Advice from Anthea Sharp on Going Wide (or leaving Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited)

Prologue:

I’ve covered several times on this website reasons why Amazon is terrible for authors.  Tl;dr:  Amazon can steal your money at any moment with no explanation why.

As a result of this, many LitRPG authors are thinking of leaving the program, some already have.  No one cares what I have to say on the matter, but fortunately, Anthea Sharp has some excellent advice.

The longer version is that Amazon has had problems in the past with fake books.  Currently, some look like they’re being used to launder money.

In order to deal with this, Amazon has deployed its AI onto the problem.  However, as I’ve noted in the past, the AI suffers from a lack of any real data science and a lack of understanding the internals of how the AI makes its decisions.

In addition to fake books, there’s been a problem with fake reviews and fake books for a while now.  Amazon decided to fight that by simply revoking several authors kindle page reads, with no explanation for their reasoning.  This meant most of them lost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and dropped dramatically in rankings, making it even harder to discover their work.

Recently, this also means that Amazon has started banning ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) reviews, which can hurt first-day launch sales, which are critical.  It has also pulled other reviews as well.  The article link goes into what can get your review pulled, although it is still speculation since Amazon is notoriously tight-lipped about anything, (and good luck trying to get a real response from them).

To me, there’s a massive legal problem here.  If I simply didn’t pay someone for the work they did, they would have the right to sue me.  Seemingly because all of these determinations are done by AI, the law doesn’t seem to view this as a labor’s right issue.  Additionally, Amazon is increasingly becoming a monopoly, but there really isn’t a good way to deal with this.

So, should you leave AKU?  There’s a lot of “it depends” on that.

  1.  If you’re a new author, no.  AKU is a great way for new readers to discover an author, since the risk is far less than paying for a book.  You might be able to get away with not releasing on AKU if you’ve already built up a readership base on Royal Road, Wattpad, or Book Brawl, but if not, it’s a waste.
  2. If it’s a new series, probably no.  Unless you have a swarm of fans and a means of updating them, (and Amazon is terrible at letting me know when authors I want to read have a new book out, follow your favorite authors on Facebook or Twitter to know when they’re doing new releases), you’ll wither on the vine. Amazon’s algorithm is based entirely on launch speed.  If you don’t break big on launch, you will have a hard time picking up steam after.

    This is why, for example, some authors will do re-releases after building up a fan base in a series.

  3. Amazon’s algorithm is biased towards AKU.  Amazon doesn’t distinguish between books released on AKU or books not on AKU as far as ranking goes.  That means the algorithm will be biased towards AKU readers, who are typically more voracious readers.
  4. If your book has not been professional edited, then no.  Readers seem to be far more forgiving of AKU books than books they buy with money.  I’ve had some people very upset at my reviews under the justification that I shouldn’t treat AKU books like regular books.  (Spoiler:  I actually buy all the books I review, I have not liked AKU for a while.)
  5. Are you willing to put the work in?  AKU is a great one-stop shop, going wide means you will have to do a lot more legwork, or pay for a service that will do it for you.  This can be greater than a one-person job and you might need to hire help, (or have a spouse who can help).
  6. The solution?  It seems the ideal way to deal with this is to keep your book on AKU at launch and the 90 day mandatory period, then pull it out.
  7. Are you a reader?  There’s a few things you can do to help out your favorite authors:
    1. Leave a review.  It can’t be understated how important it is for authors to get a review.  I’ll eventually write a post that details what a good review looks like, but even just a review that says “I enjoyed this” is better than nothing.
    2. If you read on AKU and like it, wait a month and then buy the book.  If you buy a book too close to reading it on AKU, then the author’s don’t get the money.  I haven’t found this on the official policy for Amazon, but enough authors have said this that I believe them.
    3. Spread the word.  Based on my review of Orconomics, it seems like a few people picked it up.  Don’t feel shy about recommending books to new readers from your favorite authors, particularly if it’s in a popular group about fiction/GameLit, (but don’t spam or break the rules).

With all that out of the way, here is Anthea Sharp.

GOING WIDE (leaving Kindle Unlimited)

With the current implosion in KU, this has come up a fair bit. Since I’ve been almost entirely wide for my whole indie publishing career (going on 7 years now), I have thoughts on this. In general, I think KU is bad for authors and bad for the book-selling business, and though I’ve experimented with it here and there, I am making this post to try and give helpful advice for how to build a sustainable writing career off of the exclusive train. Be aware that going wide is bit more WORK. More balls to juggle, more sales reports to track, more descriptions to update, harder to plan promo, etc. In many ways, KU is easy mode. Are you ready to level up? (lol) There are a few options available.

