is keeping me from trying the program

    sorry for the long post, but i have spent three full crammed days resolving how to offer a free book from my collection within the new program, and couldn’t, and have had to reverse many pr things i’d put in place

    but, i think i’m finding another way, thanks to google books ;-)

    thanks ya’ll,

    adan

  8. Matthew Iden says:

    Adan – Thanks for coming over from DG’s (excellent) blog and thank you also for your insights.

    Did amazon let you know you had too much content on your site to qualify for Select’s exclusivity, or did you just assume it from what you knew about your titles? It would be interesting to know just how far the Big A will go to enforce exclusivity.

    Best of luck in the future and getting that backlist up!

    • yoga-adan says:

      yea, great post on DG’s, comments too! finally got through them ;-)

      i suspected from the language that i clearly had not only similar, but in some portions, the same content as was already on my site; this is actually one of my selling points for this particular ebook, as my wife and i have many people in our classes (mostly seniors) who read our posts, so having them organized in ebook form, seemed a great idea

      plus, i make an effort with each post, to cross-link to previous articles, so there’s a seen thread among the differing subjects, yoga, fitness, the arts, and creativity

      sometimes it even all comes together in one post ;-)

      but to answer your question, i thought, when i notated the request to put “nice thing ’bout getting old(er)” in the lending program, and got an ok that it was “in” that all was ok; but i worried about the language and sent an email requesting clarification

      2 days into the 3 day grace period to back out, i received an email kinda re-stating the language and pointing me through some links for further info

      i wrote back again, explaining a bit more clearly on my part my concerns, and the next morning, before the grace period ran out, backed out

      late afternoon i got the second email expressing it might be best to remove the posts from my site

      i think in all fairness, considering having to input questions into a form, the holidays, and the probable number of inquiries, that amazon tried to get back to as quickly as possible and, within the rubric of non-attorneys talking to each other through emails, advised me as honestly as they could in relation to the language of the kind of agreement i would need to make to participate

      in other words, i understand and appreciate amazon, and plan to stay with them, but the exclusivity factor would mean rupturing my website, crippling the links that criss-cross like veins across the site ;-)

      and because everything i post is in some relation to what’s been posted, including excerpts of material i’ve placed into my ebooks, this particular offer’s just not gonna happen for me there

      whew! ;-)

      the other major player i’ve been able to work with so far, google books, doesn’t require an exclusive, nor prohibit me from pricing to zero

      and i don’t want to fool with offering my ebooks from my site, at least in the near future

      between teaching yoga and fitness to seniors, writing new articles and posts on my site, creating new poetry and images, AND digitizing my backlist of content, i’ve got enough to do ;-)

      which is why i’m hoping smashwords goes ahead with accepting epubs “very” soon in the future; my books are epub checked and passed and ready, and amazon’ll take the mobi conversions and google with take the epubs and pdf conversions

      the word conversions (from pages) won’t pass smashwords process, and i just can’t take the time to work with that right now

      so that’s about it

      so again for the rambler post ;-) now you know why i have so much content ;-)

      thanks for writing and asking; look fwd to your future posts!

      sincerely,

      adan

      • yoga-adan says:

        sorry for some of the typos and grammer hang-ups, i wanted to reply to you and get some supper done up ;-)

        funny how food takes such a bigger priority as we age –

        kinda like returning to those kid years ;-)

        thanks much matthew,

        adan

  9. [...] good reads i was able to follow from that article are articles from matthew iden and a lady named [...]

  10. [...] interests and Amazon’s interests are often ALIGNED, but they are not IDENTICAL. I waxed poetic about this when Amazon announced KDP [...]

  11. What do they mean by removing our publications from our website? My website pushes my book, but directs the reader to Amazon. Do they mean remove the ability of readers to buy they book directly from the author?

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Dorothy –

      If your link points to Amazon, you should be fine. They’re trying to protect their exclusivity, so they only frown on things that take away from that. Since some authors post stories free on their site to drive promotion and others actually sell directly from their site (e.g., Joe Konrath), they want you to remove any and all competition if you want to be part of KDP Select.

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