  1. Wait it out. KU cleans house at least once a year. Hopefully things will normalize. But this is a reminder that Amazon can and WILL change the rules and jeopardize your entire livelihood if you’re exclusive to them. If not this year, then maybe next. If you’re making mid-4 to over 5 figures a month from KU page reads, however, my advice is to grit your teeth and stay with the program.
  2. Un-enroll from Kindle Unlimited and make plans to go wide. Scary! It can be done, though. Expect to see your income plummet at first (as well as your rankings in the Amazon store). Try and white-knuckle through. You need to give it several months to stabilize.
  3. Keep older/high performing books in KU, release new books wide to start to build your following on other platforms. Short term pain for long term gain. (Or, as mentioned in the comments, do the reverse – though I think a drawback there is that you’re training your avid readers to Amazon and to wait for KU instead of releasing to a wide fanbase. Also there’s the current iBooks pirating problem of KU titles. Maybe release wide for a week, then pull into KU – I’ve seen this strategy work decently for folks, especially if you use a preorder.)

HOW TO WIDE (So angst! Much argh)

  1. Use a 3rd party distributor like Draft2Digital (my recommendation) or Smashwords.
    PROS:
    a. Everything in one place for ease of distributing to other retailers and tracking sales. (And no need to jump thorugh Apple’s ridiculous hoops re. setting up an account which takes two weeks, and having to upload your books from a Mac.)
    b. Help with getting promo on other retailers (with the exception of Kobo).
    c. Higher royalties at some retailers at lower price points.
    d. Someone who will respond and help when things go sideways at B&N (their customer service is non-existent).
    CONS:
    a. They take a percentage of the sales (10%).
    b. Reporting is a day behind, with a single daily update.
    c. If you decide to go direct in the future to iBooks and Kobo, you will LOSE any reviews built up. (B&N will migrate, but you’ll lose all your sales history and also-boughts).
    d. No promotions on Kobo (not a deal-breaker – they help, but are not EVERYTHING).
  2. Go direct everywhere you can.
    PROS:
    a. Direct control of your titles, ability to change things and know they will take effect within a reasonable period of time (pricing, product description changes, etc.)
    b. More $
    c. Sometimes better promo opportunities – at Kobo you can get the PROMOTIONS tab on your dash and apply for things, and if you get a chance to go to a pro writer’s conference, you can meet retailer reps, get their cards, and see if they can help you (and them) sell more books.
    CONS:
    a. More headaches, more data to track, more time consuming.

What I’d do if I were leaving KU:
Direct distribution at Amazon and Kobo (ask for Promotions tab and also Library distribution to Overdrive). ETA: And Google Play!
Everywhere else with D2D (ask for merchandising help on iBooks and B&N).

GETTING TRACTION WIDE (damn visibility)

  1. Plan on a loss-leader sale to get traction – ideally in the first in series. As soon as you are wide, submit to BookBub for a .99 cent deal. In the comments, point to your Amazon (and hopefully Goodreads reviews) as proof that you can connect to readers. Say how excited you are to finally offer your titles to readers outside of Amazon. (Do not schedule your sale until you hear back from BB). If they turn you down, plan a sale anyway – use Robin Reads, Book Barbarian, and ENT, and set up newsletter swaps with other GameLit authors to help spread the word. (This means mentioning each other’s sales in your own NL, NOT sharing subscribers or anything like that). In fact, if a group of people in the genre all left it together and did some concerted marketing, that could be an effective strategy.
  2. Try to get in featured promotions at the various retailers. If you’re using a 3rd party distributor (Either Draft2Digital or Smashwords) reach out to them – especially if you’ve had strong sales figures and hundreds of reviews – and ask if they can help you with getting promo love (called “merchandising”) on the other platforms. There are pros and cons with going 3rd party, which I’ll talk about below.
  3. New release wide! That will be your best source of visibility. Part of why KU didn’t take off for me is that I didn’t ever release new titles into it, so my readers don’t look for me there.
  4. Do the kind of creative promo you can’t do in KU. Perma-free a novella or short story lead-in to your series (or first book, if you feel that strategy will work for you.) Or at least run intro sales on a regular basis. KU allows readers to try you for “free” – you need to think about how to break the ice with new readers on other platforms. Think about multi-author projects – first in series books, short stories, etc.
  5. Hang in there. Keep trying things. Be alert for chances to promote to new readers (Patty Jansen does a monthly free or .99 cent SFF sale round up, Dean at SFF Book Bonanaza does similar).

ETA further thoughts:

Update your website with ALL the retailer buy links. Make sure you put them ALL in your newsletters, FB posts, etc. Make a new blog post/NL/website update announcing that your books are now available at all online retailers. Prominently feature those buy links.

Try and find a way onto Google Play, if you can. Top sellers in the genre might be able to reach out to them. I’m seeing good response to my Game Masters multi-author bundle on that platform. I know D2D is trying to crack that nut.

EXPLORE other options. Patreon, like Scottie Futch is doing. Get your audiobooks into production (yourself or sold to an audio publisher). Even consider selling off your website.

Feel free to shoot me any questions in the comments. Also, think about picking up David Gaughran’s books for some good advice and strategies –

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